Back in the year 1936, the year 2001 was probably looked on not as just the future,
but as the far future. Back then, things like spaceships traveling to Mars
and manned landings on the moon were found usually only in magazines with strange,
garish covers. As it turned out, the future doesn't always turn out the way it was
expected to -- but sometimes it comes reasonably close!
Television recently showed a series of three one-hour documentaries titled Destination Mars discussing the current plans for a manned expedition to the Red Planet with particular emphasis on the difficulties and dangers facing the astronauts. First, there is the length of the journey, six months, with the round trip taking about three years (unless they can develop something called a 'plasma' rocket which would reduce the one-way trip to three months). Then there is the muscle wastage caused by zero gravity, or rather, weightlessness, unless the ship is spun to create artificial gravity (which introduces problems for the inner ear). On top of that, radiation sleeting through the ship could cause early cancers, genetic defects, etc. As if all that is not enough, there are the psychological pressures on a small number of people confined in a ship about the size of a small house for months on end. Anybody getting pessimistic yet about the exploration of space?
Allow me now to introduce you to Planet Plane (alternate title: Stowaway to Mars) by John Beynon, i.e. John Beynon Harris, better known later as John Wyndham. This was, I believe, his second novel, first published in 1936 and, as the title suggests, about the first voyage to Mars. Considering when it was written and the state of knowledge at the time, it is surprisingly accurate. Beynon has his five-man crew (plus one girl stowaway!) travel by rocketship and the journey does take about three months. (Plasma rocket? He doesn't say.) The ship has to reach escape velocity of seven miles per second, the crew are weightless as they coast and, yes, they turn the ship around and use the motors to slow down, landing tail first. So far, so good. The problems of radiation and weightlessness would, of course, be unknown to John Beynon at the time, but he does acknowledge the pressures of close confinement over a lengthy period by introducing conflict between the engineer and the rest of the crew -- mainly due to the stowaway!
There are many things that the author gets wrong, however. Even in 1936, I'm pretty certain that it was already known that at least a three-stage rocket would be needed to achieve escape velocity -- Beynon's is a nice all-one-piece spaceship (much handier for getting around!). Another anomaly is that when the ship lands, it immediately topples over onto its side with out damage or injury to the crew (!) who seem to be totally unconcerned about how they are ever going to upend it again for takeoff. (They are helped in the end by the Martians but then, when they first landed, they didn't know that here were any Martians!). Unlike the thousands of people involved and the billions of dollars spent to mount the Apollo missions to the Moon, this fictitious spaceship is a private enterprise project (and British, at that!) constructed and launched to set records and win a prize in the fashion of thirties aviation pioneers. Newspaper reporters, radio commentators and cine newsreel people are on hand to witness the launch, but TV is conspicuous by its absence -- a distinct failure of vision on the author's part, since infant television was at least at the crawling stage. No mention of radar or computers, naturally, for which he can hardly be faulted. Even by 1950, the makers of the movie Destination Moon seemed to be hardly aware of their existence!
Now fast forward sixty years to Stephen Baxter's Voyage, which is an alternate history of what might have happened if NASA had continued with the manned interplanetary programme after Apollo instead of developing the shuttle and confining space flight to low Earth orbits. In Baxter's version of history, they are ready to mount an expedition to Mars by the `80s and the actual launch takes place in 1986. (John Beynon's novel, on the other hand, is set in 1980, so top marks for vision there.) Voyage relates the sequence of events from 1969 up to the launch, mixing factual history with fiction and real characters with invented ones, and interspersing the long, detailed story with snippets of the actual flight. Only the last twenty pages or so of the book are taken up with the landing on Mars itself and first steps on the surface of the planet. Baxter does take into account virtually all of the difficulties and dangers presently known, and his book is totally convincing in its presentation of an interplanetary mission as it might be carried out using current knowledge. But while the detail involved is fascinating in itself and there are some tense sequences involving a disastrous accident to an experimental nuclear rocket, somehow the romance of space travel is lost in the process.
The function of science fiction is not to predict the future, of course, but rather to entertain and, while Voyage does this well enough -- at twice the length of Planet Plane -- I would submit that the earlier book is, in fact, the more entertaining and, furthermore, more 'science fictional'. The trouble is that Stephen Baxter's novel is too factual and the old sensawunda tends to get lost in the process!
Ever since the neolithic times of the Gernsback era, science fiction has been closely identified with space travel, and now that space travel is a reality, stories dealing with it are hardly sf at all. Not only that, but it hasn't happened the way we always thought it would and it's almost boring now! I remember John W. Campbell many years ago predicting the coming of atomic energy and asserting that it would be the means of interplanetary flight "because space travel has waited for it." Well, we have atomic energy but again not the way we thought it would be used, certainly not for spaceships in the way that Campbell seemed to think. Remembering, too, how Campbell used an atomic powered spaceship in his first flight to Mars (in The Brain Stealers of Mars) also, as it happens, in 1936.
Okay, so two of the stalwart topics of sf, space travel and atomic power, are now with us, but not in the way that was predicted exactly and somehow unsatisfying as a result. In fact, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, I well remember the shock: this was not the way it was supposed to happen! And as for von Braun and his V2 rockets that "happened to land on the wrong planet"...
On the other hand, sf, even up to the sixties, failed to grasp the proliferation of communication satellites, the advent of personal computers, the Internet, unmanned probes sending back colour tv pictures of the planets, and all those other wonders brought to us by electronic miniaturisation. I can hardly blame science fiction for lack of vision though. At that time, I was engaged in selling the earliest electronic desk calculators made by Canon which cost, in real terms, about four times as much as the average PC of today, and weighed as much, too. (I could just about carry one in both arms.) At the same time, they could do no more than the cheapest pocket calculator does now, except that the current model does it better at literally a thousandth of the cost!
So where does all that leave us? Dissatisfied and unhappy with current sf, that's where. Or at least, it leaves me that way. When I go into a bookshop and scan the shelves, they seem to be full of grimly-ear-nest 'virtual reality' stuff or sword-and-sorcery fantasy. As a result, practically the only new sf books I now read are recommended (like Voyage), and even they are slightly disappointing. If this is the future, you can keep it! Like the music of the thirties, forties, and fifties the literature was much better. (And I was also much younger...)
All illustrations by Julia Morgan-Scott