When I was young, and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not tell them the truth. I wanted to grow up to live in a reality much like the fictional realities of “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, or “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, or the young adult novels written by Robert A. Heinlein. Even as a teen I knew that was not going to happen, so I imagined instead becoming a science fiction writer and creating stories about how I wished to change my reality. By the way, I told people I wanted to be an astronomer.
Thirty years later, in the middle of my actual career in computers, I had a midlife crisis and wanted to become a science fiction writer again. I knew my childhood science-fiction fantasies were no more realistic than finding my way to Oz. The space program had been going no further than low earth orbit for decades, but I found new inspiration in Robert Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars (1996) and science fiction like Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Space exploration would never be like Star Trek or Star Wars, but it still might be practical to colonize the Moon and Mars.
Now at 68, I wish to try writing science fiction again. I now doubt that even manned exploration of the solar system is practical. Sure, I was overjoyed to see SpaceX launch the Dragon space capsule to the ISS, but it is only repeating the successes of the Gemini program back in the mid-1960s, just with spiffy flat screens and stylish spacesuits. We may even go back to the Moon and even to Mars, but we will not stay.
Humans are not designed to leave Earth and explore space, and I doubt we will adapt. The Moon and Mars are more naturally toxic than any superfund site we’ve created on Terra. Space is a perfect environment for robots and AI. The glamor of space travel will be destroyed once we try living on the Moon and Mars for any length of time.
What kind of science fiction can I write at 68 when I now feel space opera can never be any more realistic than heaven or Middle Earth? Young people want fantasies about the future like I did when I was young. Ones that excite hope. I no longer see any hope for the final frontier.
Science fiction is more popular than ever. It’s obvious that most citizens of Earth don’t want to believe we’re stuck on this planet until we become extinct. But what if that is exactly what will happen? What if existing on Earth for the lifetime of our species is all we ever have?
What if this world is our aquarium where we can only stare out? Given that restriction, can I write science fiction that generates senses of wonder for our possible realistic futures? Or will science fiction always be merely an existential escape?
James Wallace Harris, 6/2/20