“On the Shores of Ligeia” by Carolyn Ives Gilman is the fourth story in The Year’s Top Hard Science Fiction 4 edited by Allan Kaster. This story reminded me of a nonfiction book I read a few years back, Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix. Both the story and book are about exploring Titan. Wohlforth and Hendrix make a case that Titan might be a better destination than Mars.
Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story does make Titan appealing even though it’s toxic and cold, far colder than Mars. Seth Calder works under Dr. Katrina Beshni for the ESA (European Space Agency) developing an astrobiology computer program that helps a robot on Titan look for life. When the robot leaves the lander for the first time, Seth gets to wear a full-body VR suit that lets him experience being on Titan, watching the robot in action, allowing him to narrate to the world what he sees and feels.
This is a fun story, that makes me excited about exploring Titan. It has several surprises I won’t spoil, but it’s the kind of hard science fiction story that’s full of science and technology that feels like we’ll be seeing in the news in just a few years.
However, Gilman might be overselling some of the technology. She’s careful to point out that the time lag won’t let us interact in real-time with Titan, but suggests that a haptic feedback VR suit would give us the sensation of being there.
Tactile data flooded over him. A chilly, humid breeze touched his face, and he wrinkled his nose at the chemical scent. The smell represented the atmospheric chemistry without duplicating it, since the actual atmosphere of Titan would have been odorless but unbreathable. What he was experiencing was what an organism evolved to live on Titan would have felt. In a way, the robot was such an organism—designed for conditions humans were not. “Adding in radar and infrared,” Kjeld said. The view suddenly cleared. The fog dissipated and he saw the landscape around him. He was standing on a sandy, rock-strewn plain at the base of some rugged hills. The ground sloped downward to his right, into a gully where a stream flowed. Seth turned to trace the stream to its source in the snow-capped mountains to the south. The scene looked so much like an afternoon in the South Dakota badlands, it was hard to remember it wasn’t a stream of water. Liquid methane took the place of water here, and water ice formed the rocks. A slight rise hid the view to the north, and he wanted to see over it. The robot, pre-trained to replicate his curiosity, began to move in that direction. It was actually a four-legged vehicle, designed for clambering over rugged terrain, but Seth couldn’t see the back legs, and so the illusion of walking was convincing. When he came to the top of the rise, he let out a breath. “I’ll be damned.” Before him lay the indented coastline of a sea stretching to the horizon. Ligeia Mare. Streaks of wind rippled the calm surface. The nearby stream curved off and flowed eastward into a valley.
I imagine it will be possible for us to get a high-resolution visual feed and even sound, but I’m not sure VR will ever be capable of more, especially chemical smells, or sensation of temperature. And if Seth reached out to touch a rock, feedback wouldn’t come for hours. So I’m not sure if haptic feedback would be needed. Still, wouldn’t it be great to wear a helmet and have a 360-degree view of being on another planet?
Seth describes what the robot does, knowing its actions are based on the program he worked on. However, I felt the story events implied too much real-time awareness. Still, I like the idea of having telepresence from a robot on another world.
The experience I imagine was a little bit of what I felt watching a 4k video assembled from three Martian rovers. I highly recommend you watch this on your 4k TV if you have one. I saw it on a 65″ screen and it’s very impressive even though it’s not video, but a simulated sense of movement. Can’t wait for NASA to get 4k 60fps video.
I’ve always wanted to go to Mars, or into space, but I never had the right stuff. I’ve always daydreamed about NASA creating robots with HD cameras for eyes positioned about human eye height off the ground. That would let all us would-be astronauts feel like we were walking around on other planets. There’s a sub-plot in Gilman’s story that comes close to my fantasy.
For most of my life, science fiction has been my vicarious way of exploring space. Now science fiction is suggesting another possible substitute. Cool. Hope it comes true.
“On the Shores of Ligeia” is the kind of hard science fiction that’s fun to read once, but I’m afraid won’t be literary enduring. Stories like “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” that ignore science for dramatic conflict get remembered. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Gilman’s story per se, but of many hard SF stories in general. I’m reading a lot of current science fiction that tries to realistically imagine future science, technology, and ethical issues and many hit the target, but they lack significant emotionality or psychological punch. Gilman gets a little bit close with the sub-plot with Seth’s daughter, but the story missed something for me.
I only bring this up because I’m reading current science fiction short stories along with classic science fiction short stories from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. So I’m comparing recent stories to “Flowers for Algernon” and “Vintage Season.” Maybe it’s unfair to compare the best of 2019 stories with all-time classics. But I also just finished The Best Science Fiction of the Year #1 edited by Terry Carr that covers 1971 stories. That’s putting 2019 up against “A Meeting With Medusa” by Arthur C. Clarke and “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin. So far, only “At the Fall” by Alec Nevala-Lee had that kind of old SF storytelling ambition.
Ambition to do what? That’s what I can’t put my finger on. “On the Shores of Ligeia” was a breezy, entertaining read that had a feel-good vibe. But it was missing something. It even had a lot of sense of wonder. What I worry about, is modern SF is actually missing science fiction. Are science, realism, and nice characters erasing science fiction? Was science fiction better when it had crappy science and asshole characters? I hope not. Like I said, I can’t put my finger on the secret ingredient just yet.
James Wallace Harris, 7/27/20