“Gossamer” by Stephen Baxter is about two women astronauts being marooned on Pluto. Back in 1964 I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel and my pre-adolescent self was thrilled by Kip’s adventures on Pluto. I desperately wanted to grow up and have such experiences too. Now, in 2020 at age 69, the thought of being an astronaut on Pluto seems bonkers. I didn’t really enjoy reading “Gossamer” even though it was a perfectly fine story. However, what’s weird, is I could reread Have Space Suit-Will Travel and thoroughly enjoy pretending to be Kip on Pluto again.
The younger unscientific me wanted science fiction to be real. The older scientific me and wants science fiction to be realistic. Do you grok the distinction? In 1964 I wanted my world to be science fictional. In 2020, I want my science fiction to be worldly. I’ve gotten half my wish, because the world has become very science fictional. However, science fiction has become more fantastic, more unbelievable, even the kind that claims to be based on hard science.
Our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction is discussing “Gossamer” because we’re reading through The Year’s Best SF 1 (1996) edited by David G. Hartwell. Hartwell also included “Gossamer” in his 2002 anthology The Hard SF Renaissance. He introduces the story in the The Year’s Best SF with:
Stephen Baxter writes in the hard science mode of Hal Clement and Robert L. Forward. This kind of SF is particularly valued by hard SF readers because it is comparatively scarce and requires intense effort by the writer to be accurate to known science. It produces innovative imagery that is peculiar to hard SF; that sparks that good old wow of wonderment. His novels began to appear in 1991 (Raft); the 1995 novel, The Time Ships, is his sequel, published 100 years later, to H.G. Wells's 1895 The Time Machine. Baxter's “Gossamer” appeared in Science Fiction Age, the most successful new SF magazine of the 1990s. His visions based on science are astonishingly precise and clear and that is what his fiction offers as foreground for our entertainment.
In his introduction to “Gossamer” in The Hard SF Renaissance, Hartwell quotes an interview with Baxter from Locus Magazine:
Looking back, things do change, in terms of influences. When I was young, I was influenced by the greats of the past, Wells and Clarke. When I was kind of cutting my teeth, writing a lot of stories and finally selling stories in the eighties, it was the people who were around at the time, the dominant figures: Benford and Bear in hard SF And now, my contemporaries, roughly: Paul McAuley, Peter Hamilton, Greg Egan. And I’ve met everybody else who s still alive, probably—not Egan, but Clarke and Benford, and Bear I’ve become quite friendly with. With people like Bear and Benford, McAuley and Robinson, who are working off the same material as I’m working from—the new understanding of the planets, and so forth, the new understanding of cosmology (which is maybe more philosophy than science, because it’s untestable), we’re all coming from the same place. And you do have this dialogue, really, a conversation.
Even though “Gossamer” is from a quarter-century ago, I consider it and Baxter, Bear, Benford, McAuley, Robinson – all the New Space Opera and British Space Opera authors part of a new movement of Hard SF. They’ve yet to become old since I don’t know of a newer movement that has replaced them yet.
The trouble is I don’t find their hard science fiction particularly hard. It’s more Super-Science Fantasy for me. For example, in “Gossamer” people scoot around the solar system via a subway system of wormholes. Yes, mathematicians have thrown out theories about wormholes, but I remember from an episode of Nova, them saying that to open a 1-meter wormhole for 1-second would require the energy of converting the mass of Jupiter into energy.
I believe we’re talking the practicality of counting angels on pinheads. Science fiction writers have latched onto space drives, warp drives, wormholes, and banter them about with a bit of physics mumbo-jumbo and expect us to believe it’s hard science. Come on, this is no more believable than portals in C. S. Lewis fantasies. There are other theoretical interstellar propulsion systems that science fiction writers use — light-sails, ramjets, anti-matter, etc. that are a little more believable, but only if we’re very damn lucky, and a zillion technical issues don’t get in the way, which I expect they will.
As of now, I’m skeptical of any story where the characters go anywhere near a fraction of lightspeed. And I consider any story with FTL as science fantasy. Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same category as The Lord of the Rings to my adult mind. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a paradigm shift in science fiction by some writers and readers to disavow interstellar travel. My younger self loved galactic empires but my older self has become an atheist to those faiths.
If I had read “Gossamer” as a teenager I would have embraced it thoroughly. But at 69, I’m just not drinking the Kool-Aid. Actually, my Sense of Wonder has switched to Sense of Nostalgia. I delight in old science fiction that was never scientific, but I now admire it for what science fiction once meant to me. I guess it’s easier to find pleasure in old hopes, than finding new hopes in old age.
But It’s Just a Fun Story
I believe there are two kinds of science fiction. 99% of science fiction stories are just for fun. You get your characters into a fix and then get them out. The reader is amused. If such tales need wormholes and space warps to create exciting make-believe adventures, far-out. And that’s cool. And if Baxter intended “Gossamer” to fall into this group, then it’s a fun story.
However, there is that 1% of science fiction where I believe the science fiction writer is speculating about real possibilities, and I can’t help but believe any writer or story that claims to be Hard SF is not in this 1% group. These are the stories I read growing up in the 1960s that imagined technologies and explorations that I expected might come true in my lifetime. Apollo 11 validated such stories. As a kid I believed science fiction promoted interplanetary travel. I also believe we had a real space program because older generations had grown up reading science fiction and wanted to make it true.
The difference between then and now is I used to believe we’d also invent interstellar travel. Growing up has made me doubt that. Growing up has made me doubt a lot of science fictional ideas. I can forgive old science fiction for their hopes, but I’m just ultra-skeptical about the hopes of current science fiction. I keep wondering when will science fiction grow up.
If Baxter is suggesting that leaping around the solar system via wormhole stations will come true in future generations then I just don’t buy it as a story, especially as hard SF. Does that make sense to you? I’m not picking on the story, I’m picking on the science fiction speculation. I guess I’ve just got too old for Santa Claus Science Fiction.
Other Logical Problems
Even if we ignore the wormholes, I have other problems with “Gossamer.” In the story, two women, Cobh and Lvov, crash onto Pluto after unexpectedly traveling too fast in a wormhole. Cobh assures Lvov they will be safe but will have to wait 20 days in their spacesuits to be rescued. That hit me harder than the wormhole as being completely unbelievable. There’s scientific realism, but there’s also practical realism too.
Now this is picking on the story. There just isn’t any explanations for how they could live in their spacesuits for so long. How do they go to the bathroom? How do they eat and drink? How many tons of supplies must they carry around to keep those suits going? Where is the fuel for their scooters? Once the two woman are on Pluto they have no logistical problems, or even any problems with the cryogenic cold. That’s too unworldly for me.
Also, they’re on a scientific mission to study Pluto’s atmosphere. All their work could have been done by robots. If their society can create wormholes, I imagine their robots must be pretty damn spectacular. The worldly way would not involve human exploration of extreme environments.
But there’s one last piece of logic that bugs me. I can’t believe people would really want to visit Pluto in person. It’s like wanting to lounge in a tank of liquid nitrogen wearing a spacesuit. Sure, Baxter speculates they might find life there, but there’s nothing there but extreme cold, gases in cryogenic liquid form, and rocks. My worldliness tells me once people realize what space travel really means, we’re not going to have that many volunteers. In the next few decades as we go back to the Moon and on to Mars, I believe a new reality will be revealed and romantic science fictional notions about space travel will disappear.
When I was young going into space seem so fantastic, but now that I’m older the reality is most of the solar system is bathed in horrible radiations and lethal temperatures. Even Mars, my favorite planet, would be a horrible vacation destination. Oh, there will always be masochistic thrill-seeking explorers, but the practically of indulging such adventures will wane.
When I was young, exploring outer space seemed so romantic, adventuresome, and exotic. I thought the best possible thing to do in life would be to leave Earth. Now, that seems so damn crazy. Everything that’s wonderful and beautiful is on Earth. Maybe getting closer to death has made me wise to the reality of science fiction. Now the beauty of science fiction is remembering what it was like to be young and having those wild crazy dreams.
James Wallace Harris, 12/19/20