The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction group on Facebook has been reading through the Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction reader award short fiction finalists. “Minerva Girls” by James Van Pelt is about three teenage girls who build their own spaceship and go to the moon. I thought the story was a lot of fun, but one of our members said he couldn’t get into it because it was too unbelievable. Well, that’s true, believing children can invented anti-gravity and build their own spaceship out of a gas tank unearth from a service station is beyond farfetched, but it’s still a fun idea for a SF story. Coincidently, that plot is how I got into science fiction in the fifth grade by reading Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint.

Of course, it’s one thing to be a child and fantasize about of being a child space explorer, and being an old man believing a story about children inventing a spaceship. Obviously, realism didn’t get in my way of enjoying “Minerva Girls.” I started thinking about why and realized I’ve read a number of stories over my lifetime where kids build their own spaceship. It’s a neat little SF theme that doesn’t seem to ever go away.

Like I said in my last essay, cherished ideas acquired in childhood often have a habit of sticking with us for the rest of our lives, even if they have no possible reality. Most people learn the truth about Santa Claus at an early age yet keep the myth alive for the rest of their life. Who doesn’t love watching Miracle of on 34th Street every year?

Right after I read the Danny Dunn series I started in on the Tom Swift, Jr. books. These only reinforced the idea that kids could build anything that adults could.

Then a few years later in 1964 I discovered the Heinlein juveniles. In each book a teenager had adventures in space. I was now twelve, about to turn thirteen, and I still wanted to believe it was possible for a kid to build a rocket, yet I was old enough to realize that Heinlein’s book Rocket Ship Galileo was unbelievable. I knew what it took to build a rocket because I had faithfully followed every launch of Project Mercury and was reading about Project Gemini that would begin the following year. Rockets required a big hunk of a national budget and tens of thousands of grownups to build.

Then in the summer of 1966 I read a serial in If Magazine called “The Hour Before Earthrise” by James Blish where a kid builds a spaceship out of wood, powers it with anti-gravity, and goes to Mars. It was later published in book form as Welcome to Mars. By then I knew this was an idea too ridiculous to contemplate, yet I still enjoyed reading the story. I wanted to believe still, but I felt like a kid feeling too old for Santa.

There wasn’t a lot of YA science fiction when I was growing up – actually, there wasn’t a lot of science fiction period. But the genre had a reputation for being targeted at pre-adults. Many SF writers resented this, but I think it was mostly true. Today YA science fiction and fantasy is big business, and it’s not just consumed by teenagers. Evidently, adults want to vicariously be teenagers again and fantasize about having great adventures.

Part of me wants to reject my love of juvenile SF literature. That part of me wants science fiction to grow up too, and deal with reality. In particular, science fiction should explore realistic futures where going to the stars is impractical, and humanity accepts its destiny on Earth before we destroy it. But what kid wants to read that kind of science fiction? And it’s pretty obvious few adults want to read it either.

Yes, “Minerva Girls” is an unbelievable fantasy, but it’s also one we want to keep believing. I don’t mean to offend anyone by this comparison, but I wonder if the desire to believe in the science fiction we discovered in childhood isn’t akin to people who maintain their childhood religious beliefs in adulthood? What percentage of our society can’t put away childish things? I’m guessing a large percentage. Maybe the reality is we hold onto things we want to be real in the face of a reality we reject?

And reality does intrude into “Minerva Girls.” Selena and her friends have to contend with mean girls, studying things in school they didn’t want to learn, and the heartache of losing each other. They did have to come down to Earth after visiting the moon. They accepted the painful reality that their lifelong friendship was going to be broken up by two of their families moving to new cities.

There was another new bit of reality in this fantasy, instead of a trio of boys building a spaceship on their own, it was a trio of girls. In fact, in all these stories, the characters had to face plot pitfalls based on realistic everyday life hurdles. Fiction, even fantasy fiction, doesn’t work without a certain amount of realism.

I guess these stories are still appealing because wouldn’t it be fun to live in a reality where building a jalopy spaceship in the backyard could happen? Or converting an old Camry into a time machine?

James Wallace Harris, 6/20/21

7 thoughts on “Let’s Build a Spaceship

    1. Doug, how old are you? I don’t remember Sputnik, I was just six. Maybe if my parents had been interested in it and pointed it out to me I would remember it.

      I remember around that time of Sputnik, I was in the 1st grade, of finding an old wooden crate. My sister and I played with that box for weeks. The box just sat in the middle of the carport but we went everywhere in it.

      I loved my slide rule and was still using it in classes in the early 1970s. I remember having to get permission to use it in a math class. The teacher expected us to use calculators and present several digits of decimal precision. But she allowed me to use my slide rule and only provide two decimal places of precision.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems like I recently read somewhere but I can’t locate where now, an essay by you about your early SF reading, and I thought that too, that we had a similar reading upbringing. Is my memory right?

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      1. Indeed, it is. I’ve written several times about my early reading, including the FB post just a few days ago:

        For science fiction fans of our vintage, the choices were way, way more limited. It was possible, as I did, to read all the science fiction in the library, and, if I watched the paperback spinner at the drug store carefully, to buy all the new books coming out. By the time I was 14 or so I already subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club and ordered everything that caught my eye, which was most of it. One of my favorite purchases was the two-volume A TREASURY OF GREAT SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Anthony Boucher (it counted as one book when choosing from the SFBC catalog).

        I argued at BLACK GATE that becoming a science fiction fan in the 60s was the best time to do it. Because the total volume was low, a fan was forced to read the classics too, so I read Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.E. Doc Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and, of course the giants of the golden age of science fiction.

        Little did I know that at ten I was preparing for a life of science fiction academia!

        Today’s fans can’t possibly keep up. Plus, science fiction comes at them from multiple directions: books, magazines, e-zines, movies, video games, board games, anime, graphic novels, etc. The amount of science fiction in video games alone is daunting.

        For books, hundreds of titles appear per year now. What an embarrassment of riches, but it dilutes conversation among fans. I think in 1965, two well-read fans could meet, bring up the latest title in one of the few science fiction magazines or a book that had been released in the last year, and they’d have something they both knew to talk about. I’ve been in hospitality rooms at conventions now where a half-dozen rabid fans each bring up their latest discovery and none the of the rest are familiar with it.

        That’s amazing. Science fiction won. I wish I could take that information back to junior high where my teachers snorted derisively at my reading choices.

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