In advance of his talk at the BIS on the 11 April 2012 Dr Geoffrey Landis (NASA scientist and award-winning science fiction writer) talks to Odyssey in the second of our micro interviews. Be sure to join us next month for what promises to be a dramatic lecture: Exploring Venus: Preparations for a Descent into Hell.
Did reading SF inspire you to take up a career in science? If so, which writers exerted the greatest influence on you?
Yes, I think it definitely did. Science fiction gave me the mind-set that science is something that was interesting and worth pursuing, and that humans have a future beyond the Earth, with limitless possibilities. I read all the classic authors, including Clarke, Asimov, Andre Norton and Larry Niven; it’s hard to even say who was most influential –I read everything I could get my hands on.
You’ve worked on the possibilities and practicalities of interstellar flight. This is a subject the BIS has been involved with for many years, first with Project Daedalus and now with Project Icarus. Is it realistic to hope we can journey to the stars when we have yet to colonise the planets in our own solar system? And if we can reach the stars are we talking decades or centuries to make that dream come true?
I made my first try at designing an interstellar vehicle during my first year in college, a fusion-powered vehicle with a crew of five that, in my first design, was intended to accelerate at one gee during the full voyage. I quickly discovered that the fuel requirements for that would be literally astronomical, and gave up the continuous acceleration to make a somewhat less audacious design. I do think that we can journey to the stars, but I’ve become less optimistic about how soon it is likely to happen. We do have to move out into the solar system first. Fortunately, it’s a big and diverse solar system, and we have lots to explore on the way!
Mars seems to hold a particular fascination for writers of both fiction and non-fiction, and you have written your own novel about the Red Planet: Mars Crossing. What’s the fascination?
Scientifically, all of the planets (and many of the moons!) have their own fascinating features, but in terms of human exploration, Mars is certainly a tempting target. It’s a planet that we can not only explore, but ultimately settle, with all of the resources we need to build a civilization; and so in science fiction it’s a wonderful setting, a canvas upon on which we can paint all sorts of hopes and dreams and speculations about our future and human society. It’s a planet in many ways like the Earth, yet in some key ways different, and hence one from which we might learn about our own origins – did life ever occur on Mars? If so, is it related to Earth life, and if not, why not?
So many SF writers now seem to have a background as scientists and engineers. Is this now more or less a requirement for SF writers and do you think it’s something agents and publishers look for?
No, there’s room in science fiction for both kinds of writers. Of course, I tend to be drawn to the writers like Alistair Reynolds who share my fascination with physics and spaceflight, but I also like writers who do interesting speculation about society – and, for that matter, ones who just have a gift for writing a ripping adventure.
Venus was once seen as a tropical world, pretty much a twin of Earth. The reality of course is very different. Can humans ever hope to inhabit the surface of this world given that the longest any lander has so far survived is two hours?
Venus has lately been one of my fascinations: an Earth-sized world in which the climate went dreadfully wrong; it is a cautionary tale showing that not all rocky planets near a star are likely to be habitable! Realistically, the surface of Venus is not likely to be a good place to send people, although we might do it just to show that we can! It is a world rich in resources, though, and we might best settle in the upper atmosphere, or, in the longer term, remake the planet into a more amenable one for humans.
Which is harder: Writing fiction or poetry?
Well, I started writing poetry as a way to use bits and pieces of time that were too short to develop the focus needed for writing stories, and as a form of practice to develop skills in being economical and lyrical with words. It’s easier in the sense that you can write poetry in small bits of time, although on a line by line basis, a poem is certainly a lot more work than writing a story.
Thank you Geoffrey Landis!
For more on Geoffrey see: www.geoffreylandis.com