The Essence of the Human Spirit

A milder approach to the conquest of space.  This edition published by Sidgwick & Jackson in association with New English Library 1976.  Cover illustration by Gordon C Davies

A milder approach to the conquest of space. This edition published by Sidgwick & Jackson in association with New English Library 1976. Cover illustration by Gordon C Davies

It’s going to be tough out there in space. In the 2009 film that relaunched the Star Trek franchise, showing how the original crew began their adventures, Leonard McCoy observes to a young Jim Kirk, on first meeting him, that “space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence.”

There’s a tendency to assume that the conquest of space will be much like the intrepid missions of the brave men (and women) who set out from Europe to explore the world in recent centuries. As Tim Jeal described in his 2011 book Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, those going into deepest Africa “suffered the ravages of flesh-eating ulcers, malaria, colonic haemorrhage and deep spear wounds” but still fought on to their goal because they were fired up to go where no (European) man had gone before. The danger is that science fiction can encourage us to expect much the same level of obstacles for future explorers in space.

Indeed, if a great deal of science fiction was to be believed, space travel would involve encounters with horrific aliens out for blood, collisions with asteroids and just about anything else careering through the void, mind-numbing pestilences which slowly destroy the human body, or disastrous faults in spacecraft which suggest that they should never have left Earth orbit in the first place. But then, if it were otherwise, there probably wouldn’t be much of a story to be told. All in all, though, it’s enough to give you astrophobia, which I talked about in a previous webpost, The Fear of Space.

Some authors such as Arthur C Clarke have seen it differently, though. It’s possible to tell a tale of journeys beyond the Earth which can focus primarily on the wonder and excitement of space travel. Yes, there may be dangers from time to time, but these are peripheral obstacles to be overcome as part of the great adventure of exploration. And with today’s continuing focus on health and safety in most human activities, that might well be a more realistic approach to imagining the future.

Clarke’s pleasantly optimistic novel from 1951, The Sands of Mars, is a good example of this. In the early days of colonization of the Red Planet, the citizens of the capital Port Lowell have a reasonably comfortable life under the enclosed domes of their city. They watch films and live television (well, fairly “live” given the transmission distance from Earth) and even have a local beer which “wasn’t at all bad when you got used to it…the joint offspring of hydroponic farm and chemical laboratory.”

There are still challenges – as the Chief Executive puts it; “We’re at war with Mars and all the forces it can bring against us – cold, lack of water, lack of air.” They fight for self-sufficiency; “men and women united in a single task, driving towards a common goal, each knowing that their work was vital to the community.” An aircraft pilot explains how he would much rather be doing his job there than travelling in space: “No excitement in it – just floating around in nothing for months.”

On the other hand, setbacks do occur. An aircraft is caught in a sandstorm and brought down in a remote region of Mars. And, just as the situation seems dire in Clarke’s later 1961 novel A Fall of Moondust when a dust cruiser sinks with all on board into one of the dust seas that were then thought to exist on the Moon, it comes back to human ingenuity to solve the problem. We are given hints of previous disasters in space – crew members died of radiation sickness after repairing a spacecraft’s atomic motors during a mission to Saturn – but such incidents are rare, not the norm.

To a large extent, it’s the conquest of space as we’d like it to be. Exiting and adventurous, but not so dangerous that imminent death, or worse, is always waiting around the corner for every one of us. Even then, there’s a nasty “Martian disease” in Clarke’s novel that never seems entirely to go away…

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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