Occupational Hazards

A job with a difference in Asimov’s classic?  This edition published by Panther Books 1967.

A job with a difference in Asimov’s classic? This edition published by Panther Books 1967.

When we imagine humans spreading throughout the Galaxy, we tend to see them performing roles much like those on Earth in our own time.  It’s only natural that we should – they are what we know already and we project that onto our predictions for the future.

So we expect that planets will have their governors and administrators, policemen and soldiers, traders and shopkeepers, and so on.  And accountants and lawyers, of course.  Spacecraft will have captains, pilots and other crew members just like any major ship sailing our own oceans.

Occasionally, someone may have a fancy title like something out of space opera – say, an “atom blaster technician” (if there ever is such a thing) – but that’s just a description of an old-fashioned artilleryman using an advanced form of weapon.  Our mind-set tends to preclude us imagining genuinely new forms of job which arise solely because of humanity’s future in space.

We might think of the role of Science Officer on a Star Trek starship as something dramatically different and exciting.  But that’s nothing new either.  Just consider Charles Darwin’s position on board HMS Beagle in the 1830s, as evidenced by the full title of the 1845 edition of his book Journal of researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the Voyage round the World of HMS Beagle under command of Captain Fitz Roy RN (later simply known as The Voyage of the Beagle).  He was, to all intents and purposes, the vessel’s science officer.

Getting a little more specific, in an earlier webpost – Linking Up – I talked about the idea of nexialism, as introduced by AE Van Vogt in his 1950 science fiction novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  Nexialists link knowledge from different fields to provide solutions which may not be apparent to the specialists in any one of those fields, usually to the irritation of those specialists who don’t look favourably on some outsider thinking they know better than they do.  It all sounds rather futuristic, but management consultants and similar professions might well say that that’s much along the lines of what they try to do.  With varying degrees of success.

No, we need to look for something which couldn’t exist except in what would currently be the realms of science fiction.  Possibly one of the best examples of a role which only true space travel could require is that of Spatio-analyst – a qualified member of the Interstellar Spatio-analytic Bureau, as described in Isaac Asimov’s 1952 novel The Currents of Space.  The main character explains that a Spatio-analyst analyses “Nothing.  With a capital N”.  That is definitely not to say that he doesn’t analyze anything – his function is to record “the terrible emptiness between the stars”.

In the story, interstellar spaceflight depends on such work, examining the extremely small amounts of the chemical elements that exist even in what is thought of as the vacuum of space, and which wind through space like “currents”.  Knowing their distribution precisely allows spacecraft to calculate their movements through hyperspace.  However, identifying the unexpected, which puts an entire planet at risk, places the practitioner who is the main character in grave danger from those who would rather keep quiet about any such knowledge.

But then, is this really different in concept to the research into ocean currents, and the chemical and physical properties of the oceans, carried out on Earth today by oceanographers and others?

Maybe the roles we recognise now will indeed continue to be the basis for all future occupations as well.  But we can confidently expect that each will still bring its own satisfactions – and its risks.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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