We’re Only Human

It is all too easy to forget the essentially human element of all space exploration.  Even if we focus on the technology and mechanics of space travel, and recognise that much of the work will be done by proxy through robot spacecraft, it will be human beings who are at the heart of the project, and it is all being done for their ultimate benefit.  One way or the other, we hope to gain from it.

Recognising the human interest of science fiction. Published by Panther Books 1966.

In the concluding volume to his 1966 collection of stories Science Fiction Through the Ages, which brings his analysis of the genre into the twentieth century, the editor I O Evans pointed out how essential the human aspects are to science fiction – its real interest lies in the effect of scientific advances on humans (or, perhaps, other intelligent creatures).  As he put it: “If the ‘human interest’ is overstressed, the story, considered as science fiction, is weak; if it is omitted or minimized, the result is not so much a story as a science fiction ‘documentary’”.

In his anthology, he includes Arthur C Clarke’s 1958 short story Refugee – an evocative account of a person’s desire, indeed his deep need, to travel into space and to experience what it has to offer.  No matter how privileged the person concerned may be here on Earth, the drive to explore may over-ride everything else.  In Eric Frank Russell’s A Little Oil from 1966, a space psychologist has the unenviable task of dealing with the mental troubles of a group of men cooped up for years in a spaceship and trying to ensure that their sanity survives at the end of it – surely, as Evans says, “one of the most difficult problems that space travel is likely to involve.”

And then there’s Tom Godwin’s powerful 1954 short story The Cold Equations, which is often considered one of the best.  It concerns the emotional drama facing a space pilot who discovers a stowaway on board in critical circumstances and, whilst the engineering and safety aspects of the tale may leave unanswered questions, it has been frequently anthologised as an example of the moral dilemmas that might genuinely arise in manned space travel.

But Evans also focuses on the inspirational work of Hugo Gernsback, who is said to have actually invented the term ‘science fiction’, in the early twentieth century.  Gernsback’s novel Ralph 124C 41+ from 1911 has had an enormous influence on subsequent science fiction because of the wide range of inventions, from fluorescent lighting to interplanetary spacecraft, which it foresaw over a century ago, though one has to admit that its style lacks a little by today’s standards.

It is essentially the tale of a very superior sort of human being.  Ralph 124C 41+ (“one to foresee for one-plus”, ie “for many” – no, there’s nothing new about textspeak) is a man whose “physical superiority…was as nothing compared to his gigantic mind.  He was…one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name.”  As you might expect, he doesn’t get much wrong and his technical ability is unsurpassed.

But this does unfortunately lead to the idea, in fiction at least, that the human bedrock of scientific advances is based on the exceptional abilities of the few.  Which leads in turn to the feeling that we ordinary riff-raff don’t need to bother too much since our betters will sort things out.  Just as in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, anyone who isn’t in the Alpha caste – and most of us wouldn’t be – feel suitably inferior and dependent on others.  We know our place.

We must never underestimate the ongoing importance of individual people to the scientific endeavour, nor forget that it is, at its core, a human experience.  But let’s not get too bogged down in hero-worshipping a few – they’re only human like the rest of us.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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