by Jean Asselin, Editor
Our namesake, James Gunn, says that fantasy and science fiction (SF) are literatures of discontinuity—the world of the story differs from the one we live in—with one essential difference: SF traces a path from here to there. I value that path. The greatest dreams are realized by thinking about what can be, rather than what never will.
Moreover, I want Ad Astra to raise our eyes above the horizon. The magazine is not called “The Limits to Growth” or “Earth Is Room Enough” but Ad Astra: To the stars.
When I hear people suggest SF should concentrate on the near future, I shake my head. In response to those in NASA who wanted a safer Apollo 15 landing site, astronaut Dave Scott tipped the balance for the more challenging Apennine Mountains: “I believe there is something to be said for exploring beautiful places. It’s good for the spirit.”
For SF, beautiful is a future so remote readers will approach an idea that, put in the present, triggers, “No thanks, I already know all I want to know about that.” Places like a society where getting rich by enslaving others in all but name gets you committed. Places like exoplanets with beautifully wiser lifeforms, perhaps in a zone habitable to us.
Award-winner Charles Stross blogs on the many obstacles to star colonies that require solutions that seem more like magic than science. He makes me want to throw Arthur C. Clarke’s Profiles of the Future on his desk. The French hardcover is nicely heavy, and its sloppy translation led Clarke to add his Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Clarke speculated how Leonardo da Vinci, arguably the man most ahead of his time, might send an image long distance, using a grid to code squares for hue, brightness, and so on, some two million information bits in all. Transmitted 24/7—semaphore by day, light signals by night—one picture would take over three weeks to arrive. Thirty frames require two years. Therefore, Leonardo finds the idea of television ludicrous.
Going to the stars is not magic, just impractical with the day’s technology. This did not stop our Renaissance polymath from designing a glider, a parachute, and a diving suit. Yes, the fact is any land on Earth is more hospitable than Mars. It used to be fact, too, that hominins stuck to their equatorial birthplace. “Earth is the cradle of mankind,” said Tsiolkovsky, father of rocketry, “but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”
True, robotic probes explore space without our need for bathrooms or air. Space is dangerous. So was air to the creatures that refused to crawl out of the sea. They safely became fish instead. Award-winner Larry Niven points out, “A house is safer than a starship, but there are things you can’t do with a house.” Or with a robot. Probes sent in our place can only tell us so much about ourselves, though that too may change.
Raising our eyes above the horizon is the metaphor that helps me speculate broadly. If the settings we explore don’t do it for you, pick another. SF deals with change in the tools we use, our essence as humans, the rules by which we organize, and so on. We should no more limit its scope than tell a Columbus, an Odysseus or a Homo erectus, “Doing this is too complicated/costly/impossible/far-fetched.”
I offer you two visual media SF universes that go far beyond their spacefaring surface: Star Trek told us directly that fear of outsiders need not bring about annihilation; Star Wars told us indirectly that fear of insiders—say a leader compelled to explain he’s not a crook—need not leave us mired in disillusion. Their common ingredient is hope, as vital to us as the air our distant ancestors were once incapable of breathing. Hope in the future provides energy to fight for the present.
I want Ad Astra to raise our eyes to the horizon and above, in speculation far-reaching and hope yet felt, whether the article is Fiction, Poetry, Art, or Scholarly.
SF is a community of creators, fans who seek their work, and scholars who study the field itself. Membership in one group does not exclude you from the two others—nor does amateur or professional status. However, the field needs venues beyond literary theory journals in order for any group to meaningfully engage the other two.
Our peer-reviewed Scholarly section enjoys the latitude to publish authors irrespective of their resume, provided ideas are novel, well-articulated, and documented. Readers—creators, fans, or scholars—find arguments expressed in accessible language. Writers—likewise—find a unique venue for another facet of their creativity.
James Gunn’s path from here to there is SF’s greatest advantage and the key to its relevance.
So. I want us to raise our eyes to the horizon and above.
Fantasy is fine for what it is – an childlike escape. The reader can enter a world – much like the world of religion – where supernatural beings triumph over evil and everyone lives happily ever after. Science fiction on the other hand tends to exemplify what can be – what we want to be – how we can become more – or how we screwed up in trying to become more. In short, fantasy is a escape drug (which is completely innocuous and I’m sure quite entertaining for some) but SF is a product of the human spirit – a motivation to become more than we now are. I really can’t see any connection between the two and whoever decided to make that connection didn’t understand either.
Humanity is unique in the sense that it is the universe becoming aware of itself. SF is an artistic expression of this awareness and it exemplifies our drive to become more aware – to take control of the universe and to become as omniscient and omnipotent as we perceive the deities that we worship are. As our awareness advances from childlike superstition to rational thinking we’ll be much more focused and our power and knowledge will increase exponentially. We’ll then realize that our deities appear in our minds not as parent figures but as the goal of our quest. SF represents a new kind of thinking that is moving us from ignorance to enlightenment.