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Space Flight

Entry updated 3 October 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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Flight into space is the classic theme in sf. The lunar romances of Francis Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac et al. are the works most commonly and readily identified as Proto SF. In modern times, as Genre SF spilled out of print into the Cinema, Radio and Television, many of the archetypal works produced for these media were romances of space travel. Flight into space provides the stirring climax of the film Things to Come (1936) and the subject-matter of such Spacesuit Films as Destination Moon (1950) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as of Charles Chilton's BBC radio serial Journey into Space (1953) and its sequels, and television's Star Trek. The landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon was seen by many as "science fiction come true". It is natural that sf should be symbolized by the theme of space flight, in that it is primarily concerned with transcending imaginative boundaries, with breaking free of the gravitational force which holds consciousness to a traditional core of belief and expectancy. The means by which space flight has been achieved in sf – its many and various Spaceships – have always been of secondary importance to the mythical impact of the theme. Only a handful of writers – notably Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – embodied real scientific ideas about the feasibility of space Rockets in fictional form for didactic purposes.

Actually, all the early lunar voyages are stories of flight rather than of space flight, in that their authors took for granted the continuity of an atmospheric "ether" (a convenience ingeniously co-opted into modern sf by Bob Shaw in The Ragged Astronauts [1986] and its sequels). No early travellers had to contend with the interplanetary vacuum, not even the hero of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall" (June 1835 Southern Literary Messenger; rev 1840), although this was the first of the traveller's tales in which the protagonist takes elaborate precautions to provide himself with air, in recognition of the tenuousness of the sublunar atmosphere. All romances of interplanetary flight prior to "Hans Pfaall" are didactic – either straightforwardly, after the fashion of Johannes Kepler's Somnium (1634) and Gabriel Daniel's A Voyage to the World of Cartesius (1690), or satirically, after the fashion of Daniel Defoe's The Consolidator (1705). Poe's story is a satire, too, although the author advanced claims as to its verisimilitude. But after Elbert Perce's remarkable but little-known Gulliver Joi: His Three Voyages (1851), it was really Jules Verne who made the first serious attempt at realism in De la terre à la lune (1865; trans J K Hoyte as From the Earth to the Moon 1869) and its sequel Autour de la lune (1870; both trans Lewis Mercier and Eleanor King as From the Earth to the Moon 1873). Hindsight invests nineteenth-century lunar romances with the same mythical significance that sf has more recently lent to the notion of space travel, but the stories had no such significance in their own day. The idea of flight into space became the central myth of sf only once the genre had been identified and demarcated by Hugo Gernsback. This was not really a strategic move on Gernsback's part: his interest in the future and in the effect of Technology on society was more catholic – with space travel as only one among a whole series of probable developments. It was because of the kind of impact sf made on the readers who discovered it – young, for the most part – that space flight acquired its special significance. Many sf readers found in sf a kind of revelation, a sudden mind-opening shock (see Conceptual Breakthrough; Sense of Wonder): this was not the effect of any single story but the discovery of sf as a category, a genre of fictions presenting an infinity of possibilities. It is because of this element of revelation, the sudden awareness of a vast range of possibilities, that the paradigmatic examples of early sf are stories of escape from Earth into a Universe filled with worlds: the first Space Operas, notably E E "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946). However, the early Rocket engineer Max Valier's Auf kühner Fahrt zum Mars: Eine kosmische Phantasie (1927 chap; trans Francis Currier as "A Daring Trip to Mars", July 1931 Wonder Stories) attempts some realism in its trips to the Moon and (though a landing proves unfeasible) Mars.

As with other themes in sf, the post-World War Two period saw considerable sophistication of the myth of space flight. Significantly, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, there was relatively little development in verisimilitude outside the work of a very few technically adept authors. The most significant post-World War Two stories related to the theme are not so much stories about space flight as commentaries upon the myth itself; they are concerned with imaginative horizons rather than hardware. One of the earliest examples of this kind of commentary is Ray Bradbury's "King of the Gray Spaces" (December 1943 Famous Fantastic Mysteries; vt "R is for Rocket" in R Is for Rocket, coll 1962); the classics are Robert A Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (in The Man Who Sold the Moon, coll 1950) and Arthur C Clarke's Prelude to Space (1951). Others include Murray Leinster's "The Story of Rod Cantrell" (January 1949 Startling), Fredric Brown's The Lights in the Sky Are Stars (1953; vt Project Jupiter 1954), Walter M Miller Jr's "Death of a Spaceman" (March 1954 Amazing; vt "Memento Homo" in The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 1955, anth 1955, ed T E Dikty) and Dean McLaughlin's The Man Who Wanted Stars (fixup 1965). The mythic significance of the theme is most obvious in a story in which "space flight" is, from the viewpoint of the reader, purely metaphorical: James Blish's "Surface Tension" (August 1952 Galaxy), in which a microscopic man builds himself a protective shell and forces his way up through the surface of a pond into the open air. Also notable are such revaluatory short stories as C M Kornbluth's "The Altar at Midnight" (November 1952 Galaxy), in which the ravages of space travel inflict disfigurement on young astronauts, and Edmond Hamilton, "The Pro" (October 1964 F&SF), in which an ageing sf writer meets up with the reality of the myth when his son goes into space.

Sf writers often became annoyed when, following Neil Armstrong's Moon landing in 1969, they were asked what they would find to write about in the future. In fact, a subtle change did overcome sf during the course of the Apollo programme. Since then, stories about space flight within the solar system have been "demystified", and there resulted a generation of stories in which spacemen operating within a "real" context come into conflict with the myth: Nigel Balchin's Kings of Infinite Space (1967), Barry N Malzberg's The Falling Astronauts (1971) and Beyond Apollo (1972), Luděk Pešek's Die Marsexpedition (1970; trans Anthea Bell as The Earth Is Near 1974) and Dan Simmons's Phases of Gravity (1989) are examples. J G Ballard – offending some American readers – began very early to write faux-nostalgic stories which regard the space programme as a glorious folly of the 1960s. Eight of these were collected in his ironically titled Memories of the Space Age (coll 1988). Sf novels which bitterly assume that a second break-out into space may well be necessary if the actual space programme is allowed to fade away include The Man Who Corrupted Earth (1980) by G C Edmondson and Privateers (1985) by Ben Bova. The realistic examination of space flight can always be nostalgically revived, as in Stephen Baxter's Voyage (1996), whose author however felt it necessary to sideslip its Mars flight into Alternate History. Another more or less realistic NASA mission to the red planet forms the background to Andy Weir's The Martian (2014), filmed as The Martian (2015).

For several decades the myth of transcending the closed world of the known and familiar is far more often been tied specifically to interstellar travel, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (June-August 1967 Galaxy as "To Outlive Eternity"; exp 1970), Vonda McIntyre's Superluminal (1984) and some of the stories in Faster than Light (anth 1976) edited by Jack Dann and George Zebrowski. Star-drives which free mankind from the prison of the solar system take on an iconic significance in such novels as Take Back Plenty (1990) by Colin Greenland, Carve the Sky (1991) by Alexander Jablokov, the Engines of Light trilogy opening with Cosmonaut Keep (2000) by Ken MacLeod, and Blue Remembered Earth (2012) by Alastair Reynolds – though Adam Roberts's Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story (2012) ultimately rejects the dream of starflight as too dangerous, the energies involved being too fraught with potential for Disaster. [BS/DRL]

see also: Faster Than Light; Galactic Empires; Generation Starships; Robert A Heinlein Award; World Ships.

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