Alpha Centauri, here i come!

What is it about space travel that is so alluring? Even a ‘short’ journey in space takes a long, long time. It’s cold up there, dangerous up there and, what’s worse, for long stretches there’s nothing up there. Alpha Centauri is the star system nearest to our own and even that is over four light years away – or to put it another way 25.6 trillion miles; and yet, when you get there, most of the universe is going to look much the same as it does from Earth, because as vast as the distance from here to there sounds, in relation to the size of the Universe it’s trivial.

And yet…

Ever since i can remember i have longed to make that voyage. Alpha Centauri is my love, my other. It is all that is unattainable – the 99.999999% of the Universe which not only will i never visit, but to which a visit would be impossible.

For me but not for my descendants? Because it is conceivable that one day we – as in human beings – could make such a journey; whereas for most of the Universe no such possibility exists. We would have to become something other than human – and would therefore no longer be ‘us’ – to endure the centuries, millennia even, that even the fastest spacecraft would require for the trip to other galaxies.

Even measured in light years the distances to these can run into the billions; and at such a distance, there is no way of knowing if the galaxies are still there. After all if the picture we’re seeing is billions of years old, who knows what’s happened since? And their size! In what way is it meaningful to visit a galaxy? We live in a galaxy, but if we were to climb into a spaceship at birth and visit a planet – or even a star a day – we wouldn’t see them all before we died. 100 to 400 billion: that is how many stars our galaxy contains.

By contrast, a visit to another star system sounds positively manageable. And what an experience! Imagine seeing the Sun as a yellow pinprick in the darkness. For just as Alpha Centauri is visible from Earth, so the Sun would be visible from a planet orbiting either of the two stars* in that system. Just as astronauts, when they saw the Earth from the Moon, gained for the first time a sense of the Earth as an object separate from themselves; so from Alpha Centauri we would gain something like the same perspective on our Solar System.

Might Alpha Centauri contain an alternative Earth? Unlikely, given its twin suns, but it doesn’t stop people dreaming, especially those of us who have never felt fully at home on this Earth. The important thing is that it remains unknown and thus is the perfect playground for dreams and nightmares, much as was true of Mars or Venus before spacecraft revealed the more prosaic truth: that Mars is an empty red desert and Venus** an inferno. We may still wonder sometimes about the possibility of life on Mars, but for the most part our Martian fantasies are now not about what we might find there but what we might create there: terraforming. There’s another parallel too: just as Mars and (occasionally) Venus have been conceived as mirrors or twins to the Earth, so Alpha Centauri performs this function for the Solar System as a whole.

I think, having considered it, that all these factors play their part for me: the longing to attain the unattainable; the need to reduce the universe to something more intelligible; the desire to see the reality i live within from without; and an adult version of my childhood dreams of a passage to other worlds.

* Actually, there are three but the third, Proxima, is much smaller and dimmer.
** An atlas we had when i was a child included an ‘artist’s depiction of what Venus might look like’. It showed a lush, vaguely prehistoric looking jungle.

Space is a dangerous place

Just an aside, but after writing the last post, something else occurred to me about Sci-Fi. This time it’s more about films than books. I was re-running scenes from films and TV shows in my mind – Star Trek, Star Wars, that sort of thing – when it suddenly struck me that not once had i ever seen anyone die from contact with (Outer) Space. I’ve seen countless spaceships blown up. I’ve seen people die from plagues, seen them zapped by lasers and even watched them fall victim to mind control, but Space itself has seemed to pose no danger at all to the people of the future.  The heroes (and villains) of Sci-Fi movies zoom through Space as though it were just a giant black backdrop. Yet stop to think for a moment how cold, how vast, how airless, how exposed to radiation Space is – what a barrier it poses to all our dreams of exploring the universe. We couldn’t survive direct contact with it even for a moment.

Reality Minus

Had an interesting conversation with my brother recently about Sci-Fi. I’d been complaining about the new Stuart MacBride book, which is set in a futuristic Glasgow. MacBride is known to me as the author of a series of gruesome but funny (and oddly rather wholesome) serial killer novels set in Aberdeen and i’d snapped this book up assuming it was more of the same. Fool! Did i not see the initial “B” inserted into his name? “Stuart B. MacBride”, evidently his Sci-Fi alter ego.

Well no, i didn’t and i can’t help thinking that it wasn’t much of a difference to notice. In other words, i feel resentful. Sci-Fi is one genre that leaves me cold.  But why is this? Well, this is what i ended up discussing with my brother. We were both big fans of it as kids so why aren’t we now? My brother said it’s because although Sci-Fi suggests that it’s “reality plus”, an advance on the reality we know today, it’s really “reality minus”.

As soon as he said this i realised he’d hit the nail on the head. On the face of it Sci-Fi presents us with things above and beyond what we already know: futuristic technology (spaceships!), other worlds, other species. It allows writers to depict people in roles not yet open to them. It allows them to describe societies where norms differ wildly from ours. Sci-Fi can be used to explore ideas of social progress and equally it can be used to explore fears of social disintegration.

Yet, yet… something is always missing. In part this stems from the fact that the stories take place in worlds that the reader has never experienced*. Things need to be explained and described in a way that is unnecessary in a book set in the world where we actually live. And even after all that extra information, which is often laborious to read, we still never quite have the same vivid sense of reality**. MacBride’s Sci-Fi book, “Halfhead”, features lobotomised criminals and a killer missing half her face, yet it’s curiously unfrightening and uninvolving. Of course it’s not just the reader who lacks experience of the future; the author’s in the same boat. So the characters are never quite convincing, never quite complete people. Think about it: how many Sci-Fi characters can you imagine on the toilet?

We’re less bothered by these things when we’re kids because our experience of the world is shallower and our ability to imagine on the basis of minimal material much greater. We understand so little about other people – their motivations and inner worlds – that we don’t notice the lack of depth. And spaceships are cool. Really cool.

(Actually, Stuart “B” MacBride’s book is affected by another problem, one which is specific to it being futuristic crime fiction, and that’s that the less we identify/connect with the victims of crime, the less power the story of the crime has for us. )

* Even by proxy: television, the internet, etc.
** Historical fiction has a similar problem, but to a lesser extent because our current world has its roots in earlier ones.  And at least there are records, evidence, artefacts, memories.