No Waste of Time

I’ve been meaning to write a blog about the A Space of Waste? debate I attended at Greenwich Observatory, as part of the Sci-Fi London event.  It was a terrific night – we held the panel debate in the library of the new Observatory, a beautiful galleried room just under the dome.  There were brass telescopes and helioscopes (is there such a thing? did I just make it up) in glass cupboards, surrounded by walls of books; and all in all, it was bibliophile and steam punk heaven.

Paul McAuley gave a wonderful and learned talk about the solar system, illustrated with the most amazing slides.  He also proved we’re better off living on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, rather than on Earth. (I forget the details of the argument, but I was utterly convinced at the time).

Jaine Fenn, a very charming speculative fiction writer who like me is represented by the wonderful John Jarrold, spoke with real passion about space and its magnitude and why we should explore it. And I was particuarly pleased to meet legendary web guy and critic Paul  Raven, who, since the topic was based on the premise that SF writers shouldn’t in fact write about space,  gallantly kept the debate alive by arguing in favour of Mundane SF - which likes to avoid improbable intergalactic travel and unlikely sentient aliens.  But, hand on heart, Paul  clearly loves his space opera as much as the next SF geek.   

My argument was that hard SF is based around a deception.  All the credible science and all the accurate scientific theory is a smokescreen to disguise the fact that other inhabited planets are, in all probability, a very long way away.  And though wormholes in space may exist – the chances of an actual spaceship travelling through such things, seem  to be honest, slim.  In which case, it could (for all we know) take millions of years to reach the nearest habitable planet, travelling at less than the speed of light.

But you can’t tell a spectacular SF story with ships that slow!  So every space opera writer has to hold his or her nose and embrace a piece of nonsense – quantum teleportation, FTL drives, and/or a ridiculous plethora of very near habitable planets which can be fully terraformed in an implausibly small amount of time.

In other words, SF is fiction about the possible – not about the likely. And that’s the fun of it. Or to put it another way: SF writers are conjurers, who misdirect and deceive with scientific facts, in order to make you believe in the reality of what you are reading, however insanely improbable it might be.

Sci-Fi London did a great job organising this event – which is called Oktoberfest because a) it’s in October and b)  the name makes people think about beer, and thinking about beer makes people feel happy.  Robert Grant did a splendid job of making it all happen, and even wrote me a nice mention on the Sci-Fi London website.

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