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Hard Science Non-Fiction

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Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

Christopher Wanjek

Harvard University Press, pp.368, $29.95

Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity

Daniel Deudney

Oxford University Press, pp.464, $34.95

You may recall that Mark Watney, the resourceful botanist-hero of The Martian, kept starvation at bay by growing potatoes on the Red Planet. Would it spoil your next encounter with the novel or the movie to learn that he couldn’t have done that? And who says so? Clifford Wanjek, in Spacefarers: How Humans Will Settle the Moon, Mars, and Beyond:
Nope. Not in that toxic dirt, and not under those lights. He did everything else right: fertilizer (human feces), water, and a little carbon dioxide. But he would have had to wash the regolith free of perchlorate salts. And those lights, designed for basic illumination, would not have provided enough energy to produce tubers.
Of course! Those perchlorate salts. . . (by the way, what are perchlorate salts?). Wanjek goes on to note that even if Watney had been able to grow potatoes, the mission planners shouldn’t have included them on the list of supplies: sweet potatoes would have been much better. And after elaborating why, he suggests that “ideal crops to grow in Mars regolith, to complement a hydroponic system, could include cassava, sorghum, cattail, bamboo, and so-called weeds such as dandelion.” You may be getting the impression that Wanjek, a senior writer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from 1998 to 2006 (and an expert on nutrition, among other subjects), is mocking the credulity of science-fiction fans—the majority of us, that is, not the smaller subset, including many S.F. writers, who pride themselves (within limits) on their fidelity to Science as She Is Known. But obviously that’s not what Wanjek is up to (as a glance at his subtitle makes clear); rather, along with a bit of teasing (he’s very funny, and he knows the secret of timing), he’s pursuing a strategy that he follows consistently throughout the book. Again and again, he’ll stress the sheer inhospitality of the known cosmos to any human presence, let alone human civilization—only to continue with projections as to when (for instance) we will achieve “a Mars of Icelandic temperatures and livable atmospheric pressures.” (Answer? The twenty-third century.) These forecasts come at the end of chapter three (“Living in Orbit”), chapter four (“Living on the Moon”), chapter five (“Living on Asteroids”), chapter six (“Living on Mars”), and chapter seven, the last (“Living in the Inner and Outer Solar System and Beyond”): in a single paragraph, headed “My prediction,” Wanjek lays out the timing of what seems likely to him to occur. I’m sure the pages on which these predictions are made will be the most-often bookmarked. Wanjek’s book is one of the best examples I’ve seen of a genre which, so far as I know, I am the first to identify: science-fiction nonfiction (S.F./N.F.). Books of this kind started appearing when it became absolutely certain that the “Old Mars” evoked in a recent anthology edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois had to be consigned to the realm of fantasy and when the “visual culture” of S.F. (elaborated, for instance, by the scholar and SF writer Adam Roberts) achieved global pre-eminence, as exemplified by the Star Wars franchise, the endless iterations of Star Trek, and so on. The rules of the S.F./N.F. genre have never (to my knowledge) been explicitly laid down, but they are clear. (I have stacks of these books in our house.) Though they may include some history of space exploration, their focus is on what lies ahead. The game requires the writer to say very little about the imaginative universe in which a strong majority of potential readers will be immersed, in which humans and a wild variety of alien species zoom about the galaxy. (Without that audience, most of these books could hope only for a tiny readership; in fact, most would never be published in the first place.) The prevailing tone is sober optimism, sometimes allowing for quasi-religious awe in the manner of Carl Sagan, though there is room in the genre for witty types like Wanjek, so long as they don’t dissent from orthodoxy when it comes to our destiny. Here are Wanjek’s concluding sentences:
Space will be a natural extension of humanity, as was our bridging water and then air. And when that era arrives, all of humanity may prosper, and Homo sapiens will take the first bold leap toward the evolution of Homo futuris.
You may suppose that Wanjek here is merely genuflecting to faith in something or other (“the Cosmos”?), but if you read his book I think you’ll conclude that he is, alas, entirely sincere. Similar sentiments are uttered in the epilogue of a book published just after Wanjek’s, How to Die in Space: A Journey Through Dangerous Astrophysical Phenomena, by Paul M. Sutter, in a manner that incongruously combines the jokey tone of Sutter’s entire book (a few levels jokier than Wanjek’s) with the piety that is one of the trademarks of S.F./N.F. For a variety of reasons—including the ambitions of SpaceX and projects from NASA, from China, and elsewhere scheduled for the summer of 2020, and perhaps the mysterious workings of chance—this publishing season includes several titles related to Mars in particular: Sarah Stewart Johnson’s Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World; Kate Greene’s Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space Exploration and Life on Earth (a collection of essays by a woman who lived in an earthbound environment designed to simulate living on Mars); and Elizabeth Howell and Nicholas Booth’s Search for Life on Mars: The Greatest Detective Story of All Time. (These are the ones I have seen; there may be even more on the way.) They are quite different from one another, and different from Wanjek, Sutter, & Co.; but to readers like me, they beckon irresistibly. More different still—from another universe, you might say—is Daniel Deudney’s Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, a learned, massively documented screed expressing what I think will probably soon become the prevailing view in academic circles (see pages 360-361, for example, on “hierarchy enablement,” one of six “Catastrophic and Existential Threats from Solar Colonization” enumerated by Deudney). Last year, the S.F. writer Robert Silverberg put together a collection spanning his career, Alien Archives: Eighteen Stories of Extraterrestrial Encounters (the earliest story was published in 1954). If you are interested at all in the possibilities of human-alien contact, you owe it to yourself to read his bittersweet introduction. At the outset, Silverberg says he wrote these stories over the decades with two convictions in mind: that the “universe is full of non-human life forms,” and that we “are never going to encounter any of those alien beings.” Why then write all this stuff? Just to make a living by pandering to readers more credulous?
I remind you that these are science fiction stories, and the essence of science fiction is what if?—which is why some people like to call science fiction “speculative fiction” instead. I do indeed doubt that any of the events depicted in this book, or anything remotely like them, will ever take place. But what if—what if—
Silverberg goes on to say that recent studies from NASA and the Kepler telescope have reinforced his conviction: a “multitude of worlds . . . is clearly out there. The trouble is that we can’t reach them, because the speed of light is likely always to be the limiting velocity.” Time perhaps to pick up my battered paperback of Adventures on Other Planets, an anthology put together in 1955 for Ace Books by Donald A. Wollheim, one of the half-dozen most influential editors in the history of American SF. The opening story, first published in a magazine in 1952, is Roger Dee’s “The Obligation.” Here’s how it begins: “The Kornephorian robot-ship came in low over the raging sea. Arrowing down against the full sweep of Venusian hurricane, it dropped toward the supply dome in obedience to the Surveyor’s will.” OK, go ahead and roll your eyes. The story, sardonic in the mode of much S.F. of that period, turns out to transpose elements of 1950s suburbia to Venus (in that way it’s reminiscent of Philp K. Dick), and the alien central character is different from what you might be expecting. Mere foolishness, of course (and outdated foolishness to boot), compared to whatever you are reading as recommended, say, by the New York Times. To each his own. John Wilson is a contributing editor for the Englewood Review of Books.

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