"Why Many SF Fans no Longer Believe in
Atomic Energy or Space Colonization"
by Jordan S. Bassior, (c) 2007, 2011
I have noticed a tendency among science fiction fans, especially of a certain generation, to abandon the notions, popular half a century ago, that we are heading towards a future of cheap atomic energy and human expansion into outer space. This might seem mysterious, given that we in fact today have atomic reactors contributing to the power grid, and several Powers operating spaceships, while in the late 1950's to early 1960's few power reactors or spacecraft had actually been constructed. But there is a reason for this, and to understand why we must discuss some history.
In the late 19th century, a very few daring scientists and engineers first began to realize that it was, in fact, theoretically possible to construct and operate manned spaceships and space habitats. Given this, it occurred to them that humanity would eventually colonize other worlds and spread out beyond the limits of the Earth.
It should be remembered what a radical notion this was at the time. There was a whole cultural legacy, dating back to the earliest civilized days, of considering "the Earth" as the "mortal" sphere and consigning everything beyond the Earth to the realms of "the Heavens," a domain inhabited by the gods (and later, with Christianity, by dead mortals). Indeed, we see the remnants of this attitude today, when some religious conservatives argue against spaceflight as impious, and often doubt its reality.
During the early 20th century, this realization sparked some pioneering engineers, such as Robert Goddard, to actually begin experimenting with rocket propulsion. At the time, they were seen as crackpots by the general public, and even by much of the scientific community. The habits of thought of millennia are not easily broken.
At this same time, a few pioneering authors began to write stories about interplanetary flight and colonization (as opposed to mere interplanetary flight, which had been written about for centuries). These stories acquired a fan base, mostly made up from intelligent young men. Modern science fiction and its fandom was born.
Related to spaceflight, both because it offered great promise for the human future and because it was obviously necessary from a design standpoint to make interplanetary travel anything but a very expensive stunt, was the issue of atomic energy.
Now, even before Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, visionaries had speculated on the possibility of there existing energy sources far beyond any known chemical power plants. By the late 19th century, geologists had already realized that the Earth had to be orders of magnitude older than the lifespan (as calculated by physicists) of a chemically-fuelled Sun, which was one of the clues to the existence of mass to energy conversion.
Einstein, however, provided a theoretical justification for postulating an immensely more efficient and powerful method of energy generation. Beginning with H. G. Wells, science fiction authors envisioned futures in which humans mastered this new energy source, as they had mastered fire, and used it to provide cheap energy into the indefinite future (even by the Interwar Era it had occurred to some far-sighted futurists that coal and oil would not last forever).
And, of course, atomic energy would make spaceships practical. As rocketry went from theory to hard design and testing, it became obvious that chemical engines were seriously limited as a means of interplanetary propulsion. It became obvious to the science fiction community that (1) atomic power plants of some sort would someday be developed, (2) spaceships of some sort would someday be developed, and (3) atomic power would be used to make spaceships capable of interplanetary flight.
Now remember that, in the Interwar Era (1920's to 1930's) most science fiction fans did NOT expect to see any of this happen in their own lifetimes. Or at least not much of it. In the Interwar Era, the fastest and most capable aircraft in existence could fly at 200-300 mph across distances of a few thousand miles, remaining airborne for about a day. Going from there to orbital (5 mps) or escape (7 mps) velocity, and making journeys of hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of miles which would take weeks to months, was clearly something that was not going to happen in just a few decades.
MAYBE, if we were VERY lucky, we might reach the Moon by 2000. And maybe some of the fans would still be alive (though very aged) to see this Millennium achived.
Remember, also, just how isolated the spaceflight and atomic energy enthusiasts were in the 1920's and 1930's. The bulk of the population, even the bulk of the scientifically educated population, did not expect to see Man ever fly to the Moon or unlock the energies of the atom. Even science fiction writers were often pessimistic: read Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, and please notice that both controlled (*) atomic energy and useful spaceflight were not achieved until millions of years in the future by a race as far beyond modern Man as we are beyond the chimpanzees. The New York Times famously mocked Goddard for failing to "realize" that rocket engines wouldn't work in a vacuum because they had "nothing to push against."
Then came World War II. And the German V-2 sub-orbital missiles. And jet and rocket aircraft. And the atomic reactor and the atomic bomb. And the Cold War. And suddenly, the pace of progress accelerated (**).
By the 1950's, atomic energy was no longer science fiction, but a wonderful and terrifying reality. Now, the problem wasn't that nobody believed that it could be achieved, but rather that it was being oversold. Promises were made about the near-future potential (***) of atomic energy (by 1975 or 2000) which were simply ridiculous.
Spaceflight was still deemed by many to be forever impossible, but this "many" no longer included most of the people knowledgable in aeronautical technology. In 1957 and 1959, when the Russians successfully orbited first a satellite and then a manned spacecraft, it became obvious to everyone that spaceflight (at least) would be part of the human future.
During the 1960's, the pace of development of both atomic energy AND spaceflight accelerated. Numerous commercial atomic reactors went into service. America and Russia mastered the challenges of orbital spaceflight. Finally, in 1969, the first men landed on the surface of Earth's Moon.
Now, imagine yourself a fan from the Interwar Era. You were born around 1900 to 1910. In your lifetime you saw aircraft progress from a curiosity to a weapon to a toy for the rich to a war-winning factor to a standard means of cargo and passenger transport. Then you saw rockets become first practical missiles and then develop into spaceships capable of carrying humans to the Moon. You also saw atomic energy progress from a theoretical possiblity to part of everyday life, as close to you as the light switch.
Obviously, you would be pretty optimistic about what the next few decades would bring, right? It would be pretty reasonable to assume that we would colonize the Moon over the next 10-20 years and begin colonizing Mars by 2000, correct? And as for atomic energy, clearly by 2000 the majority of the civilized world would be getting most of its energy from uranium, and the first fusion power plants would be entering service.
Now, imagine yourself a fan from the Postwar Era. You were born around 1930 to 1940, and you were in your teens to thirties -- in other words, your young manhood (or womanhood) when the most dramatic progress was achieved. You'd be pretty optimistic, too. And the older fans -- those Interwar Era fans -- would be encouraging your optimism.
Well, as we all know, that's not what happened. A mixture of social and technological problems greatly slowed progress both in atomic energy and in spaceflight after the early 1970's. At the same time, social changes led fans born after 1945 -- the Boomers -- to imagine that they were much wiser and more sophisticated than the generations immediately preceding. And finally, information technology advanced far more rapidly than anyone in 1950-70 would have expected.
A lot of Postwar Era fans felt cheated. Their elders had gotten to see all their technological dreams come true (****). But their dreams had (apparently) died stillborn. And the Boomers, of course, to the extent that they had ever believed in their elders' dreams, felt that these failures only proved that you "couldn't trust anyone over thirty."
Now, consider these two premises:
1) "There will be cheap atomic energy and interplanetary colonization -- but only after I'm gone, I won't benefit from or even get to see these wonders," as opposed to
2) "There will NEVER be cheap atomic energy and interplanetary colonization -- not in my time, and not in anyone's. I'm too sophisticated to believe in that nonsense."
Which belief offers more emotional gratification? In the first case, not only are you denied the promised wonders, but it's JUST your generation that is denied them -- other generations get to enjoy them. Your generation is in an unprivileged historical position. But in the second case, your generation is privileged to be the first one to realize that the promises were nonsense.
Which gets into another reason for the assumption, which is the "pathetic fallacy."
The Pathetic Fallacy
Historical forces, such as the development of technologies, don't have any emotions or intentions. They can't maliciously decide to lie to you. It so happened that the technological obstacles to the development of aviation in the late 19th and late 20th century have been high, while they were low in the early 20th century. It so happened that the technological obstacles to the development of computers in the early 20th century were high, while in the late 20th century they were low.
This does NOT imply that the same conditions will be true in the early 21st or late 21st centuries -- the trends could very well reverse, with the S-curve for transport entering an upswing and the S-curve for computers entering a downswing. And there'd be no foolishness in believing that this could happen.
But we can perceive this as history "falsely promising" us "flying cars and spaceliners" around 1950 and then reneging on the promise. And our system of perceptions are geared to the needs of survival in hunter-gatherer bands, where if Firespear says he'll share the meat from his next kill if you give him some veggies, and then he eats it all himself, it most definitely was a malicious false promise on his part.
And it definitely does demand a pessimistic appraisal of Firespear's next promise. And you WOULD be a fool for believing him the next time he made you the same offer.
This "pathetic fallacy," I submit, is why you often get such passionate, even irrational assertations from some fans today -- perhaps especially those from the Boomer generation -- that widespread cheap energy and space colonization are forever impossible. They've been "lied to" before and "won't get fooled again" -- not grasping that they have NOT been lied to, simply SELF-deceived by the shape of the S-curves of technological history.
Which has no "intent" at all, only a tendency towards progress due to the ratchet effect.
There will be cheap atomic power. And there will be a human colonization of space. And, there will also be transhumanity owing to the application of advanced bio- and cyber- and nano-technology.
Which will happen first is anyone's guess. But one sort of advance does not preclude the others -- multiple simultaneous paths of advance have happend historically, and they will happen again in the future.
It will be a more interesting, rich, and exciting future than the poor mind-crippled Mundane Science Fiction movement can possibly imagine.
(*) Uncontrolled atomic energy was achieved more than once, earlier in that universe, but with disastrous consequences.
(**) Partially owing to the end of the Great Depression, which meant a widened aviation market and more monies available for large research projects, but the military races were more dramatic and terrifying, and hence more widely noticed.
(***) Atomic energy really will, in the LONG RUN, offer electricity "too cheap to meter" for the sorts of purposes that we normally use electricity in the home today. But there was no way that this was going to happen by, say, 2000, and possibly not even by 2050. Simply not enough time was being given for design, redesign, and conversion work. And especially not enough time for the needed social changes.
(****) Even the flying cars, from the POV of the rich. Please consider what a "helicopter" is and does. Then reflect that helicopters were science fiction until World War II. If you want to see a helicopter used like an aircar would be used in later science fiction, watch the climax of Things to Come (1936). (Technically, it's an "autogyro," but what's that kind of difference between fans?)