Thursday evening, Geoffrey Landis gave a presentation on “Spaceflight and Science Fiction.” Landis is a full-time scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as a noted hard science fiction writer, so he was the best possible person to speak on this topic. Landis noted that Poe (who was everywhere, it seemed, but perhaps I only noticed this because my paper was on Poe), before he invented science fiction and the mystery, wrote “The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall” (1835), in which a man flies a balloon to the moon. Poe used a lot of what Landis called “bafflegab” — faux technical language — to justify the ability to fly a balloon to the moon, positing that there was no end to the atmosphere. Jules Verne followed with his novel, From the Earth to the Moon, getting his heroes to the moon by shooting them out of a cannon — which mechanism turned out to be quite similar to that of the Saturn V rocket. Verne was the first to understand that the effort to get to the moon would require a huge team of tens of thousands working toward that goal.
Landis next turned to the movies, discussing Frau im Monde, The Woman in the Moon, by Fritz Lang, one of the first SF movies. Lang hired an actual rocket scientist to help him write the movie as a publicity stunt, and wound up with something fairly realistic: a three-stage rocket that dropped its fuel containers as it attained escape velocity. The rocket was rolled out of an assembly building very similar to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. Lang was also the first to use a countdown to a space launch. Lang wasn’t 100% prophetic, however — he came upon a theory that the far side of the moon had an atmosphere, so let his astronauts wander around the lunar surface without spacesuits; but he was surprisingly prescient in other details.
The V2 rocket was the prototype used in numerous movies and on the covers of dozens, even hundreds, of science fiction magazines and novels from that time forward. But other technologies were also posited by others with big imaginations. George Lucas used ion engines in his Star Wars films, if inaccurately — these engines operate on small amounts of fuel, but have low thrust, making them unlikely for the sorts of dog fights seen at the end of Episode 4. Stanley Kubrick used EVA pods in 2001: A Space Odyssey that are very similar to the EVA packs used by astronauts today. And “Wall-E” is not far removed from the Opportunity lander that transmits news from Mars to this day.
Landis talked about all the tropes of science fiction that have yet to come true and may never do so: warp drive, antigravity, teleportation, wormholes (though theory allows for it, if you can find negative matter, which we haven’t come across yet), and time travel (which doesn’t seem to be forbidden by the laws of the universe, except that it would make the universe unstable). Some aspects of space medicine also seem to get in the way of our travel to other planets in our own solar system, but less to the stars. The most serious seems to be the loss of bone mass in microgravity, which we’ve found amounts to a 1% loss in bone mass per month, for a whopping 9% loss of bone mass for a trip to Mars. No one knows if Martian gravity is weak enough to make this a negligible problem for a permanent mission. Another problem is high energy cosmic rays, which astronauts see even with their eyes closed.
A wistfulness crept into Landis’s voice as he talked about a mission to Mars. Perhaps one day our national budgetary problems will have resolved sufficiently to allow us to talk about sending humans to the red planet.
I gave my paper on Friday morning. Its title had two colons, which proved I was a real scholar! “Fantastic Romantics: Romantics as Characters in Fantastic Fiction: Edgar Allan Poe” is the fourth paper I’ve given about Romantic poets and writers who seem to show up with considerable regularity as fictional characters. Think Keats in Dan Simmons’s HYPERION CANTOS, or Shelley and Byron in Tim Powers’s The Stress of Her Regard. Poe is the first American Romantic I’ve worked with, and I talked about Gregory Frost’s story, “In the Sunken Museum”; Jack Yeovil’s novel, Route 666; and Louis Bayard’s Novel, A Pale Blue Eye. There was a lively discussion at the end of the session, so I think it went rather well. There are a great many novels and stories using Poe as a character, so I have much more research to do before I write the Poe chapter in the book I hope to write some day, but I’ve made a start.
NEXT: Guest scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen talks about “The Undead.”
Sounds wonderful — both the space flight presentation and the Poe!
We’re so proud of you, Terry!