The Endless Frontier: Researching the History of the Future
As a matter of routine, historians interested in various subjects examine numerous documents from the past, sometimes including works of fiction; to someone researching the history of nineteenth-century American whaling, for example, Herman Melville's Moby Dick would be an invaluable reference. Even present-day works of fiction might be useful, as a Civil War scholar might obtain useful insights from Gore Vidal's historical novel Lincoln. In a few cases, a past or present author's fictional interpretation of history might be more helpful than nonfictional historical records.
However, there is one limitation in the use of written materials for research: what if you are concerned about something that may or will happen in the future? Here, no relevant information is available; and though it would obviously be helpful to look into the future to consult the documents that will someday record those coming events, that is obviously impossible. All one can rely on, it seems, are unwieldy and unreliable statistical models predicting future developments, and shrewd personal intuitions. Still, there is one body of documentary evidence that might be consulted: the fictional history of the future found in modern works of science fiction.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to test the usefulness of science fiction as a valuable data base for future-oriented scholars when I was asked to do some research of that kind. Today, despite continuing controversy, the United States, along with the European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, and the just-enlisted Russia, remains committed to building and occupying what can claim to be the world's first space station—since the previous efforts, America's Skylab and the Soviet Union's Salyut and Mir, were little more than modified space vehicles. Even in the earliest planning stages, the multinational funding of the space station created the inescapable problem of multinational control—how could the responsibility of governing the station and allocating its resources be equitably shared by different national partners making inequitable contributions to the project? At one point, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA awarded a grant to T. Lindsay Moore, then a government professor at Claremont Graduate University, for help in dealing with these issues; and anxious to pursue every conceivable line of inquiry, Dr. Moore asked me to look at science fiction stories about space stations to see if these stories could provide useful ideas and insights.
As I must hasten to add, I never received any money from these agencies for my efforts, although I worked hard as part of the project and contributed several suggestions; and it is probably just as well, for if word had leaked out that I was in any way on the government payroll, I might have been the recipient of a "Golden Fleece" award. One can readily imagine former Senator William Proxmire's righteous indignation: imagine spending taxpayers' money to pay someone to read science fiction! And yet, the concept is not as absurd as it might seem.
Building a space station, after all, is not a simple or inexpensive proposition. Before Space Station Freedom can be successful, there are a number of problems that must be confronted: the ongoing need to justify the expense of the project to a skeptical Congress and an indifferent public; the search for the most efficient design and method of construction; the task of ensuring the station's safety against natural disaster and armed attack; and the difficulty of planning and implementing a fair and workable management structure for a multinational endeavor. As a matter of prudence, any possible source of information that might help resolve some of these problems should be consulted—even, I would argue, discussions of space stations in science fiction.
The authors of science fiction usually, though not always, have a good scientific background and an interest in scientific matters. They constitute a close-knit community who read each other's stories, frequently correspond, and regularly meet at science fiction conventions and informal gatherings. As a result, science fiction writers are regularly borrowing, criticizing, or modifying each other's ideas. As John W. Campbell, Jr., said about rocketry in "The Science of Science-Fiction," "Genuine engineering minds have considered the problems [of rocket spaceships], mulled them over, argued them back and forth in stories, and worked out the basic principles that will most certainly appear in the first ships built" (5-6). And many other aspects of life and technology in the future have been similarly worked on and debated in science fiction stories.
Suppose that a scientist or administrator working on the space station were told that an intelligent and knowledgeable group of people had been regularly meeting to discuss the possible designs and functions of a space station, and that records had been kept of those meetings. That person might well be interested in looking at those records, since they might contain some valuable concepts and suggestions. And this is exactly one way, I submit, that the modern genre of science fiction can be construed: as a continuing brainstorming session on scientific ideas and possibilities. For that reason, it is perfectly logical to consult science fiction if someone is preparing a new scientific project.
Literary critics may protest at this point that this approach to works of fiction is reductionist and demeaning; with all the important and meaningful purposes that literature can achieve, how can one look at these works as nothing more than depositories of practical ideas and useful suggestions? However, looking at literature from a utilitarian perspective in no way prevents or denigrates other examinations of a strictly literary nature; that scholar who consults Moby Dick for data about whaling in no way compromises the work or lessens its literary stature. And this attitude is particularly absurd in the case of science fiction, because from its beginning as a genre, critics and writers have repeatedly celebrated science fiction as, among other things, a valuable source of scientific information and ideas.
Two of the major critical voices who developed and shaped the tradition of modern science fiction--Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell, Jr.--explicitly endorsed this function of the genre. Gernsback firmly believed that science fiction stories were worthwhile because they might offer useful ideas to working scientists: as he wrote in one editorial, "Imagination and Reality," "An author may not know how to build or make his invention of a certain apparatus or instrument, but he may know how to predict, and often does predict, the use of such a one. The professional inventor or scientist then comes along, gets the stimulus from the story and promptly responds with the material invention" (579). Campbell broadened this perspective by arguing that science fiction could consider not only new inventions but how they might affect an imagined future society, useful information for policy makers considering the introduction of those inventions; he stated his position in an essay, "The Place of Science Fiction":
For a long time, through all history, if men tried a new idea, and it proved to be an exceedingly sour one, the result was disastrous to a relatively small group. Unfortunately, a small group, today, may be able to try out some interesting idea that happens to involve the annihilation of the planet Earth. The old method of trial and error comes to a point where it is no longer usable—the point where one more error means no more trials. . . .In addition to these critical voices, major authors of science fiction have also testified that such practical purposes influenced their own writing. Two examples specifically involve space stations: in "I Remember Babylon," Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Back in 1945, while a radar officer in the Royal Air Force, I had the only original idea of my life. . . .it occurred to me that an artificial satellite would be a wonderful place for a television transmitter. . . .I kept plugging [the idea] in my books. . . ." (2) And David Brin described his story, "Tank Farm Dynamo," as a "propaganda piece," designed primarily to publicize his idea for a new type of economical, energy-producing space station (The River of Time 205). Here are two noteworthy authors freely admitting that they were employing their fiction to present and promote their own scientific ideas. Thus, if we read these authors' works looking for valuable suggestions, they could hardly become indignant, since providing such suggestions was actually one of their goals.
However, even though many of the writers of science fiction are indeed well qualified to discuss the future, the medium they choose for their speculations may not seem to merit serious attention. After all, these people are in the business of providing entertainment; if there is value in researching books about space stations, surely, it might be argued, one should look at nonfiction. There, one would expect the thoughtful explorations of serious scholars, while fiction would offer only the wild ideas of dreamy visionaries.
In fact, I maintain that exactly the opposite is true.
I support my position by considering the fictional and nonfictional treatments of the space habitat—a proposed space station shaped like a massive cylinder with earthlike landscapes on its interior. In the novels and stories I read about space habitats, such structures repeatedly emerged as highly questionable concepts, based on overly optimistic projections and subject to a host of significant problems; given the present state of technological and social progress, they simply do not seem realistic. Thus, there is a great deal of wisdom in Chet Kinsman's response to a dreamy advocate of space habitats in Ben Bova's Kinsman:
"It would be wonderful if we could leave all the greed and anger and suspicion of our fellow men back on Earth and come out here fresh and clean and newborn."After this delightfully pointed exchange, it is surprising to turn to Bova's nonfiction book about humanity's future in space, The High Road, and find a far less critical attitude toward space habitats:
[The space colony] is a dream, a good dream, one that is needed to keep the long-range possibilities of space technology before our eyes. Humans will live in space permanently, raise families there, and expand through the Solar System. . . .Other books about space habitats, like G. Harry Stine's The Space Enterprise and Gerard O'Neill's The High Frontier, rhapsodize even more about the utopias in space that might be built; one of them, T. A. Heppenheimer's Colonies in Space, is reduced to gibbering about Saturday night in a space habitat: "Water fights will be great fun. . . .Each of the three towns in the colony can have a couple of movie theaters. . . . [restaurants] no doubt will feature a big salad bar along with baskets of fruits. . . . of course, people will have their stereos, their tape decks, and TV's" (211, 215-216).
Why is there such a contrast between the insight of Kinsman and other novels and the giddy optimism of The High Road and other works of nonfiction? The answer, I would argue, lies in the nature of the two media. Desperate to persuade people to support activities in space, writers of nonfiction are driven to become shrill in their advocacy, unconvincing in their rosy depictions of space life, and blind to potential problems and hazards. But writers of fiction face a different and more demanding task: since narrative requires conflict, they must seriously consider what sorts of problems or difficulties might arise in a space settlement and how these might be resolved. It is in this thought process, I maintain, that a true critical examination of the space habitat idea emerges; and while there were skeptics who questioned the virtues of these structures in other forums—many of them quoted in Mack Reynolds and Dean Ing's Trojan Orbit - it was in science fiction that the true, inherent difficulties in building and maintaining a space habitat came out, even in novels by authors like Ben Bova and Lee Correy [G. Harry Stine] who offer no such criticisms in their nonfictional treatments of the idea.
After examining hundreds of novels, stories, and films about space stations, I compiled some possibly useful ideas that are described in one chapter of my book, Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature. Only one of my suggestions reached the ears of NASA, where it was enthusiastically received but had no impact on the negotiations. I found a few practical suggestions involving space station design and constructions, and some insight into possible problems of daily life in a space station and possible solutions. Many of the ideas actually involved public relations, possible techniques for persuading Congress and the general public to support the construction of a space station. In a sense this is not surprising. Science fiction writers may have a great deal of scientific knowledge, but are usually not working scientists or scholars; but they are people who have, in a sense, made their living by selling the future, for if their stories were dull or unattractive, they surely would not have been successful in their careers. In looking at their stories, then, one may not always find a wealth of good technical ideas or shrewd judgments about the broader effects of scientific discoveries; however, these stories reflect considerable wisdom in the technique of getting people interested in and excited about the future, and that in itself is surely valuable.
If my work indicates that researching the history of the future may indeed yield worthwhile results, there remains the practical problem of locating relevant works. Having also compiled a bibliography of science fiction works on this topic—The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 - I have had practical experience in researching one small aspect of the history of the future; and as a helpful guide for anyone who might undertake a project of this nature, I will now describe my research methods.
The predicament I faced is obvious. Someone consulting the history of the past has available the Library of Congress headings, subject catalogs, annual indexes and bibliographies of relevant books and articles, and scores of other valuable guides. Compiling a bibliography of nonfictional works about space stations would be a time-consuming but relatively straightforward task. But how should a researcher go about compiling a bibliography of fictional works on a given subject? In one way, my task resembled that of the historian protagonist of William Forstchen's science fiction novel Into the Sea of Stars, who is assigned to search through vast regions of space for the 700 space habitats which long ago left the Solar System; and it is at least a remarkable coincidence that I ultimately found about the same number of works for my bibliography.
First, I found general bibliographical information about space stations to be limited at best. Sam Moskowitz's "The Real Earth Satellite Story" in Explorers of the Infinite listed several important works, and Norman Spinrad's essay "Dreams of Space" cited a number of recent novels. Books like Peter Nicholls's The Science in Science Fiction, Robert Malone's Rocketship, and Harry Harrison's Spacecraft in Fact and Fiction also mentioned a few relevant texts, as did Nicholls's entry on "Space Habitats" in the recent The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but there was nothing resembling a thorough survey of the literature involving space stations. I quickly concluded that I would have to do that work myself.
To locate relevant science fiction novels, I first read through two massive bibliographical compilations, Donald Henry Tuck's three-volume The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1968 and I. F. Clarke's The Tale of the Future, from the Beginning to the Present Day, which contain brief entries on virtually all science fiction novels and anthologies in English published up to 1970. In a way, these works are complementary: Tuck focuses on American works and lists them alphabetically by authors' last names; Clarke focuses on British works and lists them in chronological order. Together, Tuck and Clarke provided me with scores of relevant novels; however, the drawback of these references is that the descriptions are very brief and often very general. Thus, a number of earlier works I later located were listed by Tuck and Clarke without mentioning the appearance of space stations in them. I also read through one edition of Neil Barron's more selective bibliography, Anatomy of Wonder, and although it only provided a few more sources, at least one of them—Charles L. Harness''s The Paradox Men -proved to be a significant addition to the bibliography. Lillian Biermann Wehmeyer's bibliography of children's science fiction, Images in a Crystal Ball, also added a few items to my list.
My efforts to locate other relevant novels, particularly those published in the last twenty years, were necessarily less systematic. Friends and colleagues offered some help in this area; I repeatedly looked through new and used bookstores to find titles; and I finally decided to browse through the entire Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California at Riverside, the largest catalogued collection of science fiction in the world, and examined every work whose title or cover suggested a reference space stations. I stumbled upon several books purely by accident; at one early point, for instance, I deliberately took a break from space stations and decided to read the new novel that everyone was talking about, William Gibson's Neuromancer - only to discover, as no colleagues or critical sources had mentioned, that the entire second half of the novel took place in a space habitat.
Short stories proved more difficult to locate, because available bibliographies of short science fiction works provide only authors and titles; thus, while looking for key words in Donald B. Day's Index to the Science Fiction Magazines 1926-1950 and its various successors did lead me to John Norment's "Space Platform Xz204c Does Not Answer" and Kris Neville's "Satellite Secret," I also wasted time tracking down stories like "Prison in the Sky" or "Promotion to Satellite" that turned out to have nothing to do with space stations. My next step was to look at short story collections focused on space, and I did manage to find several space station stories in anthologies like Jerry Pournelle's three Endless Frontier volumes, Susan Shwartz's Habitats, and Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh's Space Shuttles. At one point I looked through several books of science fiction art like DiFate's Catalog of Science Fiction Hardware, hoping to find illustrations of space stations that would lead me to stories, but the process proved essentially unproductive.
Finally, I began to thumb through issues of old science fiction magazines, paying special attention to Astounding Science Fiction and its successor, Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, since it was a major magazine that regularly emphasized science fiction about space travel. I also completely examined several short-lived magazines with suggestive titles, like Orbit Science Fiction, Satellite Science Fiction, and Space Adventures, and other magazines that I happen to have or find, such as Galileo. One serendipitous discovery came when I was looking for a possible source in an old issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly shelved in the Eaton Collection and happened to notice a stack of Fantastic magazines from the 1950s sitting out to be moved to another shelf; for no particular reason, I picked up the top issue and found a space station story, Lee Grant's "Signal Thirty-Three." Still, because I was not obsessed enough to examine every issue of every science fiction magazine ever published—the only way I can think of to achieve a complete bibliography of relevant short stories—I am sure that I missed a number of noteworthy works.
At a very late stage in my research, I started consulting sources that I should have looked at earlier—the regular reviews of novels and anthologies in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact and Locus - and found a few additional novels and stories there. A more systematic look through these and other reviews might well have yielded many additional items.
To locate relevant films and television programs, I began by reading through several reference works on science fiction films; by far the most useful was Phil Hardy's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, which offered unusually detailed descriptions and mentioned a number of foreign-language films not included in any other reference. In addition, John Stanley's Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide, while opinionated and generally silly, was extremely thorough in its listings. The other film books that I looked at were not especially helpful, and therefore not worth mentioning.
For information on television series, I relied on a number of reference books, notably including Starlog TV Episodes Guide, Volume 2, which described, among other things, all episodes of the series Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century; Jean-Marc Lofficier's Doctor Who: The Programme Guide, which offered detailed information on a major television series that I knew little about; and Lee Goldberg's Unsold TV Pilots, which listed two relevant pilot episodes that had not been discussed in other sources.
I conclude with two warnings for other science fiction researchers. First, there is an awful lot of science fiction out there. I consider myself well acquainted with the field, but when I began this project, I could list off the top of my head only about 25 or so relevant works; when I had finished, I had found over 750 relevant works. Based on my own experience, I therefore propose Westfahl's Rule of 30: if a knowledgeable reader of science fiction begins a focused research project by listing all of the related works she can think of, she will ultimately find about 30 times that number of texts. I applied this rule once when I was told about a science fiction scholar planning to compile a bibliography of science fiction works about time travel and other phenomena involving time. Since I can easily think of at least 100 relevant works, I estimate that a reasonably thorough bibliography on that subject would include at least 3000 works. I declined an invitation to participate in the project.
My second warning is that it will not be easy to find all of those science fiction works. Perhaps I gave up on the secondary sources too soon; perhaps I should have looked more at histories, bibliographies, and other reference works on science fiction. But I suspect that I still would not have found any revealing references to large numbers of the works in my bibliography. In carrying out this research, I began with a simple question—which science fiction works involve space stations?—and soon found there was no reasonable or systematic way to obtain a thorough answer; and researchers who approach any other science fiction topic today will be similarly handicapped.
Fortunately, this situation may change in the near future. A man named Larry Roeder is now trying to raise funds to launch a project he calls LitSearch; this would be a computer data base, sold to libraries, which would list virtually all science fiction novels and short stories, cross-referenced by topics. With such a system in place, a future researcher interested in science fiction works about space stations could simply sit down at the LitSearch terminal, type a few simple commands, and obtain a comprehensive list of relevant novels and stories. Such a system would never be perfect; it might omit, for example, a novel like Michael Moorcock's The Fireclown, an adventure taking place on a future Earth that includes a very brief but fascinating visit to a space station monastery. But LitSearch would certainly enable a scholar to compile a good working bibliography on a given subject in far less time than I had to spend on this project. And if Roeder's project never materializes, surely another person will someday create a similar system, because all of the necessary ingredients are in place—large reference collections of science fiction works, experienced science fiction scholars, and the required computer technology.
When LitSearch or a similar system is available, then the type of practical science fiction research I have done might become commonplace. Any company or government about a launch a large new project would surely be willing to spend a small sum to consult the collective wisdom of science fiction on the possibilities and pitfalls of such a project. In other words, researching the history of the future, like researching the history of the past, might someday become a routine activity, which could prove beneficial to everyone involved.
For the people engaged in such work, though, there is always the danger that a research interest might become an obsession; and I fear that has happened in my case. Because so much science fiction is now being published, and because there are many older science fiction works still unexamined, the task of listing all stories about space stations is fundamentally endless. Even today, long after I have several times vowed to end my research in this area, I find myself in bookstores jotting down titles of new novels about space stations; when I have the rare opportunity to do some leisure reading, I gravitate toward inferior space station works like Dana Stabenow's Second Star and A Handful of Stars and David Drake and Bill Fawcett's two volumes of Battlestation adventures; settling down to watch the premiere of the series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, I discover that the story involves a space station and an hour of entertainment becomes a research activity. For the rest of my life, I may automatically respond with interest like a Pavlov dog anytime I see or hear the term "space station." For me, then, the search for space stations in science fiction has truly become The Endless Frontier.
Asimov, Isaac, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh, editors. Space Shuttles: Isaac Asimov's Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #7. New York: Signet Books, 1987.
Barron, Neil, editor. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction. Third Edition. New York: R. R. Bowker Co., 1987.
Bova, Ben. The High Road. 1981. New York: Pocket Books, 1983.
------. Kinsman. New York: Dial Press, 1979.
Brin, David. The River of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1987.
Campbell, John W., Jr. "The Place of Science Fiction." 1953. In Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future. Edited by Reginald Bretnor. Chicago: Advent Press, 1979, pp. 4-22.
------. "The Science of Science-Fiction." Space Magazine, 1 (Winter, 1949), pp. 4-7, 21. Originally published in Atlantic Monthly (May, 1948).
Clarke, Arthur C. "I Remember Babylon." In Tales of Ten Worlds. By Arthur C. Clarke. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962, pp. 2-14. Originally published in 1960.
Clarke, I. F. [Ignatius Frederick] The Tale of the Future, from the Beginning to the Present Day. London: Library Association, 1978.
Day, Donald B. Index to the Science Fiction Magazines 1926-1950. Revised. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
DiFate, Vincent, and Ian Summers. DiFate's Catalog of Science Fiction Hardware. New York: Workman Publishers, 1980.
Forstchen, William R. Into the Sea of Stars. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 1986.
Gernsback, Hugo. "Imagination and Reality." Amazing Stories, 1 (October, 1926), p. 579.
Goldberg, Lee. Unsold TV Pilots: The Almost Complete Guide to Everything You Never Saw on TV. New York: Citadel Press, 1991. Revised and abridged edition of Unsold Television Pilots, published in 1990.
Hardy, Phil. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies. 1984. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Woodbury Press, 1986.
Harrison, Harry. Spacecraft in Fact and Fiction. Baltimore, Maryland: Octopus Books, 1980.
Heppenheimer, T. A. Colonies in Space. New York: Warner Books, 1977.
Hirsch, David, Gary Gerani, David Houston, Mike Cotter, and Bill Clark, compilers and authors. Starlog TV Episodes Guide, Volume 2. New York: Starlog Press, 1982.
Lofficier, Jean-Marc. Doctor Who: The Programme Guide. Revised and Updated. London: W. H. Allen and Co., 1989.
Malone, Robert. Rocketship. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
Moskowitz, Sam. "The Real Earth Satellite Story." In Explorers of the Infinite. By Sam Moskowitz. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Co., 1963, pp. 88-105.
Nicholls, Peter. The Science in Science Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
------. "Space Habitats." In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 1136-1137.
O'Neill, Gerard. The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. 1977. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.
Pournelle, Jerry, with John F. Carr, editors. Cities in Space: The Endless Frontier, Volume III. New York: Ace Books, 1991.
Pournelle, Jerry, editor. The Endless Frontier, Volume I. New York: Ace Books, 1979.
------, with John F. Carr, editors. The Endless Frontier, Volume II. New York: Ace Books, 1982.
Shwartz, Susan, editor. Habitats. New York: DAW Books, 1984.
Spinrad, Norman. "Dreams of Space." In Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 122-135. Originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1987.
Stanley, John. Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide.
Third Revised Edition. San Francisco: Creatures at Large Press, 1988.
Stine, G. Harry. The Space Enterprise. New York: Ace Books, 1980.
Tuck, Donald Henry. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1968. Three Volumes. Chicago: Advent Press, 1982, 1974.
Wehmeyer, Lillian Biermann. Images in a Crystal Ball: World Futures in Novels for Young People. Littleton, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 1981.
Westfahl, Gary. Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature. Preface by Gregory Benford. Second Edition. Holicong, Pennsylvania: Borgo Press/Wildside Press, 2009.
To contact us about encyclopedia matters, send an email to Gary Westfahl. Hosted & Designed By:
If you find any Web site errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to our Webmaster.
Copyright © 1999–2018 Gary Westfahl All Rights Reserved Worldwide
Hosted & Designed By: