Thursday, 15 May 2014

In Space

 Originally published on Poul Anderson Appreciation, 6 Mar 2013.

This is an old question: can human beings leave Earth, cross space and colonise other planetary surfaces, whether solar or extra-solar? A lot of science fiction (sf) just assumes the answer "yes" although Poul Anderson at least questions whether it will be a straightforward matter to breathe the air, drink the water, eat the food etc on any terrestroid planet.

Here are some variations on the question. Might people instead colonise the Asteroid Belt, as they do in sf series by Poul Anderson and Larry Niven? Or might they just construct self-sustaining habitats in space itself as in another series by Anderson? Certainly, any group that crosses an interstellar distance at sub-light speeds must take its environment with it and therefore need not depend on the extreme improbability of finding a habitable environment awaiting them on arrival.

In Anderson's World Without Stars (New York, 1966), humanity has undergone three transformations.

(i) A spaceship can make a series of instantaneous interstellar or intergalactic jumps. Humanity is expanding, exploring, trading and regularly contacting other races.

(ii) Anithanatic prevents aging. People die only by accident or violence. Living indefinitely, they remain sane by allowing a machine to edit their memories. Thus, a man who has lived for thousands of years consciously remembers only several decades' worth of experience and must consult records about the rest of his past life.

(iii) They mostly live in space.

"...I suppose that a gene complex still crops up occasionally which makes the owner want to belong to a specific patch of earth." (p. 7)

Colonizers of planets:

"...wanted nature and elbow room. There is no other good reason for planting yourself at the bottom of a gravity well. The reason is not quite logical - after all, most of us can satisfy our ape instincts with an occasional groundside visit somewhere, or just with a multisense tape..." (p. 7)

So where do most of them live? The narrator, Captain Felipe Argens, describes the satellite starport called "City", which has grown over several centuries. Approaching it in a space boat, he sees:

"...towers rocketing from parapets, domes and ports glowing brighter than stars, the Ramakan memorial rakish across the galactic clouds; I could see ships in dock and boats aswarm; and as nearly as any spaceman (except Hugh Valland) ever does, I felt I was at home." (p. 9)

Argens is at home in City but has wives in several ports and each of them has several space travelling husbands who rarely meet each other.

He also describes the view from his wife Lute's porch:

"Space dropped dizzily from the viewport, thin starred black here on the rim. Huge and shapeless - we still being more or less within it - the galaxy streamed past and was lost to sight; we looked towards remoteness." (p. 12)

Here are true space dwellers. And Argens' guest, Hugh Valland, nearly three thousand years old, had "'...shipped on the first star craft.'" (p. 16)

After all these changes, can they still be human beings? Anderson describes them as such but he acknowledged elsewhere that a fiction set in the far future has to be regarded as a translation from a different language and worldview. And how long can they remain what we would recognise as human beings? A sequel set later might have shown greater physical and mental adaptations in these immortal space-dwelling organisms.

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