REVIEW: “Human Exploration of Mars: Fact from Fiction?” by Jim Bell

Review of Jim Bell, “Human Exploration of Mars: Fact from Fiction?”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): xxiv-xxxi — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

One of the things that I find most fascinating about science fiction is that just as often as the fiction follows the science, so often does the science follow the fiction. What used to be the purview only of fiction — space travel to Mars — may not yet be in the realm of actual fact, but it is creeping closer and closer to it. Bell says that “ironically, science fiction may be at least partly responsible for this recent sea change in science reality” (p. xxiv), but this doesn’t seem to me to be ironic at all: This mutually symbiotic relationship between science and fiction is why sci fi has been such a fruitful genre for so long.

Why are we so fascinated with Mars, and wish to travel so desperately to it? Because we desperately cling to “evidence that Mars once was, or perhaps still is, habitable” (p. xxv). Bell traces the history of our search for such evidence, from interpretations of the channels first viewed through telescopes as artificially rather than naturally made, to Martian asteroids crashing into earth with fossils supposedly embedded inside. Sure, no one now believes that its populated with little green men, but the possibility that Mars was, does, or could again in the future host life is a tantalising promise: It’s a promise to those who desperately wish to not be alone in the universe, and a promise to those who fear the loss of our own home planet and want to plan for the future. The ability to make good on one or both of these promises is what drives our desire to go to Mars, Bell argues.

What then, is the relationship between science, fiction, and the exploration of Mars? Bell points out that “science fiction has created positive feedback loop that is influencing the future of space exploration” (p. xxvi); but what happens when the fiction runs ahead of the science? We are still a long way from light sabers, warp drives and transporters; how does it affect the development of space travel technologies when our fiction stories continue to include them? Bell’s reply is that:

Considering the potential for the exploration of space in the far future (hundreds to thousands of years from now or more), it is easy to suspend the need for accuracy and assume that we can’t possibly predict technological advances or innovations that far into the future (p. xxvi).

On the other hand:

If a story is to have a significant influence on the near-term future of space exploration (within the next few decades, for example), I believe that it needs to be grounded in a defensible pragmatism about what is actually achievable — technologically, scientifically, and politically (p. xxvii).

“To have a significant influence” on the development space travel in is precisely the goal of this anthology, and Bell briefly summarises the fiction pieces to explain how they fit into this goal. His conclusion is ringingly positive: “inspiration can be turned into advocacy and action, and that fiction can indeed presage fact” (p. xxxi). It’s an exciting time to be alive, doing science, and reading fiction.

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