"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Current Projects:
Science Fiction exhibition at The Science Museum in London.

Book Out Now:
Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives (Liverpool University Press, 2019). Co-edited Collection.

Book Forthcoming:

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> science fiction and alternate history
> 20th and 21st century literature
> history and literature of science
> comics and graphic novels
> science communication

22 June 2016

Space in Science and Popular Culture

This week I was delighted to be invited to chair a panel at the International Festival for Business 2016 being held at the Liverpool Convention Centre. Organised as part of their "Blue Skies" programme in collaboration with Liverpool's Writing on the Wall literature festival. Tricia Sullivan had been invited to participate but was unable to make it.

I was the chair of the panel which also included Ra Page (founder and editorial manager of Comma Press) and Andy Sawyer (librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection). We had a really interesting conversation about the interplay, overlaps and inconsistencies between space travel and exploration in reality and in science fiction.

L-R: Me, Andy Sawyer, Ra Page

We touched on the new space races between developing economies such as China, India, Nigeria and others, and the race between different commercial companies, mainly in the USA. The panel also highlighted that co-operation, as well as competition, has been at the forefront of humanity's space adventure with the International Space Station as an obvious example. Andy commented about how this would likely please Arthur C. Clarke and how elements of contemporary space science are still within the realms of what he was interested in, despite how far we've come from many of the ideas of science fiction in the early days of space travel.

There was some scepticism about relying on commercial bodies to push us onwards in our space endeavours because of both the financial risks they may be unwilling to take, but also because their visions can often rest on one enthusiastic entrepreneur who won't always be around to pursue the projects into long term goals: Richard Branson driving Virgin Galactic forward for example.

The militarisation of space was talked about, both as a risk in the future but also as a present day danger given how little we know about what is floating above our heads. This connected with the dangers of space given how crowded the immediate vicinity is becoming with junk, Gravity (2013) depicting these dangers on the screen.

In front of Writing on the Wall's time machine
We spoke about the contrasts between science fiction's fondness for dystopia or disaster fiction in space versus the actual space programmes we've embarked upon which are largely presented as being utopian in design and aim.

It was also underlined that science fiction has certainly had an influence on space travel on a personal level with a great  many of the men and women who are engaged in space science citing reading and watching science fiction as being amongst their earliest inspirations. This becomes evident when you notice, for example, that of the five Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) constructed and flown by the European Space Agency, four were named after European scientists and the fifth was named Jules Verne. (Similarly, the robotic barges used by Space X in their ambitious rocket landing procedure are named after ships in Iain M. Banks's Culture novels: Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You; not to mention the space shuttle test vehicle Enterprise and the Virgin Galactic ship of the same name).

It was a fun event to do, if in (for me) a slightly unconventional setting of a business festival. Thanks to IFB2016 and WoW for having me and to my co-panelists for being great conversationalists.

1 comment:

  1. I love the fact SpaceX named their automated barge Of Course I Still Love You, as it speaks to the very heart of why we conduct science and why we enjoy science fiction—impulsive, playful curiosity.

    I'm an Australian science fiction writer. A friend of yours Al (Shipman?) recommended I reach out and introduce myself. Al just finished reading a novel I wrote called Mars Endeavour, and thought it might be something you would be interested in. I've just followed you on Twitter, and look forward to catching up with you in cyberspace from time to time. Cheers, Peter