Born too early for interstellar travel, too late for Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast, author Jack McDevitt reflects on how a half-century of sci-fi conventions has brought the cosmos closer in “Out There,” available in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]
by Jack McDevitt
During 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he thought were canals on Mars. As late as the 1940s, though most astronomers saw no evidence of any such thing, we still weren’t certain. But we had hope.
I’d become an avid science fiction reader by then. The Flash Gordon movie serial lit my fuse. Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels. In 1962, I became aware of the existence of SF conventions when I was driving a Philadelphia taxi and I took several people to the Sheraton Hotel for something they called Philcon. And if the name didn’t mean much, when we pulled up alongside the curb they got excited and screamed at me to stop the cab. The woman in the front seat began tugging on my arm and yelling “Stop! It’s him.” Somebody in back cried out that she was right. “It’s Asimov.”
The guy they were pointing at disappeared into the building moments later while they were grappling for money and opening doors though I hadn’t quite stopped yet. There was no Asimov’s Magazine then, but I certainly knew who he was though I had no idea what he looked like. I’d read The Currents of Space and “Nightfall,” and I think I owned one of his science books. My passengers tumbled out of the cab and hurried inside. I pulled away, feeling sorry for myself. Philcon looked like fun.
Three years later, finally, Mariner 4 did a flyby of the fourth planet and we got the news at last: nothing was there. No canals and no Martians. Not exactly news. It was one of the most disappointing moments of my life.
During the following years I attended whatever conventions were in reach. And I became aware that I was surrounded by people who hoped to find other civilizations in the sky. Venus was also out of the question by then, and no other world in the solar system seemed habitable. So whatever aliens we were looking for would have to be in other star systems. That became another discouraging issue. If we had a spaceship that could travel at 35,000 mph, which was pretty fast by current standards, it would need approximately 40,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star. Hard to imagine, I decided, we’ll ever be going over there.
So okay: unless the technology changes seriously, interstellar travel for people was never going to happen. Physicists were in agreement that exceeding the speed of light was impossible. And of course even if we could design a thrust system that would move a vehicle at light speed, we’d still need four years to complete the journey one way.
I first heard of flying saucers shortly after World War II ended. Reports implied that, if they really existed, they were surely visitors from another planet. My first reaction was excitement. I wanted them to be there. To land and say hello. And maybe offer to take some of us for rides. That sounded like a great idea until, in 1950, I read Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man.” Even then, I didn’t take that kind of possibility seriously. Intelligent visitors were not going to be Nazis. The truth is that we want to find out we’re not alone in this vast universe.
One of the benefits writers receive from the cons and from electronic exchanges is the opportunity to speak with their readers. That’s why we love to travel to conventions. The primary area of interest tends to be what we’re working on next. But get past that and readers inevitably ask: Who’s out there? Are we ever going to connect with them? It’s why we have SETI, of course. It’s why so much science fiction describes a first encounter.
During the following years I attended whatever conventions were in reach. And I became aware that I was surrounded by people who hoped to find other civilizations in the sky.
I grew up annoyed that I’d missed the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” in 1938. It was broadcast on Mercury Theater as an actual news event and apparently left most Americans hiding under their beds. It wasn’t the kind of first contact we wanted, but I was sure I wouldn’t have been fooled by it.
The reality is that SF fans love aliens. Not only fictional ones, but we share a passion for an encounter. I’ve learned that the hard way. Speaking at cons has always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s a general address, sometimes simply trading ideas during a writing workshop, sometimes just walking around talking with whoever shows up. The one question that inevitably surfaces is a variant on whether I believe that UFOs are interstellar vehicles. I don’t. I’ve no idea what the explanation for the sightings might be, but I know that readers don’t want to hear me talking about how far the stars are, and that I can’t believe any intelligent creature is going to want to sit inside an oversized space vehicle for years, get to a world that has lights on, and then fail to say hello.
All of which brings up another issue: Is the question of whether we might be alone in the universe the prime scientific issue of our age? I can’t speak for scientists, of course. Although when they point out that the universe contains billions of Earthlike planets, only one conclusion seems plausible. For the general public at large, it appears to be the topic that generates the most enthusiasm.
Eventually I tried to deal with one aspect of the issue in a story, “The Fifth Day,” published in Asimov’s, April/May, 2007.
The reality, of course, is that we are social creatures. And as we evolve, we become increasingly interested not only in those within our societal complex, but in others. “Others” currently refers to people with a different skin color, different religious views, or whatever. We’ve been learning, during the last century or so, that we share too much with others to cut them off. It’s taken awhile, and we haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re on the right track.
The future will probably bring connections with other species. Though they might be limited to radio exchanges. And there may be some surprises. “Tau Ceti Says What?” takes a look at one possibility.