Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Romancing Kepler's New Worlds

One hundred years ago, Mars was a world of mystical wonder. There, between the ancient canals of the Red Planet, noble heroes armed with their honor and their swords fought savage bandits amidst the crumbling ruins of an ancient civilization. Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Under the Moons of Mars" launched the sword and planet subgenre of science fantasy, and the influence of that romantic dying Mars persisted for decades. Many stories written in the first half of the twentieth century take the presence of intelligent Martians as a given. In 1965, of course, Mariner 4 slipped into flyby mode and jossed it all. There were no sparkling canals, no ancient cities, no beautiful princesses waiting to take the hero's hand in marriage. The same happened to Venus not much later, when a world speculated to be jungle from pole to pole was instead revealed as the closest thing we know to Hell.

Granted, the discovery of the true nature of the solar system didn't kill science fiction. Rather than speculating wildly on the basis of canal-thin hypotheses, the last forty years have seen hundreds of stories that look at the problems and possibilities of Mars, Venus, and even more distant worlds without any preconceptions of planetary romance. Still, when I think about it, I can't help but think that some of the magic is gone. Personally, I like the idea of the sword and planet and planetary romance subgenres, though to my regret I've not read that much of them; a deficiency I must correct. S.M. Stirling has been taking a look at them through a twenty-first century lens of late, in his Lords of Creation series - but on the whole, they're not the most well-populated of subgenres today.

There's a chance they may be coming back.

For another two and a half years, at least, Kepler will be peering into the Stygian depths of interstellar space in search of new Earth-sized worlds, unimagined by human minds

As a science fiction writer interested in setting stories beyond Earth, it seems to me that the situation in 2010 is roughly analogous to that of 1962. We're on the cusp of a flood of new discoveries in our neighborhood of the galaxy, and soon we won't be just guessing as to what's out there. I wrote about this back in January, when I hailed the planet-finding prospects of the Kepler Mission; Randy McDonald expressed a bit of sadness at the prospect of its discoveries jossing entire worlds. Still, Kepler's not going to be giving us vast detail. If it finds an Earth-twin with oceans of water and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, we'll know - but we won't know vastly more than that. We will, I think, be at a point where our knowledge is roughly equivalent to what we knew of Mars one hundred years ago. We'll know enough to know that we know nothing, and leave it to human imagination to take the pieces and see how they might possibly fit together.

It could be that on these new worlds, under these distant suns, new lands ripe for a hero and his sword will be explored through the mind's eye. With time, yes, astronomical detection methods will advance, we'll be able to directly image planets in distant star systems with astounding clarity, and reams of speculation will be proven wrong. I'm fine with that. I think the world would be a poorer place if it had no Barsoom. Thanks to Kepler and the worlds it will bring to us, new Barsooms and planets of adventure may yet fill the sky.

That's where the fun of it all is. I'd like to write stories of Krasnaya, a distant world of wonders and mystery, but first they'll have to find it.

No comments:

Post a Comment