Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Next Continent

Hard science fiction set in our solar system nearly died in the 1960s.

The Tigers of Barsoom were slain by Mariner Probes to Mars. The Jungles of Venus were defoliated by probes to Venus. H. G. Wells’ Selenites were exterminated by Apollo. The Mariner Probes as well as Apollo told us the neighboring islands are barren places inhospitable to life.

Science fiction moved from neighboring planets to neighboring stars. Stories told over time spans shorter than decades or centuries were forced to resort to faster than light travel. The Golden Age of hard science fiction passed away and so called science fiction became more about fantasy than science.

In the meantime space exploration has moved on.

We’ve learned water is abundant in our solar system. A multitude of icey bodies dwell in the Kuiper Belt in the outer system. The Sun-Jupiter L4 and L5 have healthy populations of small bodies thought to be icey. There’s evidence Main Belt asteroid Ceres has a liquid water ocean within. Four main belt asteroids have been seen outgassing, an indication of volatiles. A thin layer of volatile ices was detected on the surface of Main Belt asteroid 24 Themis.

We have learned Europa, Enceladus and other icey moons of gas giants may have liquid water oceans beneath their frozen crusts. Tidal flexing creates an internal heat source that could sustain ecosystems just as deep ocean ecosystems on earth are sustained by chemicals and heat from volcanic vents.

There are regions on the moon’s surface that never see sunlight. Temperatures in these lunar cold traps can be as low as 40 degrees Kelvin. Colder than Pluto. There are indications of large bodies of ice in these crater basins as well as an abundance of other volatiles including various compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Neighboring some of these polar craters are plateaus that enjoy nearly constant sunlight.

It turns out our solar system is much more interesting and mysterious than we had imagined. I had hoped these revelations would result in science fiction re-embracing our local neighborhood. But the path of main stream science fiction remains dominated by inertia, little affected by the perturbations of new discoveries and ideas.

There are exceptions, of course. A lot of optimistic, hard science fiction is coming out of Japan. Haikasoru is a publishing house that translates Japanese science fiction for the English speaking market.

The Next Continent by Issui Ogawa is one of the Haikasoru books.

“The Next Continent” is earth’s moon.

Ogawa has done his homework. He has invested some time and effort learning the nuts and bolts of aerospace, life support and other engineering aspects of his story. I have reassessed that. See postscript at bottom of this post (spoiler). While scientifically plausible, the story is still entertaining, it doesn’t get bogged down in technical details.

The book revealed to me a chauvinism I didn’t know I had. Many stories by U.S. writers feature American heroes who are more tenacious and clever than characters from other nations. And I never notice. But it was jarring to see Ogawa’s Japanese heroes show up their U.S. counterparts. But it’s only natural a Japanese writer would put Japanese characters center stage. Which isn’t to say Ogawa is disrespectful of the United States. He portrays a mixture of international cooperation and competition that will propel humanity to space. But in this story the U.S.A. isn’t the first to establish a beachhead on an extraterrestial body.

At the rate we’re going, I wouldn’t be suprised if China, Japan or other nations establish a lunar base before the United States. If that comes to pass, I would be delighted. Humanity must break the boundaries that confine us to a single planet. Which nation leads the way isn’t important just so long as we do it.

Postscript (spoiler alert):

October of 2010 I e-mailed Haikasoru's Nick Mamatas, letting him know of an error. In the third part of Chapter 8, Sohya and Tae face almost certain death. But they seem to have found a way out! They can escape the sun's searing heat by making a break for it during an eclipse:

Except the moon doesn't orbit the earth at 1.68 km/sec. That's about the figure for low lunar orbit. The moon's average orbital speed about the earth is more like 1.022 km/s. Tae and Sohya would definitely have been cooked!

Sadly the above screen capture is from a Kindle book downloaded in July of 2015.

It is extremely disappointing that Haikasoru doesn't give a damn about scientific accuracy or getting the math right. I guess their science fiction is a lot more typical than I had thought.