Exoplanets vs. Martian Canals

Reading classic sci-fi like Wells and Verne, I can’t help but be struck by the curiosity, creativity, and simple joy of the genre’s early years.  There was so much we didn’t yet know about even our closest celestial neighbors.  Life on the moon?  Quite possible.  Canals on Mars?  Why not?  And since nobody had ever traveled to space, authors enjoyed great freedom to invent their own methods of travel: Giant cannons, anti-gravity elements, and so on.  Scarcely any distinction can be drawn between hard and soft sci-fi at this point; everyone was simply making their best guesses about things that no one could really predict.

Then came space exploration, a huge boon for both humanity in general and science fiction writers in particular.  Some of the greatest science fiction of all time was written shortly in its wake.  But amidst it all, I can’t avoid a sense of loss.  Now that we know how to travel into space, an author of serious science fiction must obey those rules.  No anti-gravity; no walking about on the moon without a spacesuit.  If one wants to write about life on the moon or an alien invasion from Mars, one must resign oneself to the absolute pulpiest end of soft sci-fi.  Sometimes it feels as if science fiction no longer has any room for creativity.  We simply know too much.

And then there are the exoplanets.

Before 1992, we knew nothing about them.  Many people assumed that they existed, of course, but only by extrapolation from our own solar system.  Perhaps we were unique.  No one could say.

Then we began to discover them.  First the large ones, orbiting blisteringly close to tiny stars.  Perhaps we were an aberration after all.  Then more and smaller.  Earth-like planets turned out to be common, some close to their stars, some far, many orbiting no star at all.  We are constantly discovering more.

We know virtually nothing about these intersideral siblings of Earth’s.  They may be as dry and dead as our own neighbors, or they may have water, atmospheres, geothermal activity.  Perhaps life, like the planets themselves, will turn out to be astoundingly common; perhaps it is rare; perhaps we are completely alone.  Someday we will know.  For now, we can only speculate.

So, for any science fiction author willing to set his or her sights a little farther away, there are still places where imagination can run rampant and where the restrictions of science do not weigh on us all that heavily.

And there are still things we can look forward to discovering.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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