Movie screens are thundering with futuristic stories this year, from the final installment of The Hunger Games to The Martian. Both films started as books — The Martian originally self-published — but it's The Martian that taps into an intriguing trend toward realism. Space travel has been a sci-fi staple for more than a century, and now some of the biggest names in the genre are trying to imagine what it would actually take to send humans to another planet.
The Martian is a white-knuckle thriller, so you might not see the story as a series of science and math puzzles. But that's precisely why novelist Andy Weir first dreamed up the book that inspired the movie.
"I'm a space dork. I'm a big fan of manned and unmanned space flight," he says. "And I was sitting around at home, imagining, 'How could we do a manned Mars mission?' Not for the purposes of telling a story, but just, how could we do it, just as a thought experiment."
So Weir tried to work out the science of how an astronaut stranded on Mars could get enough oxygen and water and food to survive. His book is what's known as hard science fiction — a story based on existing or plausible science. And the thing about science fiction that separates it from just about every other kind of fiction is that some of these imaginary stories actually become real.
"It is very well-documented that people who work for NASA have been inspired by science fiction," says Calla Cofield, a reporter for Space.com who covers the space industry. "And there's always a back-and-forth, you know, between science fiction and reality. All of this is about dreaming about what's going on off the surface of the Earth."
One of the best-known writers of hard science fiction is Kim Stanley Robinson. He wrote an acclaimed series of Mars novels in the 1990s, and he's just come out with a new book called Aurora. Unlike Weir's near-future story, Robinson's novel is set 500 years from now. It's about a space voyage to Tau Ceti, which Robinson believes could be the nearest habitable star system outside our own. "I guess my working principle was, 'What would it really be like?' So no hyperspace. No warp drive. No magical thing that isn't going to really happen to get us there," Robinson says.
Over the years, the idea of a space voyage to Tau Ceti has attracted some of the biggest names in science fiction, from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to Ursula K. Le Guin. Robinson figures it would take about 200 years to get there. That means the journey would span several generations.
"What becomes interesting is to think about the people born on the starship who didn't make the choice to be there. And for two or three generations, you're born on the ship, you die on the ship. You're just in between the stars. So it turned into a bit of a prison novel, like you spend your whole life in a Motel 6."
But suppose you had to go out into space to survive, because the Earth's ecosystem suddenly crashed? That's the premise of a new book by another science fiction heavyweight, Neal Stephenson. In his novel Seveneves, a flotilla of ships is launched into space. The book goes into considerable scientific detail about how the ships would be powered and what genetic material they'd have to bring along so humans could actually live in space.
"All science fiction and fantasy is to some extent an exercise in world-building," Stephenson says. Seveneves comes at a time when there've been no human space missions for decades — at least not beyond the International Space Station. He believes we've largely lost the will to pursue the really big projects of previous generations, like the massive government initiatives that sent people to the moon and built the interstate highway system. He says the tech industry didn't help matters when it became so lucrative and attractive to young people with technical savvy.
"For the last few decades, the kinds of really smart geeks who in the '50s and '60s would've been building rockets or something have been moving to Silicon Valley and creating startups to make little apps," he says. There's an underlying problem, he adds: We often have trouble imagining what a positive future would look like. And here's where science fiction comes in. If we want a better future, maybe we need better stories. What we don't need, he says, are more dystopian stories of civilization in ruins.
"It's just tired. They take the stuff that we have now — the buildings, the cities, the vehicles — and they kind of throw dirt on them and beat them up and break the windows. And then that's the future in which these things are all set."
By contrast, the science fiction writers who've tried to imagine plausible scenarios for getting to another planet tend to be hopeful about the future. And their stories have inspired some of the billionaire entrepreneurs who are now looking to the skies. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has cited sci-fi writers Asimov and Heinlein as sources of inspiration.
There is a danger, though, says Kim Stanley Robinson: a fantasy that if humans could just start over on another planet, we could escape all the problems we have here on Earth.
"This idea of a utopia happening on another planet is a story space you go into. So, in that sense, on Mars we can do things right, and it will serve as an illustration or an example for people back on Earth. I mean, I love Mars and I'm interested in Mars. But we don't need to go anywhere, because this planet is our one and only home."
And no matter how much we dream, it's where we're actually going to live.