No Warp Drives, No Transporters: Science Fiction Authors Get Real Some of the biggest names in science fiction right now — like The Martian author Andy Weir — are writing what's called hard sci-fi, based on real-world science and a vision of hope for the future.

No Warp Drives, No Transporters: Science Fiction Authors Get Real

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For the next several minutes, we take you to a galaxy far, far away. Space travel has long been a staple of science-fiction. 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. One movie back in the theaters now, "The Martian," is drawn from a self-published sci-fi book that taps into this trend towards realism. Wisconsin Public Radio's Steve Paulson has the story.

STEVE PAULSON, BYLINE: The blockbuster movie "The Martian" is a white-knuckle thriller, so you might not see 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.

ANDY WEIR: I'm a space dork. I'm a big fan of manned and unmanned spaceflight. And I was sitting around at home imagining how can we do a manned Mars mission? Not for the purposes of telling a story, but just how could we do it, just a thought experiment.

PAULSON: 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.

CALLA COFIELD: It is very well documented that people who work for NASA have been inspired by science fiction.

PAULSON: Calla Cofield is a reporter for, who covers the space industry.

COFIELD: And there's always, you know, a back and forth between science fiction and reality. All of this is about dreaming about what's going on off the surface of the Earth.

PAULSON: 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 of "Aurora." Unlike Andy Weir's near-future story, his 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.

KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: 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.

PAULSON: 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 Le Guin. Robinson figures it would take about 200 years to get there. That means the journey would span several generations.

ROBINSON: What becomes interesting is to think about the people born on this 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.

PAULSON: 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. Stephenson's novel comes at a time when there have 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.

NEAL STEPHENSON: And so 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, you know, moving to Silicon Valley and creating startups to make little apps.

PAULSON: Stephenson says there's an underlying problem. 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.

STEPHENSON: 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.

PAULSON: 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. 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.

ROBINSON: So the idea of a utopia happening on another planet is a story space that you go into. Some 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.

PAULSON: And no matter how much we dream, it's where we're actually going to have to live. For NPR News, I'm Steve Paulson.

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