Most of us aren’t able to grasp the scale of space — even the distances associated with our planetary neighbours is incredibly hard to wrap our head around. Statements starting with “if a grain of sand is planet Earth…” do little more than getting forwarded around on Twitter. The problem arises because we don’t get anything else to compare the distances with. I suppose, subconsciously most of the time we imagine distances comparing them to similar distances we have experienced; the same way we wrap our head around many other natural quantities — like the weight of a melon or height of a building. For distances between objects near Earth, there’s practically nothing in the same order of magnitude that we experience in our day to day lives — let alone distances in interstellar space. A mere numeric value reflecting the emptiness of space barely cause the same dread as the thought of getting lost in an Earthly desert does; even though compared to the solar system, Earth is much smaller — than we humans compared to the average desert.
I had given up a long time ago, trying to grasp the scale of the space around our planet. If one tries hard enough, they get nothing but sheer dread of loneliness. Space is just vast.
In the TV series The Expanse, I had found an interesting dichotomy. It’s a science fiction TV series where humans have colonised pretty much all of the solar systems, and gearing towards the first interstellar space. I won’t delve deep into spoiler territory, but the story involves a lot of politics between humans living on Earth, Mars and on the asteroid belt, aptly named the belters. They speak of mars, asteroids and planetary satellites like neighbouring countries, or islands on the pacific ocean — not too far, not too close to home — definitely reachable. But the show wastes no time to make you fear for the safety of the protagonists — it shines the sheer emptiness of space right at your face. In the version of space shown in The Expanse one can get away with murder in space, quite literally — as you will see if you ever choose to watch the show. Science fiction before The expanse was aired, most authors either conveniently hid the vastness of space in the plot, or simply created outlandish technology to get around it. The authors of The Expanse instead of making another pop-culture piñata, chose a sweet spot. We can imagine its not-so-far-fetched notions, thanks to the developments in the last century, yet still stay grounded in the telling of space.
That makes me wonder, are the stories we tell a reflection of how far we have come as a civilisation? Homer’s epic wasn’t on a distant planet but our very own Earth. Adventures of Captain Nemo was extraordinary, but just beneath our seas. Not that we know everything about the deep sea today, but Jules Verne’s seminal work isn’t as exciting now as it once was. H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon was an incredibly imaginative piece of literature — nowadays a relic of science fiction.
At any point in time, the grand stories we tell ourselves are almost always anchored to a slice of reality that we experience in our lives. When trying to detach from it; when trying to write for the future, some writers succeeded, some became irrelevant. The ones that remained relevant are the ones that made us think about our deepest mysteries. Identity in Blade Runner, or political consequences in Dune, the nature of our lives in The Matrix — all stayed very important works of science fiction.
But I have to confess. I want those stories to become irrelevant. I dream of a time where we have solved those mysteries that are now wrapped in the foils of science fiction and literature. I wish that our future generations will look at these stories as borderline comedic — the same way we now snark at the plot of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, where they shot a canon to get to the Moon.
I wish for an era where we wouldn’t have to tell ourselves grand stories of a carbon-neutral economy or a gender-neutral society. A place where our identity is not the colour of our skin; where all our wars would look as comedic as a Buster Keaton movie. An era when we would recall an unimaginable past where we almost killed the planet; I hope for a time where we will be able to imagine the vastness of space.