Saturday, November 03, 2007

Speaking Unpleasant Truths

When I first joined the space advocacy movement, I was simultaneously thrilled and dismayed. Thrilled because the ideas being offered were as mind-blowing as anything in science fiction--and they wanted to make them happen now, in the real world. Space elevators! Orbital slings! Low-cost Mars missions! Space tourism! Dismayed because everyone at the podiums seemed to be dry white males. Not all of them were dry: some were both brilliant and entertaining. Some managed to make world-changing technologies sound like a really bad trigonometry lecture. Others were condescending toward one or another group (some deserving, others not). Others could not manage enthusiasm.

I am not going to name names here. I am just going to make some observations on the culture of space advocacy, of which I have been a part. Twenty years ago, I understand, it was worse: people showed up at congressional offices in Star Trek uniforms, etc. Some of that hasn't gone away: we have had people show up to lobby Congress in t-shirts and gym shoes.

The problem is the space advocacy movement has been populated prirmarily by geeks--and, again, I include myself in that category--or, if that label offends, I will use a PC term like "the socially challenged" (SC). I am trying to offer a little self-reflection here to suggest ways we, the SCs, might improve our fortunes.

Think about it: space exploration as a passion, an avocation, or a lifestyle is not in the mainstream. There is some overlap between science fiction fandom and space advocacy fandom. We tend to have high IQs (always a social stigma), glasses or poor vision, poor physical coordination/athletic skills, occasional weight problems, grating voices, poor social skills, monomanias, and/or out-of-the-mainstream hair styles. The "Beautiful People" (BPs) who ignored or tormented us in high school eventually benefit from our technological prowess--think Bill Gates--but that doesn't mean the always like us. If you want to know where the former BPs from your high school went, visit human resources, sales, marketing, or maybe finance. These are good, solid, normal-people jobs done very well by people of fair-to-middlin' intelligence. But if you want someone to design, build, or maintain a computer network, you call the ones with the rumpled clothing, wild hair, and poor presentation skills.

Mind you, not all engineers or scientists are doofuses; I'm just trying to provide an explanation for why the SCs gravitate toward space-based activities. Consider your options if you're a bright lad or lass who won't be attracting a lot of dates or party invitations. What are your options? Beyond the company of your peers and like-minded individuals, you are often left to your own devices. Your schoolwork bores you because you're generally anywhere from a chapter to a couple years ahead of your class. So you read. And you don't read about mundane things like romance or truck repair--you're seeking to have your mind challenged and expanded by the unknown. So you pick up science fiction. You want to figure out how the universe works, and there's this whole section of the book store with unusual technologies, strange, new worlds, new life, and new civilizations. Et cetera.

Book reading of this sort has its downside. There might be a lot in them about how to interact with Horta or Puppeteers; not so much about how to get along with one's fellow humans in your current place and time. And when you try to share these new concepts with your peers, you're given mighty strange looks or, just as likely, a punch in the arm and a noogie for your troubles. So you turn inward even more, and it becomes a self-sustaining cycle. And this matters, because those same good-looking people who were popular but not necessarily as intellectual X years ago eventually become politicians and run the country (or advise the people who run the country). We need to learn to think like and/or communicate with the BPs, or we're doomed to the sidelines forever.

When we grow up--or at least get older--we again find a group of like-minded peers. They're generally smart, often awkward know-it-alls on this or that subject, and the arguments in the convention hallways range from the ISP of particular launch vehicles to the origins of a rocket design to the likelihood of a "gray vs. green" divide in the distant future. It's a great time, and usually much more intelligent than the water cooler talk you'd get in the average office ("How 'bout those Tide?"). But then you watch one of your space-loving peers interact with a mundane, and it all becomes clear again: you are on a different social planet from other people your age. How does this become clear? When you hear someone try to explain to a complete stranger how aerodynamics influences cloud formation when all the person next to them asked was whether it had stopped raining. Or you see someone argue with the front desk clerk for half an hour, scientific calculator in hand, because the clerk divided the bill incorrectly. Or you hear a friend chatting up a very pretty girl by explaining to her the principles of warp drive at a party not related to space or science fiction. Or you hear a guy pick on someone because they cannot write or speak in a gramatically acceptable manner (gee, who could THAT be?).

We're not normal, folks, and if we want to sell a spacefaring future, we either need to act like normal people or at least be able to use words that normal people will use. I wrote an article a year ago expressing my understated pleasure that marketing professionals were now getting into the space business. This is code for "normal people are starting to see how they can make money at this."

I have heard complaints about this change. Space advocacy conference have gotten slicker, more business-oriented and, most importantly, more expensive. When I hear a complaint that they're less inclusive, it seems to me that that's also code for, "There aren't as many geeks around." And perhaps that is so. SF or space conventions can be rather low-rent. Or perhaps the mundanes, the people with the normal jobs, are starting to outnumber us. It's not quite as "cozy" anymore. We don't recognize all the faces.

There is good news, however, as my article noted. The appearance of marketing types and other entrepreneurs is a sign that space exploration (or at least space tourism) is gaining mainstream acceptance. Of course the flip side of this situation is that we SCs have always taken a certain pride in our exclusivity. Who are all these Johnny-come-latelies trying to infiltrate our ranks? They can build a marketing plan, but they don't know the rocket equation? Who the hell are these people? Perhaps it's a sign that space is becoming democratized. And aristocrats do not always approve of the commoners invading on their privileges.

If you want to get away from the mundanes, you go to science fiction conferences, and even that is no guarantee anymore. On a weekend I was sent off to the Mars Society Convention (attendance 200 at most), another coworker went to DragonCon, where tens of thousands of people showed up. Science fiction, too, has gone mainstream--much more so than space advocacy.

So now we come to our greatest conundrum: science fiction, space fantasy, space opera, and flat-out fantasy are bigger than ever...and yet we still have a neglected space program and only the beginnings of a space economy. I've had several conversations about this, and the answer seems to be that more and more people have accept SF only as escapist entertainment. People who enjoy the grand adventures of Battlestar Galactica or Stargate: Atlantis have simultaneously, infuriatingly little interest in the actual adventures going on over our heads. That is the next great challenge for space advocates: getting more people who share our cultural interests to also share our real-world interests.

I was just reviewing this essay, and I realized how hard I've been on geeks, SCs, call 'em what you will. And I asked myself "Why? You have been among and one of them. Why are you being so critical?" First, because I care, and I actually want the space advocacy movement to make more progress than it has. And second, because, like Pinocchio who strove to be a real boy, this particular geek has always striven to just be accepted as normal--to even lead (egad) a normal life, with a normal job and family. When you grow up going through both the gifted and the LD program, there's precious little room for just being a person. You're either a freak because you're smarter than a lot of your peers, or you're defective because you can't walk (much less play sports) without tripping over your own feet. And yet, at the end of the day, my desire for the wife, family, job, house, and two-car garage gets overridden by an even deeper desire to dump everything except my book collection and become the librarian on Luna City or in an orbital habitat.

So I'm a space geek. So what? I still realize that I need a lot more normal people to support my vision of the future before I'm going to live the way I want. I guess we all have more work to do.

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