Space exploration

How writers explore interstellar travel and empires.

Penal colony
Frank Herbert
Fall of Rome

Space in science fiction


Since the earliest days of science fiction, the thought of leaving Earth, and colonizing other planets, has captivated readers and writers. Space exploration is a promise of adventure, and encountering brand new worlds.

This topic is also used to explore some important, real-world themes. In Isaac Asimov’s *The Caves of Steel*, the Earth is overpopulated and impoverished. Colonies have sprung up on neighboring planets, but only the rich can afford to move there.

A story like this uses space exploration to explore the theme of wealth inequality. It also forces readers to confront the issue of overpopulation: in real life, should we be working harder to control populations before the Earth runs out of resources?

Travel to the moon

In 1969, the first human beings set foot on the moon – an incredible moment in history. Before that, the idea of visiting the lunar surface was explored in science fiction.

In 1949, Robert Heinlein wrote *The Man Who Sold the Moon*. This story is about a businessman who wants to reach the moon, claim it as his own, then sell the land to bidders. The land could be used as advertising space, turning the moon into a giant billboard.


Science fiction writers have also explored the prospect of moon colonization. Heinlein wrote another story – *The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress* – about a penal colony established on the moon. The prisoners revolt, and found a libertarian society, which Heinlein compares to the more rigid societies on Earth.

Travel to Mars

Journeys to Mars are a common trend in science fiction. A recent example – first a book, and then a film – was *The Martian*, by Andy Weir.

In this story, the protagonist is stranded on Mars after a mission goes awry. As he struggles to survive in an inhospitable environment, the story explores the theme of solitude, and perseverance against all odds.

Another example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s *Mars* trilogy, which chronicles humanity’s efforts to colonize and terraform the red planet. The narrative explores various methods for altering Mars’ atmosphere and climate, such as melting ice caps using nuclear explosions, all to create a habitable world.


Interstellar travel

Some writers have imagined spacecraft travelling outside the solar system and visiting distant stars. Often, these spacecraft use faster-than-light engines, which let them jump through space and time.


The hyperdrive, in *Star Wars*, is the most famous example of this theoretical technology. It lets spaceships travel almost instantaneously between stars. Without faster-than-light travel, a similar journey might take several hundred years.

Another approach to long distance travel is something called a generation ship. This is a giant ship, that takes centuries to reach its destination, while its inhabitants go through several generations onboard.

In Robert Heinlein’s *Orphans of the Sky*, the people living on a generation ship have forgotten their origins, and believe their ship is the entire universe. The story explores cultural memory and the nature of human society.

Interstellar communication

If interstellar travel was ever accomplished, it would be hard to send messages back to Earth. A generation ship might send a signal through space, but it would still take centuries to arrive.


Ursula K. Le Guin imagined a device called an ansible, which let users communicate instantaneously over vast cosmic distances. This device would connect distant stars in a similar way that the internet connects distant countries on Earth.

Other authors imagined interstellar colonies that, unable to speak efficiently to Earth, decide to cut off contact, and build a new society in relative isolation. This scenario is an interesting thought experiment: how would a new society develop if it was disconnected from the outside world?

In Chris Beckett’s *Dark Eden*, a cut-off society descends into an iron age state. They still talk about electricity, but they treat it like a magical force that nobody remembers how to make.

Intergalactic empires

Intergalactic empires often serve as the backdrop for science fiction narratives. In these stories, humans have done more than just visit distant stars. They have colonized those stars, and built a vast, interconnected empire.

Frank Herbert’s *Dune* is a famous example. It describes a sprawling empire where noble houses vie for control. It is an intricate political landscape shaped by advanced technologies and interstellar travel.


In order to exist, intergalactic empires must be hyper-advanced. But in most of these stories, wars and rebellions still take place. It raises an interesting question: even at the peak of human advancement, will we still take part in primitive, violent warfare?

Collapsed empires


Some writers have explored the collapse of intergalactic empires. Throughout human history, even the greatest empires have collapsed eventually, and an intergalactic empire might suffer a similar fate.

Isaac Asimov’s *Foundation* series is a prime example. It charts the decline of the Galactic Empire, after overpopulation and social decay. One planet tries to protect the empire’s knowledge and culture, while the rest of the galaxy collapses into a primitive state.

It is a clear allegory for the fall of Rome, and the way Constantinople managed to survive while the rest of the empire collapsed. It could also be read as a warning for the future: are our current societies also bound to collapse?

Space travel in real life


When the first writers spoke about space travel, it was a purely hypothetical scenario. But in the last few decades, the situation has changed completely.

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s *2001: A Space Odyssey* depicted a realistic lunar landing. One year later, Apollo 11 actually landed on the moon. As it turned out, Kubrick’s fictional depiction of the lunar surface was relatively close to reality.

Meanwhile, probes have been sent to Mars, and the first manned mission to the red planet is expected to happen as soon as 2030. This mission could mirror stories like *The Martian*, and maybe, with time, we will try to colonize the planet, like in Kim Stanley Robinson’s *Mars* trilogy.

What happens next?

In the last few decades, we have made tentative steps towards exploring our solar system, but we are still a long way off interstellar travel.

The scientific community generally dismisses the prospect of faster-than-light travel. Generation ships are more plausible, but building such a large, self-sustaining vessel is currently beyond our reach.


In the future, this might need to change. If climate change and overpopulation make the Earth uninhabitable, an alternative would need to be found. Astronomers have found potentially habitable exoplanets, with stable atmospheres and liquid water, but reaching those planets is another matter.

Alternatively, we could do more to protect our current planet. It is a running theme in science fiction stories: when people are forced to abandon Earth, they find themselves wondering why no one did more to protect it.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

You might also like

Dystopian Societies;

How writers explore dark visions of the future.

Reading List;

Science fiction's most important books and films.

Artificial intelligence;

How writers explore robots and intelligent machines.

Alien Contact;

How writers explore encounters with extraterrestrials.

Time Travel;

How writers explore time and parallel universes.

What Is Science Fiction?;

Defining the genre and its development over time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *