If I were a Martian, I’d Start Running Now. Explorers’ Club Discussion at London's Barbican Centre

Aug 19, 2003
If I were a Martian, I’d start running now
Ahead of our Explorers’ Club discussion at London's Barbican centre on 15 June, author Adam Roberts discusses science fiction's outward urge
By Adam Roberts

Exploration is so core to science fiction we might almost rename the genre “Exploration Fiction”. The genre is defined by, and packed with, stories of exploring space (“to boldly go” and all that), and of exploring time in the saddle of H. G. Wells’s time machine and its very many successors. Most of Jules Verne’s novels send characters exploring the world in balloons, submarines, trains and mega-boats.

Occasionally, they explore the world beyond Earth aboard ballistic capsules, or even on a chunk of Earth knocked off by a comet. I’m old enough to remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980), recently remade with Neil deGrasse Tyson, which used the notion of flying through the universe in a strangely under-furnished spaceship as a way to convey various galactic wonders. Here was the 19th-century scientist/explorer, extrapolated into the future. The British science-fiction writer John Wyndham defined humanity by what he called “the outward urge”. Maybe it’s just in us: this desire to explore.

One striking thing about the way exploration figures in SF is that – with a very few exceptions – it is almost always benign. I suppose we tend to think of “exploration” as a natural and positive extension of our universal human curiosity about the world; that is, the curiosity that all children exhibit, a “why is the sky blue?” school of thinking. Star Trek’s Federation operates according to a Prime Directive of non-interference in the cultures it explores. Verne’s Captain Nemo is a dedicated anti-colonialist. From Wells’s aggressive Martians to Doctor Who’s alien invader of the week, in SF it is vastly more likely that the imperial aggressors will be aliens coming here, rather than humans going there. When we imagine ourselves exploring the universe we tend to do it in the spirit of the Apollo landings: we go in peace, we tell ourselves, for all humankind.

Because it’s there
But the long history of actual exploration really doesn’t tell that story. I dare say, from time to time, people have explored the world with the same disinterestedness that mountaineer George Mallory proposed for Everest, “because it’s there”: a line treasured by the first man to climb that mountain, Edmund Hillary. But Hillary was hardly a typical explorer. Most exploration has been conducted by people who are checking out which chunks of the rest of the world would be most lucrative to invade and despoil. You can’t colonise the world without some reconnaissance, any more than you can make an empire-omelette without breaking human-eggs.

European imperialists rarely put it in those terms, of course: they spoke of spreading civilisation. The disingenuousness of this is toxic because it does, as it were, the opposite of what true exploration should do. It conceals the truth rather than revealing it. It hides things away instead of mapping them out plainly. And it becomes habitual. Did I refer to Mount Everest, a few sentences ago, rather than Mount Sagarmāthā? Did I drop the name of the prominent white man, but omit to mention Tenzing Norgay, who stepped onto the peak simultaneously with him? More to the point, did my putting it in those terms ring any warning bells for you?

Exploration has never been neutral, and it’s hard to believe that future exploration of the cosmos will be different. So: doesn’t SF have a duty to flavour its fantasies of boldly going with a smidgen of ideological honesty? “Exploration Fiction” is, after all, better placed than any other kind of literature to explore exploration itself.

New Scientist Presents: The Explorers’ Club is at Barbican, London, 7.30 pm, 15 June 2017

Adam Roberts is a science fiction writer and professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. Catch him in conversation with sci-fi writer Stephen Baxter and New Scientist editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury at The Explorer's Club on 15 June.

Thursday 15 June 2017 at 19:30, Frobisher Auditorium 1

Looks interesting, tickets are £25 each though.


Aug 26, 2005
I based one of my planets on Adam Robert's book Salt, which is an intriguing novel.

On the other hand almost everything I write has some influence from Baxter, who is very prolific. I have noticed in his recent books that several different strands of narrative are being brought together in a kind of multiverse, so that events from one series might be mentioned in passing in others as if they happened in a different reality. This reminds me a bit of the old Michael Moorcock series crossovers (Moorcock is, of course, a completely different kind of author).


Justified & Ancient
Mar 10, 2015
There is a story that when the Apollo astronauts were training here on Earth, they encountered an old navajo. When he found out what they were doing, he asked if they could bring a message to the Moon for him and they agreed. Later when they got the message translated, they found out it said " Watch out for these men, they are coming to take your land."