Welcome to the Hope-and-Tragedy Era of Space Exploration

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. My guest today is Jacquelyn Bengfort. Bengfort was born in North Dakota, educated at the U.S. Naval Academy and Oxford University, and now resides in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Storm Cellar, District Lines, and the anthologies Magical and Dear Robot, among other places. Find her online at www.JaciB.com.

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I belong to that nameless generation, lost in the crack that exists between Generation X and The Dread Millenials, for which playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab was a crucial part of the middle school curriculum. My particular computer lab was equipped with machines whose screens sported only two tones: a greenish-whitish shade laid over the black of a starless night sky. I spent vast chunks of my formative years shooting electronic deer with a space bar.

It wasn’t just Oregon Trail, though; my childhood was filled with pioneers. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were read aloud to my fourth-grade class. I could devour a tale of plucky Kirstin, American Girl by way of Sweden, quickly enough that it could be returned to the elementary school library and another one borrowed before our weekly reading hour was up. When girls like Laura and Kirstin moved, there was no FaceTime or Skype to connect them to the people left behind. Pioneer stories were stories of hope in the face of incredible odds. Stories of people who became, to those in the old country or out East, nothing but the occasional piece of closely-written paper bearing stale news. To leave was to be gone forever. Even the happiest pioneer stories come laced with the tragedy of departure.

Now, two decades later, I’ve begun to suffer from a mild case of existential despair. It’s not that I face much immediate threat. I’m no pioneer — I live in a city, and the largest specimen of wildlife I encounter with any regularity is the possums that sometimes find their way past the back fence, probably to escape the alley cats. Yet the news is bad, and often it feels like even if I stay put, an end of some sort is coming to find me to yank me from my comfortable life. (Maybe I need to stop reading so much Margaret Atwood, or maybe this is just one of the neat features of living in the anthropocene era.)

At the very least, I’m a parent now, and I must face the fact that success in parenting is defined by raising children who eventually leave you behind.

One of the ways I deal with this feeling is by reviewing end-of-the-universe scenarios. (This is a particular favorite.) Realistically, humans as a species won’t be around for the end of the universe, but if we are, it will have to be from a vantage point other than Earth, because physicists suspect we’ve only got a billion years before the sun makes life on our planet untenable in its current form (i.e., us).

Comforting, right?

But this is a fact: if we want to live forever, however “forever” is defined in an expanding, accelerating universe, we cannot do it here.

Here’s where the hope comes in. Space travel seems to me a hopeful endeavor — space colonization, even more so. Even as we’ve collapsed distances on Earth with international flights and electronic communications, making our planet-bound partings from each other lose much of their edge, we have begun to look beyond the moon, beyond the ISS, beyond missions that last only a few days or, at their longest, just shy of a year. Cohorts of people have volunteered for one-way trips to Mars, and NASA is studying the feasibility of a manned Mars mission by sticking astronauts into a dome on the side of a Hawaiian volcano. Meanwhile, astronomers go about finding Earth-like planets strewn across space — all of them too far now for any single human traveling at the speed of light to reach in a lifetime, sure, but still tantalizing.

We are entering a new age of pioneers: the hope-and-tragedy era of space exploration.

In my fiction, time and again (and again), I’m drawn to writing stories that try to capture both of these elements. These stories take place in a recognizable future where manned missions both within our solar system and into deep space are possible and somewhat regular occurrences. They are not exactly science fiction, to me; they are old stories, translated onto a frontier we can still understand. (Also, I’m maybe too lazy to do the research involved in writing historical fiction.)

I almost never write about successful missions. Sometimes those missions are implied, but I’m more interested in the grand failures. My hope is of a strange variety, and it embraces the fact that we are likely to fail, time and again, despite the height of the stakes, because of the immense difficulty involved. But even if we fail, it’s a beautiful failure. After all, the odds are against us — every story ever told is a tragedy, and if it’s not, then that’s because the writer stopped before reaching the end.

I was programmed for tragedy all those years ago. My computer-lab pioneers never, not once, made it to Oregon. Week after week, they (or, in the parlance of the game, “you”) broke their legs or were bitten by snakes or died of exotic-sounding diseases. Once, the blinking dot of my wagon seemed to hover right atop the ultimate destination, before those inside unceremoniously expired of cholera.

I was also programmed to hope. They (“you”) died daring greatly, seeking to survive, trying to improve their lives, being bold.

May we all be so lucky.

Readers, what is your favorite story of space exploration? One lucky commenter will win a book from our Stacks.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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8 comments

  1. Haley Carter /

    Brilliant. Also typical. So Jaci. Love it!

  2. I’ve got two. Alastair Reynolds “Diamond Dogs.” Where his explorers leave their world behind because even if they return, it will have been decades. And the sacrifices they make once there to explore an alien artifact. Brr. But I still re-read it.

    The other is a short story featured in a collection featured in the early 2000’s and its about a quartet of dilettant-ish explorers of a small moon of Neptune (or was it Uranus?) and the exotic environment and hazards they encounter along the way. It irritates me that I can’t recall the name.

  3. Fun fact: I’ve heard this “nameless lost generation” referred to as Cold Y, which I rather like, and enjoy applying to myself. It puts a fun spin on living in the 6th/Anthropocene extinction. :)

  4. Love the piece…great work.

  5. Jackson Long /

    Wonderful micro-pioneering/macro-pioneering (yeah, I just invented that concept) comparrison between oregon trail and future space exploration! Loved playing Oregon Trail, but I always seemed to die of dysentery :)

    Favorite “story” (tv show, my apologies for not holding true to literature) would be the recent Battlestar Galactica series… Really delves into the social/emotional challenges of a group of people in space exploration. Also loved reading “The Martian”…completely empathized with the situation!

  6. Love this description of the new version of pioneers. We’re always pioneering as a species, the technology just changes, but as Jacquelyn said it so perfectly, “to leave was to be gone forever.”

    As for sci-fi favorites of mine, I love Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach, “Life as We Knew It” by Susan Beth Pfeffer, and Tracy K. Smith’s “Life on Mars.”

  7. The first names that popped into my head were: James S A Corey’s Expanse and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. However, if it counts as “Space Exploration” and if “story” covers also the cinematic stories, I would go with Ridley Scott’s “Alien”.

  8. Jackson Long, if you live in the USA or have a US mailing address, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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