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High adventure

As regular Samizdata readers will know, many of the authors here have been enthralled by the development of a nascent commercial space flight industry, given a vital kick-start by the X-Prize and demonstrated in thrilling fashion by Bert Rutan’s Space Ship One.

As I said at the time, the cultural Luddites in our midst will mock, but ventures like this inspire the open-minded, scientifically curious and plain ornery speed freaks like yours truly. They show that the boundaries we accept as given are anything but. The demonstration that private enterprise can produce real results in space flight is an important one, and I reckon that a growing competitive market in this area should help bring long-term costs down and free the industry from the dead hand of NASA and other state institutions with multi-billion budgets and limited visions.

In the years leading up to the first phase of manned space flight, there was a good deal of fiction pointing to some of the ideas and developments which later translated into fact. Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and Poul Anderson are among those who spring to mind. But I had not come across a lot of recent fiction (ie, written in the past 20 years) which had played with ideas of how space flight would be borne on the wings of buccaneering free market capitalism. Well, in the past couple of years, I came across two good books, one I regard as solid, if perhaps a little wooden in its style, and another which simply blew me away with its sweep, drama and all-round believability. The first is Firestar, by Michael Flynn and the second, and in my view better, book, is Kings of the High Frontier, by Victor Koman. The Koman book is my favourite.

What is depressing, given the present amount of crud sold in bookshops these days, is that Koman’s book is not easily available. The publishers thought fit to produce a small run. Considering the revival of interest in space flight which I detect at the moment, and the deeds of the SSI flight, this book deserves a bigger audience. I have contacted the publishers to make this very point. Perhaps if they don’t want to produce more, then another publisher with more flair will take up the challenge. Screw Harry Potter and nonsense about wizards – this is the real stuff of real, achievable adventure.

14 comments to High adventure

  • While I agree 90% with your sentiments, two points do have to be made. After decades of trying to maintain its monopoly on US human spaceflight, NASA has given up. The new Vision includes a requirement for the maximum use of commercial space activities. The Aldridge commission (www.moontomars.org) actually mentions space tourism as a supporting factor.

    NASA has enough problems with its budget and with its contractors. It does not need to make new enemies. Also its biggest supporters in Congress tend to be pro capitalist types from small business backgrounds. Screwing the little guys who are trying to accomplish something in space, is a great way to piss these people off. Rule number one in DC , don’t upset the Committees that write the checks.

    The second point that sadly I have to disagree with you on is the “Lords of the High Frontier” . It’s probably a pretty good read, but according to “They all Launghed at Christopher Colombus” by Elizabeth Weil , a book subtitled “An incurable dreamer build the first civilian spaceship” Lords is based on Gary Hudson, of Rotary Rockets, a failed attempt to build an RLV that put back the private space industry by at least two or three years.

    We were lucky that Paul Allen didn’t think that Rutan was another Hudson otherwise Space Ship One would still be an idea on paper or maybe just a power point presentation.

  • Julian Morrison

    I have a copy of Kings of the High Frontier, and yeah it’s a damn good story. Although it does seriously underestimate the difficulty of building a SSTO vehicle.

  • You might also enjoy Stephen Baxter’s Time/Space/Origin series. The central character, Reid Malenfent is an entrepeneur who was kicked out of NASA and embarks upon his “big dumb booster” project – which is essentially cheap spaceflight using discarded shuttle components.

    I’m not sure if that completely counts as private spaceflight because the discarded shuttle components were obviously payed for by the taxpayer before NASA sold them. But they’re excellent hard SF books anyway, in the vein of Arthur C Clarke and Greg Bear. One of the themes is Malenfent’s struggle against government interference (something Rutan and co. have complained of).

  • Jon

    AFAIK “Kings” is still available electronically at Pulpless.com .

  • “Kings” . “Lords” How about “Archdukes of the High Frontier”.

    There is a longstanding spat between “High Frontier Inc.” the NGO that was set up to support Ronald Reagan’s Missile Defense program and which still pushs for the concept as well as having worked on some interesting civil space stuff. For example they spawned the Space Transportation Association (STA)and the now defunct STA Space Travel and Tourism Division.

    The other side was Gerard O’Neil’s High Frontier Space Colonization idea which spawned the L-5 society which in turn spawned Dale Amon as we known him.

    I cannot find the exact quote, but as Churchill said of the Greeks and Jews, ‘I am proud to be a friend to both’.

  • It seems that people would rather turn to the imagination than reality…thus Harry Potter being so popular.

  • snide

    That last remark about Harry Potter ruined an otherwise good article. The capacity to imagine comes in many forms and Pearce just makes himself sound like a squarehead.

  • Johnathan

    Heh, a Potter fan objects! Bring on the broomsticks.

    snide, don’t be squareheaded yourself, sir. The HP stuff is entertaining and all, but it does not rank as I said as credible adventure which can actually convey ideas. That was my point. Potter can be good fun though, I’ll agree. I rather liked the films.

  • Daveon

    Couple of things:

    1) There is a massive commercial space industry making lots of money from satellite launches. What is unclear at the moment is if the market for tourist flights and the price elasicity of the market is sufficient to support something else.

    2) There are plenty of excellent SF writers writing in this domain. Steven Baxter, Allen Steel (described rightly as the inheritor of Heinlein’s mantle), Peter F Hamilton, Ken MacLeod (ok, so he’s a lefty, but his space exploration stuff is excellent), Ben Bova, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Benford to name but a few.

    If you’d like a reading list of near future commercial and non-commercial space development I’d be happy to make a set of recommendations.

  • I for one would be interested in your recommendations, Daveon, I’m always looking for more good SF to read – especially from non-lefty authors.

    I’m currently reading Wheelers by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, which contains this passage:

    “…when the ultra-green anti-technology movement now known as the Pause cast its long, deceitful shadow over humanity, the people of Earth lost any interest in the Moon. […] The Pause halved the Earth’s population, then halved it again — mostly the nasty way.”

  • rkb

    Enjoyed Komon’s Jehovah Contract, the rest of his stuff looks pretty pulp fiction-y to me.

  • As long as we are talking about Science Fiction , I hope everyone takes a look at Bob Zubrin’s great satire

    “The Holy Land”

  • ian

    There was a story in Analog 2-3 years ago I think, about a succeesful space venture by New Zealand built entirely from standard components bought in the open market. I can’t remember any more than that, other than the story revolved around the way in which this put the nose of NASA and the US govt out of joint.

  • Daveon


    Allan Steele – Lunar Descent, Clarke County Space (the first O’Neill colony basically becomes a Las Vegas of space), Orbital Decay (about space workers taking down a government planned listening post)…

    Peter F Hamilton – his Greg Mandell crime series includes the commercialisation of space (Mindstar Rising, A Quantum Murder and The Nano Flower), his Reality Dysfunction series also has a fully capitalist commercial interstellar society and some interesting comment on the economics of interstellar trade)

    Steven Baxter – his Space: Manifold series

    Ben Bova – a little old hat now, but Sam Gunn Unlimited is very good fun.

    Ken MacLeod – The Stone Canal, Cassini Division and others… although I’d warn the more tender reader than Ken specialises in Anarcho Capitalism and Communism – he is not what you would call right wing in his views and politics, but his SF is good.

    Kim Stanley Robinson – The Mars Triology

    There’s a right mixture there, but near future space based SF is alive and well and some of it’s best proponents are British.