Human Extraterrestrials

Introduction

Even though science fiction is often focused on the future, its assumptions are tied to the present.

Aldrin descends from Apollo 11In some respects this is obvious.  A story about the near future can become dated by history itself.  Every SF story prior to 1969 that describes the first moon landing in detail (happy 51st anniversary, last week!) is obsolete.  And every story that predicted a smooth reach out into colonizing the solar system directly after that first landing, unfortunately, is also defunct.  Stories can also be rendered unbelievable by scientific advance:  all the delightful tales based on a habitable Venus or Mars are gone with the, er, vacuum.

But there’s also a subtler way.  Even though F&SF specialize in examining our assumptions about the universe, the assumptions that seem plausible shift over time.  Fashions change.  To take a heartening example:  SF stories from the late 1940s and the 1950s tended to take it for granted that there would shortly be a nuclear world war.  (Hence it’s spot-on characterization when the 1955 version of Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” accepts Marty’s recorded appearance in a hazmat suit as logical because of the “fallout from the atomic wars.”)  But for over seventy years, we’ve managed to avoid that particular catastrophe.

One assumption that’s always intrigued me is whether we are likely to meet people like ourselves—and I mean, exactly like ourselves—on another planet.  If we discovered an Earthlike planet of another sun, might we climb down the ladder from our spaceship to shake hands with a biologically human alien?

Not Really Alien

I’m talking about a “convergent evolution” hypothesis—the notion that the human species might have developed independently more than once.  And, incidentally, the standard biological definition of “species” as “interfertile” (a more precise definition can be found on Wikipedia) is what I’m using here; because, obviously, one of the potential uses of the assumption in a story is to make possible a romance between two characters from different worlds, and romance is not unrelated to sex and reproduction.

The Cometeers coverSo we want to set aside, to begin with, a class of stories in which people from different planets are all human because they have a common ancestry.  For example, in Jack Williamson’s classic space opera The Cometeers (1936), Bob Star finds his true love Kay Nymidee among the human subjects of the decidedly nonhuman masters of an immense assemblage of space-traveling planets, the “comet.”  But the reason there are human beings present is that a research ship from Earth was captured by the Cometeers long ago, and these are the descendants of the crew.

It’s not uncommon for the inheritance to work the other way around.  David Weber’s “Mutineers’ Moon” (1991) starts with the eye-opening assumption that our Moon is actually a long-inert giant spaceship—and reveals that the humanity of Earth is descended from the original crew members of that spaceship.  Thus, it’s perfectly plausible when hero Colin MacIntyre falls for a preserved member of the original crew; they’re from the same stock.  Similarly, in at least the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, the human survivors of the “rag-tag fugitive fleet” are human because Earth itself was one of their original colonies, which apparently fell out of touch.

The Era of Planetary Romance

In the early days of modern SF—say, from about 1912 through the 1930s—it was commonly assumed that the answer was yes:  human beings (with minor variations) might be found independently on other planets.  Arguably, this may have been because the early planetary romances—melodramas set on exotic worlds, heavy on adventure and love stories—were less interested in science than in plot devices.  But biology was less advanced in those days; recall that DNA was not identified as the basis of genetic inheritance until 1952.  It’s easy to forget how little we knew about things we take for granted today, even in relatively recent periods.

A classic early case is that of Edgar Rice BurroughsBarsoom.  In A Princess of Mars (1912), Earthman John Carter is transported by obscure means to Mars, called by its inhabitants “Barsoom.”  Those inhabitants include the nonhuman “Green Martians,” but also people identical to humans in several colors, particularly the “Red Martians” among whom Carter finds his lady-love, Dejah Thoris.  As a Red Martian, Dejah is human enough for Carter to mate with, and they have a son, Carthoris, thus meeting the “interfertile” criterion.

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in John Carter of Mars

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris

To be sure, the biology here is a little mysterious.  Dejah looks entirely human, and even, to borrow a Heinlein phrase, “adequately mammalian” (see, for example, Lynn Collins’ portrayal in the loosely adapted movie John Carter (2012)).  But Martians don’t bear their young as Earth-humans do; they lay eggs, which then develop for ten years before hatching.  It’s not easy to imagine the genetics that could produce viable offspring from an individual whose genes direct live birth and one whose genes result in egg-laying.  But that didn’t stop Burroughs.

E.E. Smith, whose initial SF writing goes back just about as far as that of Burroughs, was willing to accept this trope as well.  In The Skylark of Space (published 1928, but written between 1915 and 1921), our intrepid heroes travel to a planet inhabited by two nations of essentially human people—although the double wedding in the story does not involve any interplanetary romances, but is between two pairs of characters from Earth.  Smith’s later Lensman series (1948-1954), which features one of the most diverse arrays of intelligent creatures in SF, also allows for apparently interfertile humans from a variety of planets.  My impression is that this sort of duplication was also true of some of the nonhuman species in the Lensman unverse—there might be, say, Velantian-types native to planets other than Velantia.

This approach wasn’t universal in old-time SF.  The more scientifically-minded John W. Campbell’s extraterrestrial character Torlos in Islands of Space (1930) was generally humanoid in form, but quite different in makeup:  his iron bones, for instance.  It’s been argued that a roughly humanoid form has some advantages for an intelligent species, and hence that we might find vaguely humanoid aliens on different planets—though this is pure speculation.  But “humanoid” is a far cry from biologically human.

Darkover Landfall coverWe see some persistence of this tradition into the second half of the twentieth century.   Marion Zimmer Bradley’s iconic planet Darkover, for instance (first novel published 1958), is populated by the descendants of Terran humans from a colony ship and also by the elf-like indigenous Chieri, who, despite minor differences like six fingers and golden eyes, not to mention the ability to change sex at will, have interbred with the Terran immigrants.

An interesting variation can be seen in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (first story published in 1981).  When modern humans are sent on a one-way trip into the distant past, they are enslaved by the Tanu, aliens from another galaxy who have settled on Earth.  The story indicates that the Tanu were specifically searching for a place where the local gene pool was similar to theirs—which might also account for why they came all the way from another galaxy (also a somewhat antique trope) to get here.

It’s slightly odd that, even where basically identical human beings turn up on other planets, other animals never seem to be similarly duplicated.  On Burroughs’ Barsoom, one doesn’t ride horses, but thoats; is menaced not by tigers, but by banths; and keeps a calot, not a dog, as a pet.  In a planetary romance or science fantasy setting, one is less likely to see Terran-equivalent fauna than parallel creatures with exotic names and slight differences—whence the SF-writing gaffe “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” (see TV Tropes and the Turkey City Lexicon).

At the Movies

The all-too-human trope is carried on into the present day in video media—movies and TV.  Again, this may be partly because the science is often subordinated to the plot; but the cost and difficulty of putting convincing nonhuman characters on-screen is surely another factor.  Filmmakers’ ability to depict exotic creatures, however, has changed immensely in the last forty years, to a point where almost any imaginable creature can be created if the budget is sufficient.  Thus, the original Star Trek series of the 1960s stuck largely to slightly disguised humanoid aliens, perhaps relying on the ‘universal humanoid’ hypothesis mentioned above, while later series were able to branch out a bit.  Similarly, the Star Wars movies could readily give us nonhuman characters like Jabba the Hutt, Chewbacca, and C3PO; they, too, grew in variety as the capabilities of CGI and other techniques expanded.

Jupiter Ascending movie posterStill, it may be harder for us to adjust to interactions among characters where we can see their nonhumanity, rather than just reading about it.  So we still tend to see extraterrestrial humans on-screen.  The Kree in Captain Marvel (2019), for example, are indistinguishable from humans—an actual plot point, since this makes it possible for Yon-Rogg to tell Carol that she’s an enhanced Kree rather than a kidnapped human.  The Kree do have blue blood, in the movie; it’s not clear what kind of biological difference (hemocyanin?) might result in that feature.  We also see a number of alien humans in Jupiter Ascending (2015), though I think of that tale as a deliberate throwback to pulpish science fantasy or planetary romance.

A Match Made in Space, fictional coverI keep wanting to cite the fictional novel written by George McFly as shown in the closing scenes of Back to the Future, “A Match Made in Space,” since the cover seems to suggest an interplanetary romance (and one thinks of George as a nerdy romantic); but it isn’t actually clear whether that’s the case.  All we have to go on is the title and the cover, and that could just as easily depict a match between two humans, fostered by an alien matchmaker (or vice versa).

The Modern Era

We don’t see nearly as many extraterrestrial humans in modern SF, and for good reason.

The more we understand about genetics, the less likely it seems that another human species, so closely similar as to be interfertile, could evolve independently.  What we know about evolution suggests that there are just too many random chances along the way—cases where the prevailing mutations might have turned out differently.  Even if we assume that humanoid form is probable, why not have six fingers, or hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin?  While I’m not well enough educated in biology to venture any actual probabilities, I think our growing sense of the complexity of the human body and its workings, over the last seventy years or so, has simply made it seem vanishingly unlikely that an independently evolved intelligence would come out that close to the human genotype.

For example, the scientifically-minded Arthur C. Clarke depicted a galaxy in which each intelligent species, including humans, was unique:  The City and the Stars (1956, developed from an earlier story published in 1948).  In one of the unused story fragments he wrote while working on 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), his hero, well along on his journey into mystery, thinks:

He did not hesitate to call them people, though by the standards of Earth they would have seemed incredibly alien.  But already, his standards were not those of Earth; he had seen too much, and realized by now that only a few times in the whole history of the Universe could the fall of the genetic dice have produced a duplicate of Man.  The suspicion was rapidly growing in his mind—or had something put it there?—that he had been sent to this place because these creatures were as close an approximation as could readily be found to Homo sapiens, both in appearance and in culture.  (Clarke, The Lost Worlds of 2001, ch. 39, p. 220)

Contemporary SF writers who are really adept at building interesting and coherent aliens—David Brin and Becky Chambers, to name two of the best—give us a wide range of wildly exotic creatures from other planets, but not humans.

The Uplift War, coverIf we are still fond of the idea of interplanetary romance, we might find a possible work-around in the shapeshifter.  The Tymbrimi female Athaclena in Brin’s The Uplift War (1987) uses her species’ unusual abilities to adjust her appearance closer to that of a human female—but of course she has an entirely different genetic heritage, as that ability itself demonstrates.  The result wouldn’t meet our criterion of interfertility, no matter how close the similarity in physical structure.  To adjust one’s genes in the same way would be another order of change altogether.

Starman movie posterThe 1984 movie Starman, in a way, plays off this idea.  The alien in this case is apparently an entity made of pure energy, without a physical structure of its own.  Using hair from the female lead’s deceased husband, it creates a new body with a human genetic structure.  The two do, eventually, prove to be interfertile.  If we’re willing to accept the notion of an energy being in the first place, this approach is actually more plausible than, say, mating with the oviparous Dejah Thoris.

If one were writing a SF story today, it would be rash to assume that Earthborn characters could run across independently evolved humans elsewhere.  The idea may not be entirely inconceivable.  But it’s out of fashion for good reasons.  Attractive as the notion of interplanetary romance may be, at this point we’d best confine it to the kind of case noted above, where some common ancestry—no matter how far-fetched—can account for the common humanity.

Meet Cute and Meet Hard

Two Ways to Meet

In The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character Iris comes upon an old man who’s hobbling about his own neighborhood, having forgotten where his house is.  (He’s a once-famous movie screenwriter, but she doesn’t know that yet.)  When she takes him home, he remarks, “Well, this was some meet-cute.”  And, having lampshaded the trope by name, he introduces Iris to one of the classic conventions of romantic comedy:  the main characters’ first meeting is awkward, confusing, adorable, or just plain cute.

On the other hand, the romantic couple in adventure stories is often thrown together by the adventure itself.  The meeting is not so much cute as conflict-driven:  let’s call it a “meet-hard.”  The two types of encounters are both unusual—not your average first date—and, though they are opposites in some sense, they have some features in common.

Bumping Into Each Other

The simplest case for the meet-cute, as TV Tropes notes, is for the characters literally to crash into each other by accident—coming around a corner, for instance.  This gives us physical contact, the resulting embarrassment, and a way to get the characters interacting at once.

Notting Hill movie posterIn Notting Hill (1999), Hugh Grant’s bookstore owner chats briefly with Julia Roberts’ movie star when she browses around his bookshop.  But he kicks off the relationship when he later collides with her outside and (naturally) spills his drink on her, necessitating a costume change.  In the Good Old Summertime, the musical version of the “Shop Around the Corner” story (1949), also has the main characters meet in a collision, causing them to take an instant dislike to each other (a sure sign of impending romance in a rom-com).  The embarrassment factor is amplified by the fact that he then accidentally shreds her skirt.

But of course a couple can also “bump into” each other less literally.  For my money, the most adorable meet ever may be in the Hollies’ 1966 song “Bus Stop” (hear it here).  The singer offers to share his umbrella with a cute girl at the bus stop.  They then continue using the umbrella throughout the summer, rain or shine, as a kind of running joke, not to mention a pretext for standing close together.  I’d love to see this played out onscreen.  P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith (1923) has another umbrella scene, but even sillier:  Psmith sees an attractive girl stranded by the rain and, in classic insouciant Psmith manner, steals someone else’s umbrella to offer her gallantly.

Serendipity posterThe recent Netflix rom-com Set It Up (2018) has the main characters deliberately arranging a meet-cute in an elevator as part of a plot to get their bosses to fall for each other.  (It fails spectacularly.)  In Serendipity (2001), one of my holiday-season favorites, the pair meet fighting over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at a department store.

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (And Back Again)

Resisting the temptation to highlight innumerable other favorite examples, I’ll point out some more exotic cases.  The earnest trash-compactor robot in WALL-E (2008) meets the girl robot of his dreams, EVE, when she is dropped nearby to scout the long-defunct Earth for plant growth.  He spends the next several sequences frantically dodging the suspicious droid’s laser blasts, before they get more comfortable with each other.  Once EVE finds a sample and goes inert, we even see WALL-E gallantly shielding her from the rain with an ancient bumbershoot.  There’s just something about umbrellas; most likely it’s that they represent a very mild way of depicting a damsel in distress.

In the best of Heinlein’s juveniles, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel (1958), high-schooler Clifford Russell is trying out a working spacesuit he’s won in a contest when he gets a distress call from someone who’s escaped from hostile aliens in their flying saucer.  When he’s captured himself, he meets the caller, Peewee, a genius-level eleven-year-old.  Given the characters’ respective ages, there is no actual romance in the usual sense, though they become fast friends—and there’s no question but that they’ll fall for each other when they get old enough.  I’d classify this as a meet-cute on an intergalactic scale.

Arabella, coverVehicular breakdown is almost as good a way as umbrellas to create unexpected pairings.  In Georgete Heyer’s Arabella (1949), the eponymous Arabella’s carriage breaks down near the country “hunting box” of the (formerly) jaded Robert Beaumaris.  A recent romance in Wild Rose Press’s Deerbourne Inn series, Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace (2019), has Erica Timberly’s car break down, in the rain, no less, occasioning her rescue by her rock-group idol, Dylan Haynes.  (Unaccountably, he doesn’t offer an umbrella.)  Angela Quarles’ steampunk romance Steam Me Up, Rawley (2015) drops the hero into the heroine’s lap in a malfunctioning balloon, this being steampunk.

The Meeting of Adventure

By the time we get to carriage or automobile mishaps (not to mention flying saucers), we’re edging into the territory of the adventure romance.  (Which may where I should have classified Have Spacesuit, except that the incident, the setting, and the characters are just so darn cute.)  The “meet-hard” in an adventure story puts romantic interests together in exigent circumstances, defining their initial relationship in a different way.

There’s an entire subgenre of adventure romance stories.  Goodreads lists (at this writing) 1,344 entries in the category “Popular Adventure Romance Books.”  And that’s just the popular ones, apparently.  However, that’s not precisely what I’m referring to here.  In some cases—The Hunger Games is near the top of Goodreads’ list—the eventual lovers already know each other before the adventure begins.  Here, I’m classifying an “adventure romance” as a romance in which the characters meet on or because of the adventure.

Speed movie posterI think of the movie Speed (1994) as a classic example.  Most of the action takes place on a bus equipped with a bomb that’ll go off if the bus’s speedometer drops below 50 miles per hour.  Keanu Reeves’ character Jack Traven gets on the bus because he’s a police officer.  His opposite number, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), is merely a passenger who ends up driving the bus.  They bond over the course of the incident and are ready for a real date by the finale.

The adventure romance may shade over into a rescue romance, in which one character saves the other from some unfortunate fate, minor or major.  But this doesn’t have to be the case; it’s just as likely the protagonists will end up cooperating in achieving their goal, becoming what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”

A Precarious Bond

Speed neatly illustrates (and lampshades) the great strength of the adventure romance:  the stress and camaraderie of the adventure brings the couple together as “Fire-Forged Friends.”  I’m especially fond of this trope (see The World Around the Corner and Rescue Redux).  At the end of Speed, Jack tells Annie he’s heard that relationships “based on intense experiences” don’t work out, although they go ahead anyway.  Interestingly, the sequel bears that out; Annie has a new boyfriend—though that seems to have been a function of actor issues (Reeves declined to appear).

National Treasure trailer sceneA similar issue about the stability of adventure romances comes up in the sequel to National Treasure (2004), in which characters played by Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger came together over a plot to steal the original Declaration of Independence.  Their relationship has fallen apart by the time National Treasure 2 (1007) rolls around, but a new adventure gives them an opportunity to rekindle the spark.

Extraordinary Adventures

Since F&SF specializes in adventure, we see the meet-hard frequently in science fiction or fantasy works.  In the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars (1912), John Carter meets Dejah Thoris when she is captured by the green Martians among whom Carter is living, and he becomes her defender.

The principal couple in E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (first published 1928, revised book ed. 1946), Dick Seaton and Dorothy Vaneman, are already engaged when the story starts.  However, when Dorothy is kidnapped and Dick sets out in pursuit accompanied by his fast friend, Martin Crane, it turns out that Dorothy has a lovely fellow captive, Margaret Spencer.  Peggy and Martin form their own bond in the course of their epic space trip, and under these stressful conditions, it develops quickly enough that we get to see a double wedding on the planet Osnome.

The boy Shasta in The Horse and His Boy (1954), one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles, meets an aristocratic Calormene girl, Aravis, on the road (ch. 2), and they share the adventures from then on.  These characters are also too young for an actual romance, but Lewis dryly tells us at the end that “years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.”

Eilonwy and TaranAnother independent heroine, Eilonwy, has grown up living with a formidable witch, which is where Taran the young hero meets her in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964).  She engineers Taran’s escape, which in only the start of five novels’ worth of achievements and escapades, with a marriage at the end (once they’ve grown up).  Don’t even look at the Disney movie version of the story, but I do highly recommend Dawn Davidson’s graphic-novel adaptation, only partway through but very promising.

And, for an example that’s had a wider audience, in the Marvel movie Thor (2011) Jane Foster discovers the hero in the desert, where he’s just been dropped by an Einstein-Rosen wormhole.  Their adventures continue through two movies, although by the third episode, lamentably, they seem to have broken up.

Only Slightly Extraordinary Adventures

Not all stories of adventure need to have fantastic elements—although by definition an adventure takes us out of ordinary, mundane life.  The dangers and thrills of the real world are quite enough.

Romancing the Stone posterOne of my favorite comedy-romance-adventures is the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone, in which romance novelist Joan Wilder ventures out of her quiet writer’s world to come to the aid of her sister, captured by smugglers in South America.  The bus she’s riding in Colombia crashes into a jeep driven by an exotic-bird smuggler, Jack T. Colton.  (I will leave to the reader the task of deciding whether this should count as a bump-into-each-other encounter, or a vehicular failure.)  Jack and Joan end up as unlikely partners in a progressively (sorry, I can’t avoid it) wilder series of escapades that end in a romance—although this couple, too, will have to wait for a sequel to fully seal the deal.

As noted above, there are lots of romance novels in this category as well.  Many of them start with the mundane and develop complications as they go; for example, Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer’s Don’t Look Down (2006), which starts out filming a movie and ends up with (as Goodreads puts it) “trying to find out who’s taking ‘shooting a movie’ much too literally.”

There is a sort of degenerate form of the adventure romance (in the mathematical, not the moral, sense) in which characters that are thrown together in a thriller automatically pair up, whether there’s a reason for it or not.  A writer can lean on the “forged in fire” trope without doing the work of showing how the characters are actually drawn together by the excitement.  For example, I have on my shelf Gardner F. Fox’s The Hunter Out of Time (1965), which made an impression on me as a kid but which, in retrospect, I have to think of as a potboiler.  When the time agent from the future who meets “adventurer” Kevin Cord turns out to be a beautiful girl, one is hardly surprised they end up falling for each other, basically because they’re there.

The Wedding Planner posterSome of these examples illustrate the gray area between the meet-cute and the meet-hard.  Whether cuteness or crisis predominates depends on the context of the story.  For example, the leads in The Wedding Planner (2001) meet when Mary (Jennifer Lopez) gets her high-heeled shoe stuck in a manhole cover and “Eddie” Edison pulls her out of the way of a speeding dumpster.  It’s a genuine danger, but it doesn’t lead to a series of adventures; the overall setting is comic (as is the danger).  On the other hand, the leads in Ready Player One (2011) meet in a gaming context, but their developing relationship is action-driven.

Where the Meets Meet

The meet-cute and the meet-hard share some features with respect to how they function in a story.

Ready Player One posterThe style of the meeting can help set the tone for the story:  comic, adventurous, or something else.  This is true even in the mixed cases.  Mary’s predicament in The Wedding Planner is slightly silly:  she’s pinned down by getting her heel stuck, and the onrushing menace is not a Mack truck but a mundane dumpster.  Similarly, Wade and Samantha in Ready Player One meet via action games; that tone is maintained when the action spills over into real life and real danger.

Both meet-cute and meet-hard have the effect of accelerating a relationship.  They put the characters in contact with each other in a distinctive and memorable way.  The quirkiness of the encounter, something the characters have in common, cuts short the process of “getting to know you” with which ordinary relationships begin.  This is especially useful in movies, or short stories, where a limited time is available for a “slow burn” relationship to form.  In that respect, these devices are similar to the love-at-first-sight convention (the “stroke of lightning”).

Finally, these non-ordinary meetings reveal something about the characters:  how they deal with unusual situations.  Are they self-conscious or self-confident?  Do they come up with quick solutions to problems (whether or not involving umbrellas)?  Do they know how to take action in a crisis?  And, not least, do they have a sense of humor?  The exceptional nature of the first meeting shows us more about the participants than we’d see if they simply met at work, say, or introduced themselves in a bar.

Either the meet-cute or the meet-hard, then, can kick off a romance with style—though very different types of romance may develop.

The Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.

 

Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.