I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Serious Space: Ikarie XB-1 and Mature Science Fiction

by Joe DeMartino
July 24, 2011

Movies lie to you all the time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a limitation of the medium. Timescales are compressed because no one wants to watch a six-hour movie. Historical storylines are omitted because a tightly-focused film is better than one that skips all over the place. Machine gun bullets skip merrily around the ankles of action movie heroes, never touching them as they run from through open fields, because the audience would rebel if the protagonist was plugged by an AK bullet in his first firefight. We leave these little bubbles of unreality unpopped because to do so would be needlessly pedantic.

There’s one genre, however, that lies to you so often and so egregiously that it’s probably harming your knowledge of the universe. With very few exceptions, science fiction presents to you a version of space and space travel that's entirely at odds with what (we think) it’ll probably be like. The movie you’re about to watch, Ikarie XB-1, is a rarity among sci-fi films in that it actually attempts to present a realistic portrayal of space travel, despite special effects that have the eponymous ship hanging in space by nearly-visible wires.

We’ve got to get through a bit of a primer on time and distance first. The term “light-year” is tossed around a lot in science-fiction with little explanation. It’s the distance light travels in one year, a convenient unit of measurement because of the incredible distances between even the closest stars. Our nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri C (which the crew of the Ikarie are travelling to) is approximately four light-years away from our sun, which doesn’t sound like a lot save for two factors:

  1. Light travels at 186,262 miles per second, which means that four light-years is about 23 trillion miles.

  2. Nothing, to the best of our knowledge, can travel faster than light.

To give a sense of just how intimidating these figures are, consider the Voyager probes, specifically Voyager 1. It’s currently both the fastest man-made object ever invented, and the one farthest from Earth. Voyager 1 is cruising along at about 33,000 miles per hour, or about .005% of the speed of light. We launched it in 1977, and it’s worked great so far, but in terms of interstellar travel, it’s Just. So. Slow. It’s only just now exiting the outer reach of the solar system. It took 34 years to get that far, but a ship moving at light speed (such as the Ikarie) would catch up to it in about sixteen hours. The Ikarie will make it to their destination in a little more than two years -- Voyager would come in a distant second about 70,000 years later.

So: space is big, and you need to be fast to get where you need to go in anything resembling a reasonable timeframe. The other thing that comes into play when considering this is: when you travel at light-speed, time seems to pass slower for you than it would for an outside observer. The crew of the Ikarie will see 28 months pass in their journey, but their Earth-bound observers will experience it as 15 years. This actually applies even at slower speeds -- if you travel on a plane from New York to China, at standard jumbo-jet speeds, you’ll come off that plane having lost a fraction of a second. Nothing all that notable on a round-the-world trip, but a round-the-stars trip would have a devastating effect on the travelers in question and their families.

Ikarie XB-1 treats these problems as actual problems, not as inconveniences to be handwaved away. The point of, say, Star Wars was never to be scientifically accurate, and it’s unfair to judge it on those merits, but it’s still a bit jarring to see how idly it treats speed and distance. Messages are sent across vast gulfs of space with as much thought and effort as sending an e-mail. Star systems seem to be no more than a day’s cruise away from one another. Luke Skywalker casually fucks off to an ostensibly distant star system at one point (and does so in a single-man fighter with barely any provisions) and it’s treated as something of a charming lark. The laws of physics only vaguely apply to Luke and his compatriots, whereas Ikarie has as one of its first scenes the devastating portrayal of an astronaut trying to communicate with his wife back on Earth, who will have aged fifteen years to his two by the time his voyage is done. He can’t even get through an entire conversation before the ship accelerates to the point where further communication with her is impossible.

Space is desolation. There is beauty to be found in it, for sure, but there’s a reason it’s called space -- even the largest stars* take up a bare few hundred million miles of real estate in a universe in which light can traverse that distance in an hour. Between planets: nothing. Between stars: more nothing. Between galaxies: an incomprehensible amount of nothing. To wit: our galaxy, the Milky Way, is on a collision course with the smaller Andromeda Galaxy. They’re moving toward one another at a speed of about eighty miles per second. They’ll collide in five billion years.

*The largest star we’ve observed so far is VY Canis Majoris, about 4,900 light years from Earth. If you put it in the sun’s position in our solar system, it would extend out past Saturn. It’s so big that it’s going to burn out and explode within a hundred thousand years. No worries, though, it’s probably too far away for the blast from the hypernova to hit us. Probably.

Ikarie’s makers must have known the psychological effect such isolation would have on a crew of astronauts, because in the time where the Ikarie’s crew are not maintaining the ship or navigating, they’re engaging in heavily social activities -- playing games, conversing, exercising -- even attending a formal social ball at one point. In the event that we plan on sending astronauts to the stars and don’t want to put them in a kind of cryosleep, it’ll be incredibly important for them to take their minds off the practically infinite darkness surrounding them.

It’s not perfect by any means, but Ikarie XB-1 is surprisingly mature for its time. Space is as daunting an enemy and as challenging a venture as any we’re likely to ever encounter. It’s a credit to Ikarie that they’re willing to treat it as a monster unto itself.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.