Kage Baker was fascinated with the many and various robotic space vehicles mankind has launched over the last 50-odd years. She wasn’t that taken with the romance of space ships; it was the intrepid machines that really caught her fancy. She adored cunning machinery, and the human race has produced nothing so cunning as the space probes and rovers.
Part of the fascination was that it all happened during her actual lifetime – no other generation before us has been able to watch the heavens open up and reveal their secrets as we have. I was the fanatic who watched every televised launch and live-from-space broadcast, but Kage was acutely aware that the subject matter was unique. She did point out to me, though, that the phenomenon itself was not – it’s happened over and over, whenever a frontier is reached and crossed. There is always a primary generation for whom the world abruptly becomes wider and stranger – who learns the new geography, the exotic foods and names and technologies for the very first time. Not so long ago, it was covered wagons and the American West; shortly before that, it was sailing ships and the Mysterious East.
It’s always been something, somewhere. Archeology has pretty strong hints that at some point it was rafts and how to cook a wallaby. Kage thought that was at least as fascinating as rocket ships and space colonies – the intrepid folks who made it to Australia were still using stone tools. She made some notes on the feat for a story …
But it was the Voyagers I and II, and the Huygens lander, and the heroic Mars Rovers that really captured Kage’s heart. It was the pictures, I think. They sent back pictures of where they were; photos of things no one had ever seen. Other worlds. The light on landscapes no human had ever walked. When Huygens sent back the ground level photos of its landing on Titan, Kage was beside herself. “That’s a beach!” she said. “That’s damned littoral environment!”
“Um – there’s no water on Titan,” I pointed out. But Kage – who sat through biology class with her scarf tied over her face and never, ever took chemistry – was miles ahead of me.
“There’s liquid, isn’t there? Some kind of liquid?” she demanded. “I know what a beach looks like, and that is a beach! Something out there has waves and tides and mud! It may not be life, but it’s a living planet!”
And with every passing year since then, it looks like she was right. She trusted the machine eyes that showed her that most foreign of shores, and believed their evidence.
It was the photos and stills of Mars that she loved best, though. She studied them avidly; she often wrote with a second window open on her computer, showing some Martian scene that intrigued her. The dust devils were among her favourites, and the sun setting … she’d play them over and over, gazing out onto alien landscapes in total satisfaction. The machines had not failed. They promised goodies and they duly delivered. Kage joined the club that thought of the Mars Rovers as some kind of stalwart men-at-arms, prowling out there at the edge of the unknown, writing letters back to home.
She also loved the Rovers because they justified her personal idea of what Mars was like. They proved a lot of her guesses and speculations about Mars. They made Empress of Mars harder science fiction. She liked that.
I am glad she was gone before Spirit got into trouble up there. It would have made her so sad.
Right now, Voyager I is reaching the heliopause – that ultimate (as far as we know) border of the solar system. After 30-odd years it is about to cross into intersteller space and head to meet its destiny – which we all sincerely hope will not involve coming back to whup our planetary ass. Voyager I has never stopped sending information: in fact, the knowledge there even is a discrete border to the solar system is something we didn’t know until Voyager found it. In a few years, it will cross that line of electromagnetic energy. Look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11988466
For centuries, astronomers thought the solar system was surrounded by literal shells of matter: crystal spheres were a popular choice. Classical scientists like Eudoxus, Aristotle, Aristarchus and Ptolemy calculated that their numbers ranged form three to fifty-five (which does seem excessive, but it was Aristotle’s idea so no one threw it out).
Now, it turn out there really is a shell – only it’s energy, not matter, and as far as we can tell there is only the one. Of course, we didn’t know even the one was there until the cunning machine got close enough to see it. And soon, Voyager I will cross and sail on, still functioning …
There’s a beach on Titan. The sands of Mars are real. The crystal spheres are real. The cunning machines are forging on, carrying us with them. Kage would have liked that.