SF great Fritz Leiber’s short story “The Beat Cluster” appeared in the October, 1961, issue of Galaxy magazine, and has been reprinted several times. Its premise is a Fifties-style space station like the one in the opening scenes of 2001, built by a sizeable work force and inhabited by good, upright strivers — but having attached to it a series of balloon-like structures inhabited by beatniks who came there originally as construction workers and decided to stay on, improvising habitats from inflatable structures originally intended as temporary fuel storage. The “Beats” occupy themselves with poetry, jazz, and the making of “guck”, algae and water in smaller balloons that must be gently agitated in the zero-gee conditions so that it can produce oxygen and precursors to foodstuffs. “Rocking the guck” (you’d have to have been somewhat tuned in to “beat culture” in the early Sixties to get all the implications of that) is an essentially mindless occupation all the inhabitants of the Cluster engage in while composing poetry or music, or thinking about new space-related inventions, which they can do because they’re all ex-workers on the station.

In the story, a new administrator declares the Beats parasites who must be returned to Earth and their habitats collapsed to relieve the burden on the station’s resources. The ex-officio leader of the Beats composes a poem:

Gonna be a pang, leavin’ space
Gonna be a pang.

Being both politically and technically adept, he then proceeds to collect and present conclusive evidence that providing entertainment for the crew of the station — poetry, music, and (erm…) visits with the free-thinking ladies of the cluster — combined with the large positive contribution of oxygen and food feedstocks provided by guck-production and technical innovations contributed by the Beats, adds up to a net benefit to the station that will be expensive to replace if the Beats are sent away. The administrator relents (fairly gracefully, IIRC); the Beats can stay, and the leader adds a line to his poem:

Gonna be a pang, leavin’ space
Gonna be a pang.
So we won’t go.

Now Rand Simberg, among others, notes the existence of Bigelow Aerospace, whose basic concept is inflatable orbital structures. Bigelow prefer the word “expandable” over “inflatable” because of the connotations of fragility implied by the latter, but that’s the concept — the outer skin of the habitat is made of flexible material and the inner structures are neatly folded, so that it can be launched in compact form and become comfortably large once in space. It’s not a simple balloon or bowser like the ones in the story, and the concept is well regarded (if sometimes uncomfortably) — prototypes have been launched and successfully deployed. It looks like a good way to provide astronauts and potential space tourists with large, relatively comfortable quarters for long-duration missions, including adjuncts to the International Space Station and even going to Mars. Further developments, to be used as habitats on the Moon or Mars, are already in the conceptual stages.

Of course it’s unlikely that Bigelow’s structures will be inhabited by beatniks. Among other things, there aren’t any more beatniks because their successors, the hippies, have rejected both the basically libertarian ideals of the beats and the connections with larger society (including technical competence) that the beatniks considered important. None the less, it would seem that here is another example of science fiction making a somewhat-accurate prediction of the future. Perhaps Bigelow should provide a few guitars among the otherwise highly technological appurtenances of their habitats.

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