To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
Wine of the Dreamers
That is the title of a science-fiction novel from the pen of mystery writer John D. McDonald. In McDonald's tale, a race of extra-terrestrials had a vice: They would hook themselves up to a device that let their sleeping minds visit one of three switch-selected worlds and control a randomly selected inhabitant, playing games and conjuring up elaborate visions there. Waking, they took these for dreams, mere entertainment. But these were dreams with a difference; for the device reached out across space to affect the minds of people on Earth and two other planets. When a Dreamer, imagining itself as a strange alien life-form, had that alien make a disastrous mistake, it was a real individual who actually made the mistake, and the disaster was equally real.
Luckily, one of the Dreamers figures out the truth and puts a stop to the unhappy state of affairs.1
Such long-distance control is literally fantastic: possible only in fantasy. But it is fairly common on Earth for dreamers — those who imagine a future different from the present — to be regarded as fools at best, or enemies at worst. This is because, whatever the potential benefits of an imagined future relative to the status quo, the status quo is familiar and comfortable. It follows that those who propose change, or even suggest considering it, will often be opposed.
I advocate a different viewpoint. Inspiration has great (if under-appreciated) value; and the dreams of the past are the foundation of many things we depend on in real life today. For what Robert Goddard reportedly said is true: "It is difficult to say what is impossible; for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today, and the reality of tomorrow." Let us therefore honor the dreamers among us. Let us take their heady ideas not as a drug which will inevitably lead us to delusion and disaster, but as a beneficial source of inspiration.
This is not to say every new idea is worthwhile. Indeed, there are plenty of crackpot ideas floating around in search of gullible sponsors. As with wine, so it is with new ideas: moderate doses can free your thinking and improve your life, while overindulgence has the opposite effects. And it's always wise to consider the quality of the vintner.
So my objective is to present some cases where dreamers with good ideas met unreasonable opposition. They may or may not have won the day; sometimes they exhausted their means, only to see their ideas brought to fruition by others. Sometimes vindication came after their lives ended; then we look back and say, somewhat wistfully, "He was ahead of his time."
My first example is Robert Hutchings Goddard. He had considerable success despite inadequate support and public ridicule. Today he's known as the father of American rocketry. A link to his story is on the main menu.
1 I was misremembering parts of this tale (and also conflating it with another, whose title I can't recall.) I had the chance to read it again early in April 2010. I now set the record straight. The Dreamers actually called themselves Watchers, and in the beginning this was their valid purpose. Learning their sun was dying, they used their starships to set up three colony worlds. In order that these worlds should have time to mature to a stage where peaceful interaction was likelier than war, the Watchers would snuff out early development of space travel on any colony. But over time, they devolved, and lost the knowledge of their true purpose — until Raul Kinson was born with the drive to rediscover it and redeem the fates of all four worlds.