Farrell: Space plans stir up old fights in science fiction

Henry Farrell

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos on Thursday debuted a new lunar landing module, to be constructed by his space exploration company, Blue Origin.

As he has in previous speeches, Bezos – who also owns The Washington Post – made it clear that the moon is only the beginning. He wants to help kick-start a new multigenerational era of space exploration, which would culminate in millions of human beings living in space colonies.

His vision is spurred by the ideas of the physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who proposed such colonies a generation ago, but it is firmly embedded in debates within science fiction. O’Neill was engaged in fights that spanned science fiction and space exploration. New fights have emerged over the intervening decades. These fights help to explain the politics around Bezos’s proposal.

O’Neill was opposed to traditional proposals for space colonisation, which aimed at colonising planets. In his presentation, Bezos played excerpts from a famous televised argument between O’Neill and the famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov over the genre’s lack of imagination. Asimov used the term “planetary chauvinism” to refer to the systematic bias of science fiction toward planetary exploration. O’Neill proposed an alternative vision in which human beings would not seek to colonise planets, but instead build their own enclosed cylindrical space habitats.

Some people – including Bezos’s chief rival in privatised space entrepreneurship, Elon Musk – have taken up the traditional idea of colonising other planets. Musk wants to get people to Mars. Bezos attended O’Neill’s lectures and was clearly convinced by many of his arguments.

The more fundamental debate is over whether human beings should colonise space at all. Charles Stross, for example, has written a classic rejoinder to both O’Neill’s arguments about the ‘High Frontier’ of space and proposals for planetary colonisation. Space is really big, and really hostile to DNA-based life. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of a classic series of books about ‘terraforming’ Mars to make it more friendly to human life has written a novel about interstellar exploration, ‘Aurora’, that is clearly intended to push back against the fascination with space exploration as an alternative to fixing our problems on Earth.

One side of this fight is driven by concerns over inequality and global warming. Writers like Robinson worry that we have only one world – and we are screwing it up. They suggest that dreams of solar and extrasolar colonisation are ways of ducking the real fight over figuring out how to prevent the one environment that we know human beings can inhabit – the planet Earth – from being irrevocably degraded.

The other side is driven by the belief that there are effectively infinite resources available – once human beings figure out how to sustain a version of their civilisation in space. Bezos argues that human beings either face a future of rationed resources or a future of infinitely expanding possibilities. He wants human beings to make the leap to space – and is prepared to put billions of dollars behind this ambition.

Unsurprisingly, this disagreement sometimes spills over into politics. The prominent science fiction writer Neal Stephenson’s recent novel ‘Seveneves’ depicts humans having to flee the Earth at short notice when it becomes uninhabitable. One of the major characters is a thinly disguised and unsympathetic portrait of Hillary Clinton. Poul Anderson’s 1989s novel, ‘The Boat of a Million Years’, presents an equally unflattering caricature of a politician based on the-late senator Edward Kennedy impeding the space program in favour of social spending. Other novels by writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi depict humans trapped in a world that has been ruined by global warming, while the triple Hugo-winning ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy by N.K. Jemisin shows humans being overwhelmed by vast geological forces.

To say that these fights are science fictional is not to dismiss them. As writers like the late Thomas Disch have emphasised, science fiction has had an extraordinarily influential role in setting the scale of our social ambitions (Disch lamented that the literary science fiction writers whom he favoured, like Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe and Paul Park, had less influence than those who were more interested in the engineering). Science fiction (and closely associated forms of nonfiction) provide the basic intellectual vocabulary that we use to think about big issues that connect technology, society and the environments we live in. As these issues become existential, science fiction is becoming increasingly important.

Henry Farrell is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. © 2019, Washington Post News Service

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