In space no one can hear you dream
by Dwayne Day
|The Expanse is the closest depiction of what space settlement advocates must see when they dream—and yet it is not a very positive vision of the future.|
The past decade has been a pretty good one for fans of science fiction about the near-term future of space exploration, what some have dubbed “solar sci-fi” because it takes place in our solar system. There have been quite a few good movies set in that environment, along with a current TV show, with even more in the works. But this does not inherently help those who advocate space settlement. We may have seen our space settlement future, and it kinda sucks.
There is a long and growing list of movies set either in a version of our present-day space program, or the very near future. In 2009 there was the excellent and under-appreciated Moon. In 2013, in addition to the blockbuster Gravity, there was also the big budget Elysium, featuring a massive rotating space station, and the oft-overlooked Europa Report. The next year featured Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. And 2015 featured the heavily-praised The Martian. Although all of them took some liberties with physics and engineering, for the most part they depicted recognizable, quasi-realistic visions of spaceflight.
That same genre of solar sci-fi is also coming to television. Spike TV announced plans to air a series based upon Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy. Recently Ian McDonald’s book about a society on the Moon, Luna: New Moon, was optioned for television, and a movie based upon Robert Heinlein’s influential book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was reported to be in development. But the most notable and obvious example is the SyFy network’s current series The Expanse, which recently finished its first season and has been renewed for a second. The Expanse is based upon the best-selling series of novels by James S.A. Corey (actually a pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and is set a few hundred years in the future in a settled solar system where people on Earth, Mars, and in the asteroid belt all maneuver for advantage. It is the closest depiction of what space settlement advocates must see when they dream—and yet it is not a very positive vision of the future.
Entertainment, whether it’s movies or television, has to be, well, entertaining. That usually requires conflict. The solar sci-fi movies of recent years certainly had it: things go bad, people start to die, and even if the film ends on a positive note it may not be very uplifting. Gravity ends with low Earth orbit being so filled with debris that it is uninhabitable. Interstellar was touted as a movie where spaceflight saves humanity, but in the end, Earth is uninhabitable. Elysium was really little more than a class-war analogy, and the space station is only really accessible to the incredibly wealthy; Earth is a polluted hellhole. In Europa Report everybody dies, but they do so while discovering a new life form on Jupiter’s icy moon. The Martian is the one film that doesn’t really end on a downer. But if there is an overriding theme to all of these movies it is that space is dangerous and will kill you dead, and many have the inherent theme that humanity probably doesn’t belong in space to begin with. Gravity hammers that home in its opening scene with the words “Life in space is impossible.” Subtle it is not.
|Launius observed that human spaceflight, like religion, has its immortality myths, its revered leaders and condemned villains, its sacred texts, and its rituals, rules, and shared experiences.|
The Expanse continues this theme. Space settlement is not depicted as a wonderful, liberating, and uplifting experience. The residents of the asteroid belt complain about being oppressed by Earth and harassed by Mars, but the influence is much more economic than political—even if the Belters have achieved some kind of limited independence out there in the void, they still have to buy and sell stuff, and they feel exploited by their clients and their customers. Plus, they’re poor, and dirty, and cold, and generally miserable. What, exactly, is so appealing about living in space if your life is nothing but a constant struggle simply to breathe or not run out of water?
Historian Roger Launius, in his essay “Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion” in the journal Astropolitics, noted the similarities between human spaceflight enthusiasts and adherents, and what we understand as traditional religion. For much of the history of the space age the comparisons have often been blatant, with spaceflight leaders such as Chris Kraft and Wernher von Braun, as well as numerous political leaders such as Ronald Reagan, talking about spaceflight in quasi, or even literally, religious terms. Launius observed that human spaceflight, like religion, has its immortality myths, its revered leaders and condemned villains, its sacred texts, and its rituals, rules, and shared experiences. According to Launius, “The belief system has its saints, martyrs, and demons; sacred spaces of pilgrimage and reverence; theology and creed; worship and rituals; sacred texts; and a message of salvation for humanity, as it ensures its future through expansion of civilization to other celestial bodies.”
These religious aspects can be found throughout the writings of spaceflight advocates, the self-styled missionaries of the spaceflight religion. One of the most common arguments for space settlement is to achieve immortality for humankind by moving a portion of humanity off of Earth in event of catastrophe. The Space Review regularly publishes these kinds of appeals to transcendence. The advocates argue that humankind could be wiped out by natural disaster—typically a meteor strike—and settling the Moon and Mars would help avoid the species being wiped out (see “Settling space is the only sustainable reason for humans to be in space”, The Space Review, February 1, 2016). Other threats include manmade ones like war and environmental destruction. Often lost in these arguments is the fact that settlements in space would be highly vulnerable to human threats and simple mistakes. After all, blow an airlock and your Moon colony could suffocate; break the water purifier and the Mars base could die. Space is indeed a harsh mistress, with death much more easily possible than on Earth.
But beyond simply the ability to achieve immortality for humanity, there has often been a utopian aspect to space advocacy, a belief that space settlement will allow for the creation of new societies, coupled with a belief that these societies will be better than those on Earth. Robert Zubrin has advocated a version of this vision, claiming that the challenges of settling Mars will produce incredible technological rewards and a renewal of the American spirit. Many other space settlement advocates believe that space settlements offer the opportunity to throw off the shackles of oppressive government and start a new society, with fewer rules and a fantastic view of the lunar surface. As author Charles Stross noted six years ago, this view is often tied to mythology of the settlement of the American West, and a mistaken understanding of just how inappropriate that analogy is.
|The frustration with NASA, and even Elon Musk, that can be easily found in the writings of space enthusiasts is little different than what first appeared in 1952: There’s a universe waiting for us, we should go and settle it. Now!|
Within the broader self-identifying community there are in fact many villains as well, such as Richard Nixon for ending Apollo, or Senator Walter Mondale for opposing it. Senator William Proxmire used to be a convenient villain when he regularly condemned NASA spending as wasteful. But whereas these attitudes might best describe the more mainstream space advocate community, in the past several decades there has emerged a vocal minority that has taken aim at NASA itself as the impediment to achieving space nirvana. An oft-repeated claim is that the agency prevents space development and settlement, either through benign neglect by being too slow, bloated, and bureaucratic to achieve the dream, or through active opposition to the efforts of others, like Dennis Tito’s private flight to the space station 15 years ago. Whereas NASA officials and even mid-level bureaucrats have often been portrayed as apostates to the space development cause, there have been recent hints that some space activists are growing impatient even with those who have so far been treated with saintly reverence (see “Elon Musk and the SpaceX Odyssey”, The Space Review, January 25, 2016).
In his essay, Launius discusses sacred texts in human spaceflight, noting that a primary example appears to be the series of articles that appeared in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the early 1950s that were highly influential in establishing and shaping expectations for human spaceflight in the United States. The very first issue started with the question “What are we waiting for?” and its hint of urgency and exasperation has flowed throughout the space advocacy community ever since. The frustration with NASA, and even Elon Musk, that can be easily found in the writings of space enthusiasts is little different than what first appeared in 1952: There’s a universe waiting for us, we should go and settle it. Now!
There are other sacred texts for human spaceflight adherents, particularly those with libertarian political leanings who view space settlement as a means of creating better societies. Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon is one such text, serving as an example that an individual can accomplish in space what government cannot. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another influential text for the space settlement proselytizers. Considering that it is modeled on the American Revolution, it resonates with Americans who believe that political renewal is possible by overthrowing the shackles of the old government.
Which brings us back to The Expanse. In some ways the series is every space settlement advocate’s dream. Not only are there settlements on Mars and elsewhere, but they have achieved, to differing degrees, their own form of self-government, and certainly their own increasingly unique cultures. Both Mars and the Belters do not want to be ruled by Earth’s government, which they do not believe reflects their own interests.
|Space advocates need popular entertainment to provide positive depictions of humanity’s future in space, not negative ones. They need a culture that is not hostile to their religion, and so far they haven’t gotten that.|
The series has been praised by many fans of the books for effectively transferring the story from page to television, but also adapting it in clever ways, such as introducing a key character much earlier in the story so as to develop more continuity between the different plot threads. One element of the books that has not been carried over so far is the fact that poverty is not exclusive to the Belters—Earth still has its poor people as well—and not all Belters are working-class joes. But so far the show has depicted space settlement as less than appealing, exploitative, and barely contained class warfare. Even establishing a home far out in space has not freed the people from the hardships of existence, the inequalities of capitalism, or the meddling of Earth. Space settlement is not a heaven; it is often hell. And as is all too clear, there is the ever-present possibility of war, manmade destruction, colony collapse, and mass death.
Life is not entertainment and entertainment is not life. But space advocates need popular entertainment to provide positive depictions of humanity’s future in space, not negative ones. They need a culture that is not hostile to their religion, and so far they haven’t gotten that, not even from the most sophisticated portrayal of solar sci-fi to date. Dying of asphyxiation or starvation on Ceres is not an appealing vision, and none of these examples of popular entertainment have provided a satisfactory explanation of why humanity should spread out into the solar system. So far popular entertainment is not helping. Perhaps somewhere right now a space advocate is penning the next great movie about humans moving beyond low Earth orbit, one where the achievement may involve struggle, but where the payoff is greater than simply survival against all odds. After all, survival is a heck of a lot easier by simply staying on Earth.