“Space…the final frontier.”
I’ve been a Trekkie since I was four. I grew up believing these words the way kids believe nursery rhymes: unthinkingly.
Grown up now, thinking about it, I know that it’s not Roddenberry’s fault. He didn’t invent the idea that space is the new American West, where a man might go to escape the restrictions of civilization and find his true nature in the solitude of his robots and computers. The opening words of Star Trek echo the zeigeist of early Heinlein, Lost in Space, and Forbidden Planet. Indeed, the series itself is more about how it takes over 400 people working together to keep the Enterprise space than it is a paean to the rugged individualist. But the deadly phrase shambles on in popular culture.
More recently, Charlie Stross has been doing a good job of tackling the persistent myth of the self-sufficient space colonist. I’m not sure I’m quite in accord with his minimum of a hundred million people to make it work, but I do agree that sustainable life in space will be more about cooperation and collaboration than self-reliance and isolation.
Here’s a scene that just doesn’t move into space:
There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.
In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small covered wagon. And close to it sat Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie, eating their breakfasts. The mustangs munched their corn, and Jack sat still, trying hard not to beg.
—Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
So if life in space is not like that, what is it like?
A space station or a generation ship will be a place carved out against a force of nature—vacuum—that would kill everyone deader than dirt in no time flat. Safety will come at the cost of constant maintenance, distributed responsibility, and ruthless social pressure to work together. It’ll be crowded, because every cubic meter must be built and defended. It’ll be resource-poor and at perpetual risk of many kinds of pollution. It’ll have to use its strengths wisely: people, local resources (if any), trade (if possible).
It will, in short, be the product of the same pressures that have made the Netherlands what it is today.
This isn’t purely my notion. Patrick Nielsen Hayden once remarked, while we were driving through the new province of Flevoland (completed 1986), “This is what a generation ship would look like!” He was right, in the sense that it’s land constructed to seem just natural enough to feel homelike. But he was also right in a deeper sense. The country as a whole has a lot in common with space habitats.
I’d like to break this idea out into specific examples, small and large, based on my observations of life here, and make it a collection of posts about building and inhabiting De Nieuwe Batavia, a new Netherlands in space.
That “enormous, empty prairie” may have been engineered by the locals.
I remember first encountering the libertarian spacer kind of guy when I was about twelve; some friends of my father’s who also happened to be computer programmers and SF fans. So I know what kind of guy Charles Stross is describing there.
Have you seen Freeman Dyson’s son’s book The Starship and the Canoe? Son of a space colony theorist becomes a boat builder and recreates boats used in Alaskan fishing villages.
It seems to me that another problem with “Space…the final frontier” is that space is more than one frontier. The colonization of Mars would be a project of much greater scale and difficulty than the colonizations of Earth orbit and Luna, and moving past that into the outer Solar System would be a greater scale of difficulty still.
Then there’s other stellar systems, this chunk of the Orion Arm, other arms, the rest of the galaxy, other galaxies….
Imagine the day when we’ve spread out over a radius of a couple-dozen light years, when people will read quaint, old-fashioned historical romances about the colonization of the Jovian moons (written in a parody of that funny old 23rd-century dialect), and speculate breathlessly about the possibility of traveling to the Large Magellanic Cloud.
The prairie most certainly was engineered by the locals. The book shows a bit of that engineering, and some of the characters recognize it as engineering, but they don’t see the long-term implications of it.
(I reread Little House on the Prairie when I was quote mining for this article, and because I was too sick with the flu to do anything more challenging. That is a book where the Suck Fairy, or many Suck Fairies, have been like borer beetles, leaving little trails of racism and exploitation. I was tempted to read more of the series, to remember what happened next, but came to the conclusion that a nice hot shower was a better idea.)
Sara: The prairies are funny. We have no real idea what they were like pre-contact. Not only was there the vast reduction in population (and by an unknowable amount), but the lifestyle of the people who were there in 1500, was radically different to those who were there in 1700, because the horse changed everything.
I’ve been re-reading the Little House books to the children (just the first four) and keep noticing how much support from “back East” the settlers did have. For instance- Pa didn’t have room to bring a plow to the prairie in the wagon so he went to Independence, Missouri and traded for one as well as for the foodstuffs they needed to see them through until they had crops. I read a lot of stuff from the off-the-grid/self-sufficiency crowd and they don’t seem to get that there is no “self-sufficient” system. You might be able to raise all of your own crops, meat and fiber for clothing, but unless you are going to build a mill (for example) the grain won’t do you much good. Unless you are willing to go back to a very primitive lifestyle you need input from other producers….
That’s the thing I’ve always liked about colonization type science fiction- it explicitly acknowledges the fact that we need each other….
Me, I gave up on the Space Frontier.
I remember the first Mercury flights.
And what was supposed to follow.
And it didn’t.
My current mental model is that space is like the internet.
It started out as a government thing, and gets only so far. But now it looks to be opening up — we’re seeing the very first private-enterprise mission capacity starting to edge in, and not just Richard Branson. (As usual, Charlie Stross is all over the story before I begin typing.)
I’m not delighted about Big Corporate being in space (Outland, anyone?), but at least we as a species seem to be going back up again. I suspect we’ll reorganize ourselves repeatedly once we’re out there: companies and governments will probably merge, split, cross over, and generally mix themselves up*. In that sense, space may be like a frontier.
Perhaps I am so calm about it because I long ago gave up on any chance of going into space myself. I figured out at about 15 that my chances in NASA were dramatically reduced by being female, and at 20 or so that my tendency toward motion sickness was a further handicap. My daughter has inherited both of these characteristics. Maybe one day my son will go.
* To the extent that they’re not doing it already, and haven’t been doing it since before the Teapot Dome.
Abi… I fervently we go Out There ourselves, and not just our wonderful robots. I guess my disappointment with today is because, when I was growing up, experts made too many promises that were probably more wishing-based than reality-based. Some like Pournelle would say that the Private Sector was the key to Space, especially if people like Jimmy Carter would stop getting in the way. The Private Sector is mostly run by smart-but-stupid people who have no real reason or incentive to think in the long terms needed for this enterprise.
And speaking of Enterprises… Space was the final frontier because it said we were our own frontier. To me, THE Star Trek episode is “The Corbomite Manoeuver”. It showed us willing to go into the Unknown and, when confronted by something that could be a threat, we didn’t abandon our qualities, and in fact became better people because of it.
I think what’s needed is a compelling reason to go to space. So long as it’s about super expensive taxpayer- or charity-funded adventures, our exploration of space will look like our exploration of Antartica–some scientists and their gear, some tourists, but nothing like people settling a new frontier. If we have a strong reason to be there, one that can sustain itself, then we’ll go there. That could be economic (industrial processes that need microgravity and human supervision), or military (the military base on the moon with the rock-throwing linear accelerator that allows the dictator to threaten any possible rivals with anhilation), or religious (a widespread belief that “be fruitful and multiply” means “go colonize nearby space.” But to the extent we’re just trying to set a new height record, it’s not so easy to get support for it.
I seem to remember an early episode of “B5” where Sinclair (yes, I am a Sinclair-loving heretic and PROUD of it!) is being interviewed and is asked about the cost of the whole station of of going around in space. His response involves the wisdom of not putting all of one’s eggs in the same basket.
Sinclair’s reasoning is a good one for staying in space once one’s got there, but until we’ve proved that it’s a viable venture, space is an extremely expensive gamble for very wooly returns. Here and now, we can’t even get many people to commit to spending money on LOOK YOUR GRANDCHILDREN WILL DIE problems.
My big hope, from albatross’ list at 10, is economic: industrial processes or resource exploitation. Mostly because I don’t see the religious rump overlapping enough with the techies, and it’s not my earnest desire to live under anyone’s lunar cannon.
True, Abi, and it’d probably be cheaper to stay on Earth and act like its rational caretakers. Most likely, economics will be the incentive, yes.
By the way, does anybody remember the early 1980s when Pournelle (him again) was beating the tub for Reagan’s Star Wars because he saw that as our tifcket into space. I’m not that smart, but I always saw a flaw in his logic. The whole point of Star Wars was to be at the highest vantage point so that we could shoot down anything anybody would throw at us. Let’s assume that it could have worked. Why would the people running SW then let anybody go beyond Earth’s orbit so that they cdould be shot in the back?
Wilder wrote Little House on the Prairie as an anti-tax tract. Like so many, she ignored the immense subsidies and dependence of the settlers. They were relying on the resources of a civilization that could produce iron plows, guns, nails, woven cloth and countless other pieces of technology that one would be hard pressed to make on one’s own. Their homes were made from white pine shipped from northern Michigan. They also relied on the cavalry, i.e. the government, for when things got rough with the locals. After all, American Land Reform worked by taking land from its rightful owners and turning it over to the workers. That’s where Marx got his land reform idea, turning over the means of production to the people. Very few settlers were completely outside the cash economy. An awful lot of them relied on the railroads and the merchant marine for access to markets for their products, whether grown on the farm or extracted from the wild.
For a good Marxist take on the American west, watch John Wayne as a Marxist cadre in Red River or read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in which the workers seize the means of production on a lunar colony.
I can find no evidence that Wilder wrote the book with any message about taxation. It’s certainly never mentioned in the text, and I don’t recall any of the series being that explicitly political. They were intended as children’s books, not tracts on any adult subject (that was why, for instance, she left out the death of her brother; she felt it was too sad a story for kids). There was an episode of the TV series that dealt with taxation, but that was a modern-day political injection.
Having said that, the characters in the book do assert a good deal more independence than they really can justify. The little house itself was made from local timber (Pa cut it from the creek bed and split it himself), but many of their luxuries and necessities were sourced elsewhere. For instance, you never hear of anyone in the series spinning or weaving, though they all have cloth. And although the family are homesteaders in the beginning of the series, Pa ends up managing a hotel for a while, which is a job squarely in the cash economy.
And I agree that the series, and the mindset they engender, are very much part of the anti-tax subculture in th US.
I’m also not convinced that Marx needed to look to the American West for land reform; the idea of turning the means of production over to the people is a better fit with things he could see closer to home, where people were already living on and working land that they did not own. I’d really want to see a scholarly citation for that before I’d buy the notion.
Note, too, that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I have read more times than I can count, is not a very Marxist book. It’s not a workers’ revolution against an owning class, but a colonists’ rebellion against distant political leaders. It’s much more akin to 1776 than 1918. That’s consistent with Heinlein’s politics, too. He wasn’t a communist, or even a socialist. Nowhere near it, in fact.
If you’re looking science fiction with a socialist bent, I’d suggest The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull, or many of the works of Ken MacLeod, such as The Star Fraction. You might also want to read some reviews of books by China Miéville; I gather he writes in that area, but reviewers will know for sure.
Abi… I actually saw that episode of “Little House”. If I remember correctly, everybody is grumbling about those onerous taxations until someone points out that taxation is the price of a democratic society. Oh, and that someone is an immigrant from an undemocratic place – the Czar’s Russia.