“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.