A Brief History of the Future: Reflections on the Death of Space Travel

Niko_casino_hist_spaceman

Drawing by Clare Boucher, published with the original in Casino Magazine, 2009.

NASA will launch a mission in 2009 called Kepler to monitor nearly 200,000 stars for the shadows of planets the size of Earth. Let’s say we find dozens or hundreds of Earths, or even thousands, as some astronomers predict. What then?
—Robert Irion, National Geographic, Special Edition: ‘Space: The Once and Future Frontier’ October 2008

I

What we owe to the future has never been so much in debate as it is now. So radically opposed to our age-old conventions of worship for our forebears, environmentalism of the past decade or so has steadfastly consisted of admonitions about “taxing future generations”, keeping the earth a liveable place for our children, and so on.

There is something inevitably religious about our beliefs about the future. But climate change, peak oil, and the spectre of a water crisis are for the first time beginning to challenge the fatalistic apathy with which we have always treated our planet. And the revelation of our dependence upon the earth could not come at a more inauspicious moment in history. Whereas the mythologies that have for centuries dominated our conceptions of the future had been derived from narratives of conquests and utopias, our slow abandonment of the project of extra-terrestrial colonisation demands a drastic reworking of the projected destination of humanity. The notion that the colonial endeavour of exploration and adventure that began in the 15th century would continue for ever – that we would go on to visit other planets, the inhabitants of which would be strange, intelligent, sexy, ugly, and evil beyond our wildest dreams – was dominant just a generation ago. The death of colonial mythology as the dominant trope of Western social narrative has been a relatively recent and sudden occurrence.

II

The biblical precept of the afterlife of civilization has been the foundation of the pervasive belief in the transiency and the expendability of the Earth. The narratives of the rapture, the ascent to the heavens, the second coming, and the New Jerusalem all implied that the planet’s existence is incidental to our own. That the ultimate destruction of our environment would simply encompass a transportation into the parallel universe of angels and clouds has underpinned a Christian apathy towards the environment for as long as we’ve had the means to destroy it. So ecstatic have our religious conceptions of the end of times been that the hope that Armageddon would take place within one’s own lifetime has been a recurrent generational theme in Christian eschatology. They imbue the future with the kind of hope that reassures us that there will be more, that we will be more; the kind of hope, says Stephen Jay Gould, “that does the damage”.

III

If Christianity amounted to a negation of the religious reverence for the earth that had characterised most polytheisms, it also underpinned the millenarian justifications for colonial capitalism in the European Age of Exploration. The symbiotic understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature having been deposed by the book of Genesis, nature becomes the frame of reference against which we measure the progress and greatness of our species.

IV

Millenarianism – defined by David Noble as “the expectation that the end of the world is near and that, accordingly, a new earthly paradise is at hand” – became an increasingly active endeavour as exploration progressed, spurned by the immediate problem of scarcity that became evident as uncharted territory gradually faded away. Christopher Columbus himself believed that his discovery of the Edenic New World was a harbinger of the Second Coming.

The fervour of the millenarian expectations of Armageddon and the New Jerusalem that had characterised the era of the Crusades was paralleled in the colonial era by a tremendous proliferation of utopian, and eventually extra-terrestrialist narratives. In the 17th and 18th centuries, space travel – as a mythological means of disposing of the earth in favour of an infinite human purview – began its gradual usurpation of the Rapture. Nature, wrote John Milton, “would surrender to man as its appointed governor, and his rule would extend from command of the earth and seas to dominion over the stars.”

And so from the contradictions of our religious and extra-terrestrialist future-myths – those between the real problem of scarcity and the fantasy that it would soon be solved – comes the oxymoronic nature of “science-fiction”.

V

The term was coined by William Wilson in 1851, less than three decades after the invention of the word “technology” by Harvard Professor Jacob Bigelow. Wilson believed science-fiction “likely to fulfill a good purpose, and create an interest, where science alone might fail.”

Sci-fi is generally seen as having been born with the second-century Assyrian rhetoritician Lucian of Samosata whose True History was written with the intent of parodying storytellers “who wrote such fantastic histories, pretending to tell all about their travels, and describing the huge beasts, the savage people, and the strange ways of life that they encountered in foreign lands.” Lucian’s hero is lifted, by means of a massive waterspout, to the moon, where he encounters a people whose “mucus is a pungent honey; and after hard work they sweat milk all over, which a drop or two of the honey curdles into cheese.” The hero is enlisted in the Moonites’ epic battle with the Sunites, some of whom attack by slinging “monstrous radishes” at their enemy, and fight using mushrooms as shields and asparagus stalks as spears. But despite this being the first known depiction of battle in outer space, the satirical nature of True History sets it definitively apart from the earnestly colonial accounts of exploration and conquest that  would emerge fourteen centuries later.

VI

A major precedent for the millennial optimism that characterised the genre until the twentieth century was set in 1516 with the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia – the term itself a synthesis of the Greek “ou” (“not”), and “topos” (“place”). More had been inspired by Amerigo Vespucci’s accounts of his encounters with the native inhabitants of the New World. But markedly at odds with most contemporary conceptions of utopia, and with indigenous civilisations of Vespucci’s journals, More’s Utopians were a fanatically religious slaveholding and colonial society, whose ethos of territorial expansion was underpinned by what they perceived as their own economic primacy: “If the natives refuse to conform to their laws,” wrote More, “they drive them out of those bounds which they mark out for themselves, and use force if they resist, for they account it a very just cause of war for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated.” The assumption that land rightfully belongs to whomever can turn the highest profit from it has endured ever since.

While More’s Utopia ultimately proved a prototype of the settler societies that went on to develop in the Americas, it also established a genre of Christian literature surrounding exploration that would characterise the millennial optimism of early European colonialism. Whereas societal redemption had long been tied to the idea of a figurative return to the prelapsarian state of Eden, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the millennial designs for the perfect society were diverted from the author’s immediate surroundings to the promise of territorial conquest. Sir Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626), Tomasso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623), Samuel Hartlib’s Macaria (1641), James Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) – each depicted a perfect civilisation located beyond the borders of charted territory.

VII

“It is likely enough that there may be a means invented of journeying to the moon; and how happy they shall be that are first successful in this attempt,” wrote the English clergyman John Wilkins in 1640. The trend of speculative utopianism in the seventeenth century had quickly given rise to a literary genre still more radical than that of Bacon’s and More’s, and it was particularly during this era that our fatalistic approach to the earth, our belief in its disposability, established itself in a more secular discourse. Spurned by the tremendous success of the conquest of the New World and the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, outer space was increasingly seen as the next frontier of human dominion. Campanella, for instance, in his Apologia pro Galileo, was among the first to claim that paradise exists not on earth, but on the moon, which still lay immaculate of human sin.

Johannes Kepler’s Somnium, published posthumously in 1634, is generally seen as marking the birth of fictionalised space travel and modern sci-fi. It was hastily followed by Wilkins’ Discovery of a New World in the Moone (1638), and A Man in the Moone: A Discourse of the Voyage Thither (1638) by Francis Godwin, as well as the more satirical tales of extra-terrestrial exploration of Cyrano de Begerac. Kepler, one of the most important physicists and astronomers of his time, followed Campanella’s belief in the necessity, and divinity, of extra-terrestrial settlement. Himself a devout Christian, Kepler wrote in a letter to Galileo that as a means of escaping the oncoming apocalypse, humanity should “create vessels and sails adapted to the heavenly ether.”

IIX

Aerial flight was achieved for the first time in 1783, when the Mongolfier brothers, owners of a paper mill in southern France, brought their newly-invented hot air balloon to the court of Louis XVI. Fictional works about journeys to the moon had continued intermittently throughout the eighteenth century, but the advent of air travel renewed a cultural obsession with outer space in Europe and North America. A major sensation of these years was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall, (1835) in which the delinquent hero escapes from Rotterdam in a balloon, eventually to land on the moon.

But Poe’s story was eclipsed soon after by a series of articles in the New York Sun reporting that life had been discovered on the lunar surface. The author claimed that Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer based in South Africa, had observed a lunar habitat populated by such exotic creatures as unicorns, goats and humanoids. The rumours created a tremendous frenzy of excitement amongst its readers; the New York Times reported that “the accounts of the wonderful discoveries on the moon are all probable and plausible, and have an air of intense verisimilitude.” The reports were eventually exposed as a hoax, but the West’s fascination with space travel continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century, culminating with writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells producing such best-sellers as From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and War of the Worlds (1898).

IX

The millennial fervour surrounding space travel went on to reach its apogee in the mid-twentieth century before beginning its gradual decline into a relatively marginal subculture. Extra-terrestrialist sci-fi entered cinema in 1905 with the silent film, A Trip to the Moon, which was loosely based on the work of Verne and Wells. The next major film to follow was Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929). But few others were created until the 1950s, when space travel for the first and only time became the central fixation of popular culture. The launch of Sputnick in 1957 had inaugurated a colonial race of a scale not seen since the scramble for Africa of the late 1800s – though its mythological implications were far more similar to the earlier utopian project of the settlement of the Americas. Boys of the fifties and sixties started reading pulp on intergalactic warfare in unprecedented numbers, just as the generation before theirs had been preoccupied with the older frontier of the cowboys and Indians of the great American West. Films like George Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951) and Conquest of Space (1955) and the numerous sci-fi thrillers that would persist throughout the 1960s, like Star Trek and The Jetsons, depicted a future more captivating, spectacular – and ultimately, reassuring – than any that had ever existed. Space represented the next great utopian opportunity. “The benefits flowing from space activities will be even more widespread than the space activities per se. Education, language, living standards, and world peace will all benefit as space exploration and space living become a permanent part of man’s institutional structure,” wrote Lyndon Johnson in 1963.

Like the project of European colonialism, space exploration was hailed as an ultimate solution to the problem of scarcity; numerous space enthusiasts envisioned a future in which raw resources would be sapped from other planets, and transported back to Earth. Amidst the widespread millennial fervour of the age of the Space Race, (loosely defined as taking place between 1957 and 1975,) a consensus on the eventual success of space travel had been established, and Earth itself was de-prioritised. “I am sure that whatever natural resources are being seriously depleted by our efforts in space can be replenished or replaced by those found on extra-terrestrial bodies,” wrote astronaut Scott Carpenter, in 2063 AD, a book written in 1963 containing 100-year forecasts from numerous American politicians, scientists, and high-ranking members of the military. “Space flight will remain one of the principle challenges because it is needed for the advancement of science, technology, and eventually for the expansion of man’s resources,” wrote Krafft Ericke in the same document.

X

But following the consummate moonlanding of 1969, the logistical difficulties of extra-terrestrial colonisation began to make themselves felt amongst millennial space enthusiasts. Many had anticipated that Apollo 11 would be closely followed by journeys to Mars and beyond, and the ultimately disappointing conclusion of the Space Race gave way to a genre of darker, more dystopian future myths. The most devastating moment during these years, when NASA had the weight of the Western world behind it but simply could not figure out how to colonize the cosmos, came with the Challenger disaster in January 1986. Space took on new connotations as a zone of darkness and death; it was no longer the flirtatious cocktail party it so often had been for Captain Kirk.

Other things happened during these years. Only three months after the Challenger disaster came the Chernobyl disaster, which cast nuclear technology into a similarly terrifying light. The economy was crawling out of recession, and North America’s cities no longer looked like they had in the fifties. Deindustrialization was leaving large swaths of the urban landscape abandoned and decrepit. Punks were everywhere.

XI

Dystopianism began as a cultural outgrowth of the early industrial revolution with Mary Shelly’s post-apocalyptic The Last Man (1826), which depicts a debilitated and plague-ridden Europe. As a genre it remained in relative obscurity until the nineteen-thirties, but it ultimately gained cultural primacy over utopian sci-fi in the seventies and eighties. Films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) that either cast space travel in an unflattering light or ignore space travel altogether gained appeal as extra-terrestrialism dropped off the political agenda. This trend has continued to dominate sci-fi until today, as bleak forecasts such as Cormack McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) continue to emerge.

Depictions of space in film meanwhile have become more campy and sarcastic than they had been during the Space Race. The tongue-in-cheek attitudes of nineties sci-fi films like The Fifth Element (1997), and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996) portrayed space travel in more unabashedly fantastical terms. Jetsonian aesthetics, as a trope of millennial extra-terrestrialism, re-emerged as a subject of satire.

XII

The change that science fiction has undergone in the past three decades has been a radical one, in that it represents a break from over five centuries of mythologized expansionism and millennial promise. As space travel is viewed less and less seriously, we have moved increasingly towards a post-capitalist mythological milieu. Indeed, our myths have never been so much at odds with political reality as they are today.

Earthbound narratives of the future provide us with a much needed impetus for environmental responsibility, but in the absence of pragmatic ecological ideologies, the new sci-fi has defaulted to pessimistic outlooks of the future, as though still disappointed in the failure of the space endeavour.

XIII

Yet climate change, despite its immediacy, has still been slow to work its way into our fictionalised visions of the future. Few films have dared take on the prospect of environmental collapse – although the sensational 2004 disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow as well as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001), in which the American coastline is inundated by rising sea levels, are notable exceptions.

It is a rule of thumb in the business of prophesies that good science makes for bad fiction. Despite the power and attendant responsibilities sci-fi writers and filmmakers, realistic admonitions – as opposed to spectacular disasters – do not to make for bestsellers, nor do they draw masses to the box office. We have no standards to which we hold writers of sci-fi as we do writers of historical fiction, and this perhaps is largely why sci-fi on the whole is seldom taken seriously. We have no expectation that their tales be realistic nor that their predictions will come true, and yet, as the de facto authors of the future we cannot help but let their visions become a part of ours.

XIV

Writing in 1958 on the launch of Sputnick, Hannah Arendt wrote that “the immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the ‘first step toward escape from men’s imprisonment on the earth.’” The space travel myth has, after all, been intractably linked with the metaphor of emancipation for centuries. It has told us that the human race has gotten less than it deserves. Climate change implies the opposite.

Arendt continues, “Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of the Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?” Until recently, the answer has been yes. For the most part it still is, but for the first time in history real obstacles to the continuation of unfettered capitalism have necessitated a drastic revaluation of our priorities and our approach to the environment.

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One Response to A Brief History of the Future: Reflections on the Death of Space Travel

  1. john ennis says:

    Phenomenal essay. Thank you.

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