Space is the absence of things. Humans, composed as we are of matter and living as we do on the surface of a massive ball of the stuff and blanketed by miles of atmosphere, only know short lives of matter and small distances.
Space is the antithesis of all these things. Devoid of anything, it destroys life in seconds and acts as the final impediment to our journeys of exploration into the known. So of course we want to get out there and master it, right?! I mean, what’s cooler than space? Nothing, I tell you. And since space is just a big open piece of nothing and nothing is cooler than space, then space is a great unstoppable perpetual motion machine of coolness. Space is so cool, it’s 2.7 degrees kelvin. You can’t get cooler than that without getting into weird quantum effects where existence itself gets questionable. Just trust me, space is very very cool.
So where are we when it comes to space? In the 1960’s, we were racing the commies to the moon— or racing capitalists, whichever end of the thing you wanna be on. I won’t judge. In the 70’s, fresh off Trek, we were imagining utopian space societies living out a zero-g gonzo chic. The 80’s were rock and roll and rockets, space shuttles and Space Camp. In the 90’s we built the space station and expanded our fleet of resupply shuttles, maintaining a multinational continuous presence in space. We kept that up in the 00’s, and shot robots the size of SUV’s at Mars. By the teens, we were getting hi-res photography of Pluto and we could take 100 megapixel photos from our Mars Orbiter™ of our Mars Rover™.
As we transition into a new era of space exploration, it pays to consider: what’s our cultural view of space travel? What will advancements in technology do to evolve this understanding? Let’s take a look at some upcoming moves in the space race and what it might mean for us as storytellers.
We’re going to Mars. They say it’ll be 2027, but it’ll be 2035. Whatever. One way or the other, we’re gonna have boots on the red planet. So yeah, we’ve walked on the moon. That’s extra neat, but this is Mars. It’s a whole other planet, and it’s so far away that we’re going to have to build a habitat there. No halfway excursions and some flag waving this time. We’re going to have people living on Mars. Probably for shortish bursts for a while, but we’ll get something permanent going. What does this mean for our stories? Well, for one, we’re putting humans back in the front of the space race. Humans will be at the driving wheel, kicking up the space dust, and taking selfies on the surfaces of foreign worlds. It’s humanity’s time to shine, folks, and that means space is once again a human habitat. It’s uplifting, and it ultimately means that we can get back to telling positive, uplifting stories about people going to other worlds and conquering the unknown.
And yeah, humans will go to Mars, but robots have been going to Mars for 30 years already. In fact, if a human goes anywhere in space over the next five decades or so, that human is going to be preceded by a few decades of robots busily doing the same thing and testing it out. At the end of the day, humans are squishy great apes. If you want to send a squishy great ape to another planet, you’d best send a smart, indestructible robot first to test the waters. Robots have already been to the moons of Jupiter, the asteroid belt, Mars, Pluto, and even beyond the solar system. Our army of soulless mechanical servitors are currently scouring the cosmos ahead of us, training their beady little murderous eyes on the furthest reaches of our cosmic neighborhood. Meanwhile, we can direct and observe these little buggers from the comfort of our living room couches. The folks at the cutting edge of space exploration are no longer the astronauts but the engineers. This shifts the narrative of the space race from a dangerous adventure atop a rocket to a 9 to 5 job you do from home. We’re exploring space now from right here aboard the great starship Earth, and that means that the story of space exploration can be increasingly set right here in our own backyard. Stories of space are so often intrinsically linked to the vast open coldness of the cosmos, but now those same stories can be told from the bountiful everlasting lushness of our magnificent billions-years-old home.
EARTH IS DYING OMG
OK, so we might have messed up with this whole industrial society thing. We’re pumping gases into the atmosphere and we’re warming the surface of the planet. The combination of population explosion, industrial production, agriculture, and general human shortsightedness have resulted in a phenomenon that we’ve called The Anthropocene. It’s a new geologic age we live in, characterized by mankind’s indelible fingerprint on the geologic history of this big, beautiful, sick and dying Earth. We’re currently causing/living in on of the top 5 mass extinctions the Earth has had in the last 3 billion years. We’ve turned our eyes to the stars for succor and sanctuary, promising to establish better societies in the stars. Meanwhile, science tells us that most planets want to kill us. Venus will melt you into a puddle of goo. Even the robots don’t go there. Mars will slowly gum you to death. The outer planets are made of gas, so they would crush you while simultaneously denying you even the courtesy of solid ground to land on. Yeah, there are moons. That’s neat. Let’s say we get something up and running. How many people will live on Mars? Maybe 20? Give it 100 years, maybe we can get a colony of 500 going. So what do we do with the 7 BILLION people here on the sickly earth? We might make it to the stars, but a few billion people are gonna kick off in the process. The sane thing to do is to knuckle down and fix the planet we already have. It’s a fixer upper, but it has a magnetosphere. That’s like the jacuzzi of planet features. You’re gonna want that. So we gotta get down to some terraforming. We imagine turning foreign planets into lush green homes, but now we’re considering the implications of geo-engineering our home planet. What does Earth look like when we start taking the concept of Earth as a spaceship seriously? What does it look like when we start fixing it? Stories of generations of humans working to undo the excesses of the past, stories of the triumph of science over largesse. It’s enough to make you misty.
Science may save us, but at the same time, it’s probably going to kill us. Or at least alter us to a point at which we’re not human anymore. And that’s a good thing! At least as far as space is concerned— remember, we’re squishy apes, right? What happens when we start monkeying around with our already-monkey-based genetics? Stronger bones, smarter brainparts, better muscles, faster reflexes. We can breed an entire generation of mutant humans designed for space travel. We can send humans (or something roughly analogous) further into space than ever before. And genetics are only part of the equation— remember our implacable robot minions? If they don’t kill us first, then we’ll start incorporating their soulless mechanical parts and pieces into ourselves, establishing shared consciousness, enhanced senses, rocket fingers, and cyber-elbows! Our concept of what is “human” will expand. As that concept grows to incorporate more of a behavioral trademark than a genetic template, our concept of communication will evolve as well. We’re wired for verbal and written communication. What happens when language becomes binary, or when expression can be a direct, unambiguous transmission of meaning across a mind-net?
New frontiers in interconnectivity will change how we communicate, but in the vastness of space, the internet speed goes to garbage quickly. It takes light from the sun 7 minutes to reach Earth. Likewise, you’re never going to be able to download a copy of Neverwinter Nights from the Sun-net in under 14 minutes because information just can’t be transmitted any faster than that. So in an era in which I’m mind-netting with my crechemates in New Old New York, my cousin on Europa is gonna be so out of the loop. Space is isolating even under the terms of current human living, but in an era in which a conversation could be carried out in a femtosecond, a 30-minute delay is a lifetime. The types of tribalism that will emerge out of gradation of data transmission speed is going to redefine how we see ourselves and others. In an odd way, our proximity to one another will matter again. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we broke down the borders between people in different parts of the world with interconnectivity, and in the near future, small variations in that same interconnectivity will cause us to drift back into relationships born out of proximity. Getting stranded on a faraway space station is all the more poignant when you’re accustomed to living in such a hyper-connected society.
WACKADOO LEFT FIELD DISCOVERIES
All of this is fine, but it’s based on our current understanding of the universe. If someone discovers a method for faster-than-light communication, then you can forget about latency tribalism. If someone discovers a method for hyper-efficient carbon sequestration, then the prognosis for our species’ perpetuation on Earth is much better. At any point in human history, every prognosticator has failed on every level to accurately paint a picture of the world beyond their generation. Scientific discoveries shift the path of human history and render our worldview obsolete. We as storytellers get to create the futures we want, use as much or as little science as we want, and tell the stories we feel like telling with the tools in front of us. Keeping an eye on the current developments can give us a veneer of verisimilitude, open doors to new paths of understanding and stories associated with those streams of thought. Our view into space is ever outward, and as we move forward and shine the light of human investigation into the unknown, we need to keep our ears open to the stories that float back.