Monthly Archives: January 2012

Indian Migrations and Space Settlement

I’m doing some reading in Indian history as part of my research for the sequel to In the Shadow of Ares. In John Keay’s India: A History, I came across this interesting passage in his discussion of the ‘epic age’ of the Mahabharata and Ramayana:

As for the retreat into exile, the other central theme in both epics, this is taken to indicate the process by which clan society resolved its conflicts and at the same time encroached ever deeper into the subcontinent. Eventually population pressures on land and other resources would encourage greater social specialisation and he assertion of a central authority, two of the prerequisites of a state. But during the first centuries of the first millennium BC, these same pressures seem merely to have encouraged a traditional solution whereby clans segmented and split away to explore new territories. [emphasis added]

In the context of the chapter, he is taking a common thread of the two epics (the exile in the wilderness of their respective protagonists) as a hint as to how the ?r?an colonists gradually spread to the east and south from the Indus Valley.

What struck me as interesting is that much the same thing could happen with space settlement, especially given some TBD mode of practical interstellar travel.

In the near term (say, the next 100 years), if efforts to commercialize space access pan out and we begin building colonies in space, on the Moon, and on Mars, we will have established a new “wilderness” in the sense Keay describes elsewhere in the chapter: an untamed space where danger may lurk away from the safety of established civilization, but where the freedom exists to build afresh. The process of settlement and ongoing development will due to resource and labor shortages limit the degree to which a central authority can be asserted, providing a breathing space for innovation between the continuously expanding frontier and the expanding boundary of civilization trailing behind it. Political or social conflicts unresolvable in the civilized regions can be defused through one or another party choosing to escape to the freedom of this breathing space or the wilderness beyond, thereby pushing the frontier further outward — versus being kept bottled up in a finite arena where the intractability of the disagreements and the inescapable proximity of the conflicting parties can foster discontent, unrest, and violence lasting generations.

In practice, this might mean expanding to lunar colonies as near-Earth orbital habitats become too regulated or restricted by Earth governments or international treaties. On the Moon, disaffected individuals or groups frustrated with their circumstances in an existing settlement might decide to start their own settlements on or beyond the fringes of areas already settled or explored. As the lunar frontier ‘closes’ due to Keay’s “social specialization and assertion of central authority”, similarly frustrated settlers might decide to try their fortunes on the martian frontier, then among the asteroids, and so on through increasingly less-desirable properties.

It’s not like this hasn’t happened already, in our own history. The story of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims, the Mormon migrations to Utah, and the “Go west, young man” ethos of the Old West were clearly manifestations of this same concept.

In the longer term, given some means of practical interstellar travel, this process of expansion-by-exile into the wilderness could happen on a vastly larger scale. If this turns out to be true, the ‘wilderness’ becomes effectively infinite.

Of course, this depends on a conservative view that we will continue to be recognizably human over such long time scales, as the development of new frontiers will likely result in an acceleration of technological innovation – including ‘transhuman’ technology like cognitive enhancements, targeted genetic improvements, or even ‘uploading’ into non-biological (or who knows, even non-physical) forms. What makes the expansion-by-exile concept useful for science fiction is that it can avoid the trap of having to tell a story from the difficult-to-conceive perspective of these transhumans by giving an author the choice among worlds on a spectrum of development — after all, given the Amish as a present-day example, it’s not difficult to imagine that some of those irreconcilable differences that might drive settlers into exile in the wilderness would concern the adoption of certain transhuman technologies, resulting in worlds (whether at the center or the periphery of civilization) whose inhabitants are still relatably human.



Paypal’s Peter Thiel on the Collapse of Science Fiction

I’d agree with his assessment, except I think the problem is actually much worse:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction. Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

The original article is behind the firewall at the New Yorker, so I only have this quote to build on, but if hackneyed War on Terror allegories are all that has him upset about the current state of science fiction he might be in for a surprise if he picks up a copy of, say, Analog.

One of the reasons Carl and I decided to write In the Shadow of Ares was the dearth of positive visions of the future in modern science fiction. Over the past twenty years (if not longer), there has been a shift in tone towards an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-human perspective:

  • By “anti-technology”, I mean a perspective in which science and its applications are regarded as intrinsically suspect if not dangerous. Plots involving a new discovery, innovation, or application frequently put significant if not sole emphasis on its negative consequences. One of the great things about science fiction traditionally has been the useful or interesting speculative exploration of the potential for misuse of such things, but this perspective instead reflects a deeper pessimism which devalues or dismisses the positive benefits instead of making a balanced assessment of tradeoffs.
  • By “anti-capitalist”, I mean a perspective in which business, the profit model, free markets, etc. are the enemies of all good and decent things. If a corporation of some sort figures into a story, it’s almost certain to be portrayed as greedy, oppressive, irresponsible, reactionary, rapacious, short-sighted, callous, etc., an intangible sentient entity possessing a collective and inexplicably (or unexplainedly) malevolent will of its own.  “Portrayed” is probably a generous way to put it, given that these things are not crafted as the corporation’s attributes so much as mix-and-matched from a pouch of stock-villain tropes with little thought or creativity involved. There seems to be little acknowledgement that there are business entities other than Big Evil Galactic Mega-Conglomerates™, or that as seen in the real world business, profits, markets, etc. are far more likely to be positive agents and influences. There are certainly interesting science fiction stories to be told involving bad businessmen, but I’d hazard a guess that each of them has by now been told many hundreds of times.
  • By “anti-human”, I mean a perspective in which it is taken for granted that humans are by default corrupt, greedy, bigoted, abusive, violent, intolerant, militaristic, or otherwise by their inescapable nature a threat to non-humans or to the natural world. Non-human entities — whether alien, artificial, or non-sentient — are held to be morally superior to humans due to nothing more than their non-human nature, and are portrayed as endangered by humans due to our aforementioned moral defects. When non-humans are absent, humans are still portrayed as intrinsically morally negative, being (for example) willing to use a new technology to harm or oppress others for no other reason than that that’s what humans are apparently wired to do. Again, this is not to say that there aren’t bad humans to be found, or that humans behaving badly can’t be fodder for an interesting story; the problem is with the self-loathing default assumption that humans are inherently bad, augmented by the corollary assumption that non-humans are inherently good.

This is not to say that these problems are universal, merely pervasive. I gave up on Analog in 2008 after 25 years as a subscriber because of this pervasiveness – there were still occasional human-positive, business-positive, technology-positive stories in the magazine, but there was a clear drift in the opposite direction (and increasing numbers of borderline-fantasy woo-woo stories) over several years.

I think the broader point underlying both Thiel’s criticism and my own is that where science fiction used to be predominantly optimistic, it has for years (decades?) descended into an ugly dominant pessimism. And when the people whose job is imagining possible futures see only doom and gloom ahead, is it any wonder that the people actually responsible for building the future may be less enthusiastic about doing so?