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.