Monday, July 20, 2009

After the Race: Futures in Space Real and Imagined.

On December 19 1972 Apollo 17 lifted off the launch pad on a pillar of flame. As the crushing weight of acceleration pushed the three astronauts into their seats neither they nor anyone else could guess that this would be humanities last trip to the moon. Just two and half years after Neil Armstrong’s small but epoch making step onto the lunar surface, Apollo would be canceled for lack of interest. Three more missions had been planned. They were all sacked as Congress and the President contented with a failed war in Vietnam and domestic unrest at home. The times were changing.

In the three decades which followed Apollo, NASA continued to achieve stunning successes in the domain of robotic exploration. Jupiter and Saturn were explored from orbit. Mars was visited by a flotilla of spacecraft including robotic landers. The Hubble Space Telescope and other orbiting astronomical platforms opened unimagined windows onto the Cosmos. These were all tremendous and lasting achievements. They may, in fact, be our nation’s most important contributions to science. Still something seemed missing. For many observers, the conquest of space by robots, irregularly shaped boxes of electronics with solar panels, seemed less than what the great visionaries of the 20th century had in mind. In the decades since Apollo something seemed lost. The dreams of lunar colonies, Mars expeditions and a burgeoning interplanetary culture waiting just ahead of us were differed to a later date.

It was in the arena of manned space flight that the vision stalled. After Apollo, NASA and the other space agencies focused not on the conquest of space, but merely on the exploitation of Near Earth Orbit. NASA’s manned effort went into the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. Both these projects were ambitious technologically but lacked the clear focus and larger vision of Apollo. In the case of the Space Station it was hard for scientists and the public to understand what the expensive, decade long project was built for other than doing it “because we can” and because it gave contracts to aerospace corporations. A growing sense of drift enveloped the manned space program throughout the 1990s. When the Shuttle Columbia exploded on reentry in 2002 killing all on board it was on a mission whose scientific objectives including “mixing paint with urine in zero-gravity, observing ant farms, and other comparable activities—all done at a cost greater than the annual federal budgets for fusion energy research and pancreatic cancer research, combined.”

The loss of an ambitious vision for human space exploration can be seen as the loss of a greater myth for the future. It is no surprise that the cancellation of Apollo paralleled a change in the stories science fiction. At about the same time the manned space program stalled, our narratives of possibilities began to shift their emphasis. Science fiction always responded to the realities around it. Looking at its imaginings we can chart a similar arc from an ever expanding future to a diminishing sense of constraint in the midst of high technology.

The USS Enterprise of Star Trek and the giant Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program where born of the same mythic vision of who we were and what we might become. In its particular manifestation, Star Trek was a creation unique to the United States and to western civilization in it’s the long trek from the first Greek scientists to the dreams of Enlightenment rationalists. It doesn’t take a PhD in cultural studies to notice how closely Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets looks like a United States of the Universe. Still, its grand imagining of a united human future free of (internal) warfare and endless exploration was compelling. It captured the optimism embodied by the Apollo program. While the show was canceled after a few seasons it would go on to become iconic, the perfect representation of the grandest vision of what science might allow us to become.

Star Trek was, of course, not the only dream of a boundless future which awaited us as scientific advances opened the doors to the conquest of space. In fact it was a culmination of that dream. Throughout the 20th century science fiction books and movies charted the landscapes of imagination and many of its mappings showed us worlds of pure promise. In the wake of World War II and the stunning advance of science, the fiction in these science fiction stories began to seem less insular, less the domain of geeks, and more part of a collective cultural dream. The pervasiveness of its images in popular culture made it into a shared myth.

The classic “Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov was a good example of post-war optimism in what the human expansion of space would mean. Published in 1949 Asimov’s trilogy went on to sell millions of copies and spawn a continuing series of sequels and prequels. In Asimov’s future the Milky Way Galaxy has been entirely colonized by humanity. A billion inhabited worlds support a human population of 100 trillion souls. In was not a utopia. The cycles of civilization, with their rise and fall, operated even in galaxy spanning cultures. In spite of these “realities” Asimov had captured the essence of the myth of a boundless future by presenting readers with a vision of nearly infinite human expansion. We would continue forever.

What tied these fictional Universes together was their background of shiny omnipotent technology. The main characters lived on massive, powerful starships. Every ship had its crew of technicians standing before banks of blinking lights in perfect control of machines that could navigate the void or shape worlds. The Universe still contained dangers in these stories (often driven by our own inescapable flaws) but what mattered for the myth of the future was that humanity had left its nest. We had become something more, something greater.

Throughout the 1960’s a kind of standoff had been achieved between visions of a boundless space-faring future and the apocalyptic nightmares of nuclear war. Even with the grave and ever-present danger of nuclear conflict, the culture of post-WWII America and Kennedy had been one of hope. Apollo had been the most concrete manifestation of that optimism in where our future might take us. By the early 1970s that hope had begun to fade and with it new, more claustrophobic visions of the future began to emerge. In time these would come to dominate the science fiction landscape. Shiny utopias gave way to the dirty futures of dystopia.

The first earth day was held on April 1 1970. Eight years before that Rachael Carlson had published “Silent Spring” a warning that pollution and pesticides where damaging the natural world. The first visions of environmental degradation entered cultural consciousness just as Apollo was winding down. Other threads were then woven into a changing vision of the future. During the 1970s the United States experienced two oil shocks. For the first time people confronted the possibility that the fossil fuel party they had been attending for seven or eight decades might not continue indefinitely. The loss of US industrial prowess to Japan, Germany and others and the humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis drove hope into cynicism. In spite of renewed economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s concerns about environmental degradation continued with global warming beginning to impinge on popular consciousness. Even the engines of growth in 1980s and 90s drove fears that manifested themselves in science fictions’ vision. While globalization, biotechnology, and the rise of computer networks allowed some imagine new futures of unlimited frontiers, others saw something far more forbidding. In popular consciousness it seemed that something had turned. The most pervasive visions of the future seemed stuck in an ever descending spiral.

One particularly influential vision emerged in 1980s in a form called Cyberpunk . Beginning 1984 William Gibson, an American expatriate living in Vancouver, became the genre’s founder with a series of books both visionary and prophetic. It was Gibson who single-handedly invented key features of the terminology and imagery we take for granted in our real web-laden culture. “Cyberspace” was his term and his invention. The world he saw was a dirty future, a Darwinian high-tech nightmare overrun by global corporate elite wielding more power than nations. Below them moved the vast masses feeding at the bottom of an information economy that had morphed into a kind transcendent alternate reality. Gibson imagined a claustrophobic dystopia of human beings modifying their bodies in the service of technology and endless sprawling cities where decay mixed with hyper-tech innovation.

The universe of “Cyberpunk” was been given many forms by authors such as Bruce Sterling (considered as a co-founder of the genre with Gibson), John Shirley and others. Cyberpunk themes have also been explored by non-science fictions writers. Feminist author Marge Peircy’s 1991 book He She It combined themes of environmental destruction with the degradation of human life under a corporate dominated information economy. In film, cyberpunk ethos and vision become dominant including critically acclaimed smaller films as well as box office mega-hits. Blade Runner predated Gibson’s first book Neuromancer by two years but was later hailed as capturing the essential, dark vision of Cyberpunk. Most notable and noteworthy were the wildly successful “Matrix” series. In the universe of the Matrix human beings have lost a war with Artificial Intelligence, machines of our own creation. In the ultimate act of environmental destruction humans “scorch the sky” to deny machines solar power. In response, the victorious machines reduce humanity to a power source. Human beings become mere bio-batteries made docile through enforced connection to a virtual world that that recreates the late 20th century. The Matrix takes dystopia and the human/internet interface to extremes. The radical popularity of the Matrix films (the series took in more than 1 billion dollars) is testimony to the pervasive influence of the Cyberpunk vision. As a whole, the myth of the future had gone to the dark side.

It is worth noting that space travel is often not an essential part of the cyberpunk vision. Like the real world we live in, the conquest of space stalled in these stories. Space travel was confined to Near Earth Orbit or to outposts of industrial exploitation which seem hellish and far away. In some stories nations have completely given up on their space programs and it is either large corporations or smaller private groups which push forward. In cyberpunk the grand vision of exploration in space has been, for the most part, replaced with a darker vision of survival on Earth.

Of course science fiction forms a diverse set of voices. Some familiar with its forms could take issue with the sketch I have outlined here. Along with the darker vision of cyberpunk there were writers and directors exploring more optimistic and hopeful futures. Star Trek itself gained its popularity in mid 1970s, years after its cancellation. Still it is difficult to argue with the fact that that in the last 30 years of the 20th century the mood of our future visions has changed. That change paralleled a loss of the mythic narrative which accompanied the conquest of space. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century we find ourselves facing a very different world and a very different sense of the future. Those who oversaw the heady acceleration of science in the last century had reason to see the future as boundless. Now we face boundaries which can not be escaped. The change in the myth of the future is testimony to the greater change in our understanding of what science is as a cultural force. More importantly, the shift in our myths of the future allow us to see constraints which Science has created for that future.

(this essay is modified from The Constant Fire)


  1. Nice connecting of the dots Adam- you've made some fertile ground in which to consider our collective symbolizing as a means to understand our symptoms of underlying conditions.

    Btw, I posted another comment about time on your previous post; I hope you'll give it a look.

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