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Conservative Space

Space colonies: marvels of engineering. As imagined by Gerard K. O’Neill, they represent the ultimate triumph of science over nature, islands of abundance built where there once was nothing. Were the Earth imperiled, humanity would have a second home among the stars, giving the species continued life. It is a perfect progression: from cave dweller to space dweller.

However, such a society would have one curious characteristic: it would be profoundly conservative and have a caste system.

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The Low Frontier

A few days ago, I began reading Gerard K. O’Neill’s seminal 1979 book The High Frontier as part of research for a short story. The idea of the “O’Neill cylinder,” which, thanks to the anime Mobile Suit Gundam I had heard of well before borrowing the book, intrigued me; I wanted to see what kind of technologies it took to run the colony, what kind of social structure the colonists would likely have, and what kind of dangers they would face out in the cold, uncaring harshness of outer space. However, when I read it from the beginning, what struck me wasn’t some dry discussion of science or sociology.

What struck me was the sense of hope the author felt as he described the concept.

Even as O’Neill went through a litany of social and environmental crises, he never advocated turning his back on science and technology; in fact, he rejected such turning back by stating that we could not go back to a rural existence since the population is far too large to be supported by it. Also, keep in mind what was going on at the time: men had set foot on the moon. Whites and blacks were well on their way to reconciliation. Smallpox, a disease that had terrorized humanity for most of its history, was being beaten back with great vigor and gusto. Polio had already been conquered within living memory. O’Neill had no reason to doubt the power of science and technology to improve the human condition — even with the grim specter of the Cold War looming over him. It was uplifting to read, even infectious.

But from my vantage point here in 2013, it was also sad to read.

While O’Neill spoke boldly of leaving Earth for the stars, we have interred our Space Shuttle in a museum not because we have a better spacecraft, but because we couldn’t even be bothered to go into space anymore. While he expressed hope in the power of science and technology to improve our lives, we have identity theft, pervasive online and offline surveillance, and killer drones over our skies, with more technology-enabled control mechanisms on the way. Everyone gazes into their cellphones instead of actually talking to each other. Fatherlessness is rampant and hailed as progress, no matter how badly actual children turn out. Literacy and numeracy are falling by the wayside.

No asteroid mining. No O’Neill cylinders. Just an unending train of darkness that science and technology have done nothing to solve.

Several people, of course, will point to what has been done. Computers have revolutionized commerce and communication, seeping into virtually everything we use. New sources of oil and natural gas have been found, proving “peak oil” doomsayers wrong again and again. The populations of wealthy, resource-intensive countries are shrinking due to declining birth rates, and this trend is even seeping into the poorer countries thanks to urbanization and female education. Medical technology has improved in leaps and bounds. There are even optimists who believe that a “technological singularity” is fast approaching, along with the ability to radically alter the human body in ways unimaginable to even people in the 1970s.

However, our current techno-optimists are isolated. Society as a whole is not optimistic about scientific advancement as it was when O’Neill was a young man. All around us, it seems, is cynicism and despair with all our institutions. And why not? Our government is now doing the things it used to condemn the Communists for. Torture and extrajudicial killings are not just accepted, but excused. The church vituperates against gay marriage while doing nothing to stem the tide of no-fault divorces that have hollowed out marriage in general. Despotic school administrators increasingly attack children in some foolish attempt to create a pain-free utopia, all while bloviating about stopping “bullying.” And our press is little more than state-controlled media, despite being in supposedly private hands.

Hard to be optimistic about anything with all this swirling about you.

I would say that with the decline of religious belief (at least in the advanced countries) and the fact that science and technology have not, in fact, given us the promised shiny utopia, this malaise makes sense. To make matters worse, most sci-fi is now dystopian simply because dystopias are more interesting due to increased conflict. And to further rub salt in the wound, space colonization is unprofitable, so no one will do it.

So read The High Frontier and realize that its most valuable lessons aren’t its scientific ones, but rather its social and historical ones. It’s a glimpse into a lost world, a world of wonder and optimism, a world where anything was possible…including decline.

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