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Space is dead. Why do we keep writing about it?
plus new fiction about climate repair, ancestor AIs, striking dolphins, and family drama
When I was a young kid in the 90s, my dad and I made a bet. Actually, more of a long bet. I wagered that humankind would put a person on Mars by 2020. I lost.
As I was growing up——devouring sci-fi books, watching Star Trek, pouring over Popular Mechanics, and even attending Space Camp——it just made sense that humanity’s next steps into the universe were both inevitable and imminent. Technology was improving, after all, and there seemed to be ever more sophisticated proposals for how we’d travel to Mars and what we’d do when we got there. I remember the illustrations: chunky spacecraft spinning through the void, sleek domes sprouting like mushrooms out of rusty dirt.
And I wasn’t the only one. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars——still considered one of the most rigorous hard SF novels of all time——was published in 1992. Stan put the start of colonization at 2026, with the first man on Mars some years before.
Yes, there’d been a lull after the high-flying moonshot 60s, but the space shuttle and the international space station were still impressive feats: a foothold in orbit. In 2004 Bush laid out a plan to go back to the moon by 2020, and send crewed missions to Mars as soon as 2030. There was talk of commercializing space, space tourism, space mining, all of which seemed just around the corner. Throughout the aughts I figured I might lose my childhood bet, but it still felt like something was happening.
Now all this feels naive, given what we know about the 21st century’s politics, predilections, and challenges. In retrospect Bush’s ambitions seem more like muscular nationalist posturing, shoring up our image at a moment of declining American popularity abroad. When Trump made the same promises and founded the much mocked Space Force, it felt like a naked appeal to the nostalgia of his aging Baby Boomer base. Nowadays anyone eager to put boots on Mars puts their faith in the increasingly noxious and incoherent Elon Musk. While SpaceX has become a real player in the rocketry sector, at this point I trust Elon’s grand plans and promises even less than Trump’s.
The truth is that for over half a century since the moon landing, we’ve made little progress on the interplanetary manifest destiny I grew up believing in. Today manned spaceflight has no cultural or political momentum to speak of. China and America talk about returning to the moon in the next decade or so, but who knows if it’ll happen. To date less than 700 people have ever been to space. Orbit is filling up with junk.
None of this is to discount the real and meaningful work that NASA and others have done over these past few decades. The unmanned craft they have sent all across the solar system have been great scientific and technological achievements. I have friends who work on such probes, and they are marvels of ingenuity.
However, a big part of futures thinking is projecting current trends and trajectories into the future, and right now——despite 75 years of rocket ships, space stations, moon bases, and Mars domes being the dominant signifier of futurity——our present trends and trajectories point only down, back to our ever-warming Earth.
We should consider the possibility that, to quote Sam Kriss’s “Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Outer Space,”
1 Humanity will never colonize Mars, never build moon bases, never rearrange the asteroids, never build a sphere around the sun.
2 There will never be faster-than-light travel. We will not roam across the galaxy. We will not escape our star.
3 Life is probably an entirely unexceptional phenomenon; the universe probably teems with it. We will never make contact. We will never fuck green-skinned alien babes.
4 The human race will live and die on this rock, and after we are gone something else will take our place. Maybe it already has, without our even noticing.
5 All this is good. This is a good thing.
(It’s very much worth reading this 2015 essay in full. It’s a potent corrective to the default attitude of heroic wonder with which we are usually encouraged to regard outer space.)
And yet, space stories keep coming. Walk down to your local bookstore and you’ll find plenty of new sci-fi releases about brave astronauts, rugged interstellar colonists, dashing star pirates, vast galactic empires, and so on. In the latest issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact (in which, see below, I have a story), only five out of twenty pieces of fiction didn’t feature space in some way. I don’t have hard numbers on this, but I’d bet money that a strong majority of all the words of science fiction ever written have been about space or aliens, set in space(ships), or set on other planets.
Increasingly these stories take the form of deliberate retrofuturist period pieces. A good example is “Beyond the Sea,” in the most recent season of Black Mirror. Some are explicitly alternate histories full of yearning for lost momentum, such as the show For All Mankind (in which a Soviet moon landing means the space race never stops). Or Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and sequels (in which a 1952 asteroid impact forces humanity to figure out how to get off planet before the Earth becomes unlivable).
Others are keen on imagining space full of people and nations other than white, American men. My friend Deji Bryce Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space is a great example, as is the OSS Hope exhibit at the Museum of the Future that I mentioned last month.
Still others use space less as a future and more as a flavor of the fantastical, like Star Wars. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice novels might as well be set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Same with Becky Chambers’ Monk and Robot novellas, which take place on a distant moon called Panga. I find this somewhat frustrating, as Chambers’ story of postcapitalist solarpunks living in harmony with their environment and each other is a vision I’d like us to try building here in the real world. Is the takeaway that Earth is too far gone, too complicated and fractious, too sedimented with historical injustice, to achieve that kind of utopia?
And there are plenty more who continue to draw a direct line from present day Earth to the planets and stars, from The Expanse novels and TV series to the new hit video game Starfield. Most of these, like Star Trek, depend on the invention of a physics-breaking FTL drive sometime in the next century or two. Perhaps we are starting to feel that, without such a breakthrough to make things quick and easy, the whole space affair is not worth the trouble. KSR’s Aurora makes the excellent case that venturing beyond our solar system is too slow and fraught to do with the technology that currently seems within our grasp.
Let me just stress that all the works I’ve just mentioned are excellent. SF writers should write what they want, gloomy forecasts be damned. If fact, maybe it’s good that the genre holds a torch for space even after the wind has gone out of our collective solar sails.
But I think it’s worth asking: why? Why do so many of us feel compelled to write about a future that isn’t actually happening? And what does it mean for science fiction that its grandest, most prominent prediction doesn’t seem to be coming to pass?
This was the expectation, circa 1965, of how technologies of velocity were going to advance. It must have been heady days, going in one lifetime from puttering cars to the first airplanes to rockets capable of escaping Earth’s gravity well. Nothing like it had ever happened before. In many ways it was a fundamental change in what it meant to be human——to cross oceans and continents on a lark, to pierce the firmament. How could one see that hockey-sticking slope and not let one’s gaze be drawn to the stars?
We needed stories to make sense of that massive, accelerating shift. We needed a new mythology that helped us understand our place in a bigger universe, our destiny, our purpose. Science fiction is modern mythmaking that helps us manage future shock as we ride the waves of technological upheaval and social change. Waves that have rocked the world since Mary Shelley conceived of The Modern Prometheus during a dreary climate event in Geneva.
When we tell stories about space now, we aren’t predicting the future, we’re adding to and riffing on that mythological tradition, the way folklore always works.
Here’s another chart that puts the 1965 view in perspective:
What happened in reality was the hockey-sticking acceleration stopped and progress plateaued. Human velocity peaked at 1969 with the crew of Apollo 10. After that NASA’s budget dropped precipitously. Meanwhile supersonic flight proved too costly, loud, and uncomfortable for most travelers, and anyway how often does one really need to get from New York to London in three hours instead of eight? The height of high velocity transportation for the vast majority of humans is now the Boeing 747 and its kin. Few trends point to this changing anytime soon——except perhaps to slow down, as the demands of decarbonization push us to fly less and take the train (or the Zoom call) more.
Going to space is several orders of magnitude more costly, loud, and uncomfortable than a Concorde jet. So, probably, we just aren’t going to do it. No state is likely to devote 5% of its spending to a Mars mission, not when global economic competition is increasingly tight, aging populations are straining pensions, a pandemic demolished many healthcare systems, and climate change is battering crops, housing, and infrastructure.
And despite slide-deck dreams of quadrillion dollar asteroid mining jackpots and Martian debt slavery company towns, there isn’t much money to be made in space. So the capitalists aren’t going to do it either. They have budgets to balance and quarterly earnings targets to hit and executive bonuses to pay out and stocks to buy back, and no amount of cosmist mythmaking is going to make space profitable. Elon launches rockets and Starlink satellites to hype up Tesla stock and get governments under his thumb.
Everyone frets about the billionaires running off to other planets and leaving us to suffer on a broken Earth, but that’s just another parable. Our climate is getting bad, but it’s not anywhere close to being Mars-bad or Vensus-bad. That’s where you need domes. Doing anything in space is so, so much harder and more expensive than fixing up the ecosystems around us. Repairing our own atmosphere is going to be a big project, but way easier than terraforming another planet. The appeal of “Planet B” narratives is that you could start over without the headache of dealing with people, which is so much more pessimistic and misanthropic than just acknowledging that we’re stuck here on Earth, with each other.
We’ll send astronauts to orbit, maybe back to the moon——a little space race redux for the US-China rivalry. We’ll send unmanned probes to every celestial body within reach, and learn a great deal from those. We won’t put a man on Mars or build a moon base——at least not in my lifetime.
I say all this as someone who sincerely loves space. If there really was a chance to board a colony ship to Mars, I’d be sorely tempted. I desperately hope the world proves my low expectations wrong. To do so, however, would take a very different political and economic order than the one we have now.
The moon landing happened because capitalism and American empire actually had a rival. These forces had to prove they could outrace, outplan, and outspend communism and Soviet empire. It was probably the biggest PR campaign of all time, if you don’t count our bloated military. But such grand flexes are not necessary in our current capitalist realist status quo. When there’s no alternative, who are you trying to impress?
I do think we can go to Mars, and beyond, if we want to. But we’d have to decide to do so, collectively and democratically, probably not even as a nationstate but as a species. We’d have to put aside capitalist and nationalist competition. We’d have to take up more pressing moonshots first——decarbonization and climate repair——and then keep that momentum of big public spending flowing.
So if you want to write a story about space, that’s where I think it should start. How do we get through the bottleneck of climate collapse and polycrisis, through to a better system that offers more expansive possibilities?
It’s an extremely tough question, so I don’t blame my fellow SF writers for skipping to the good stuff or offering alternate histories instead. I find the latter approach compelling myself. But the world is once again hockey sticking, and we need new myths to get us through.
A coda: if we ever do get a message from another star, our communication will probably be bound by the speed of light. No ansible, no Contact blueprints. We’ll have to send letters plodding back and forth across the endless void, waiting years or decades or centuries for a reply.
So maybe our best bet of finding out what’s Out There in the universe is to extend our reach not into the vastness of space but into the equally vast expanse of time: to make our civilization peaceful, stable, and sustainable, so we can keep listening. If we listen long enough, we might just catch a signal from someone else out there that’s achieved the same thing.
New Fiction: “Family Business”
As mentioned above, I have a short story out in the November/December issue of Analog Magazine! Co-written with Australian SF writer Corey J. White, “Family Business” is the story of seven generations of the Weathersmith family, charting their rise and fall and rise and fall in the carbon removal industry. It features offset accounting scams, undersea engineering, ancestor AIs, and messy family drama.
Here's an excerpt from about halfway into the story, when Rory (5ish generations in) finds out their dolphin employees have gone on strike:
“Why not send some drone submersibles down there to check the seals ourselves? The only reason we use dolphins is because Aunt Eudy was an absolute freak.”
“Well, zir, that is the other piece of bad news. Our subcontractors did send drones. But, you see zir, the dolphins destroyed the drones before they could reach the reservoir. I’ve seen the footage. They are...very violent.”
Rory got up and paced circles, their vat-leather Louis Vuitton boat shoes squeaking on the polished wood.
“I’m not going to ask how,” they announced. “I really don’t want to know. What I do want to know is, where did they get these ideas? Who’s been salting these fishes?”
“Researchers, zir, working to advance interspecies cultural exchange. Apparently very few human concepts were of interest to the dolphins until the researchers tried explaining dialectical materialism.”
If you want to hear me talk about carbon removal and climate repair as a real world prospect, I recently had a lot of fun going into it on the Pullback podcast here.
This is my second story I’ve published with CJW, but it’s actually the first one we wrote together. It’s also the first time either of us has been published in Analog, which is one of the biggest and most storied SF magazines out there. Super excited to have this story out there!
So please, give it a read by supporting Analog with a print or digital subscription (a year’s digital subscription is only $6!!). You may also be able to find copies in some bookstores——not positive but I think Analog is one of the SFF mags carried on magazine racks at Barnes & Noble. It should look like this:
News + Reviews + Miscellany
I’ve signed with Reeves Hamilton of Vertical Ink Agency to rep my work, particularly the twisty, COVID-inspired supernatural thriller I finished last winter. If you’d like to talk about book deals, optioning movie rights for my work, that sort of thing, email him: Vertical[dot]Ink[dot]Agency[at]Gmail[dot]com.
As noted above, I was on the podcast Pullback talking about climate repair approaches, ‘geoengineering’, and building intergenerational planetary institutions. I think it came out really well, so give it a listen.
An excerpt from my climate book titled “If We Can Do This, We Can Stop Asteroids” will be included in the 2022 Best of Utopian Speculative Fiction anthology by Android Press. You can get it via the Solarpunk Magazine 2024 Kickstarter here.
“The Uncool Hunters” got a nice review from Charles Payseur in Locus Magazine. Also available in Spanish, apparently?
Recommendations + Fellow Travelers
With social media increasingly fragmented and useless for finding out what people are actually doing, I’m going to try to start keeping track of and sharing recent projects and publications by friends and fellow travelers. Email me if you’d like me to ping something out to my little corner of the un-web.
It’s been a busy summerfall for my Clarion classmates. Check them out:
- had a brilliant story in Uncanny Magazine “Want Itself Is a Treasure in Heaven.” I read a draft of this at Clarion and there’s really no one out there doing it like TW.
Eliot Peper——the frustratingly prolific author of many smart and timely technothrillers——has a new book out, Foundry, a spy story about the high stakes world of semiconductor manufacturing. Check it out.
Word on the street is that friend-of-the-club and occasional sparring partner Paul Graham Raven has escaped academia and has a new consulting venture going, Magrathea Futures. Check him out for all your futuring needs!
If you like the this newsletter, consider subscribing or checking out my recent climate fiction novel Our Shared Storm, which Publisher’s Weekly called “deeply affecting” and “a thoughtful, rigorous exploration of climate action.”