Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 23rd, 2018

The Martian Way

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In these divided times, the one position that seems to consistently transcend party lines is that we should really get our act together and go to Mars. This is particularly true if you happen to be president. Toward the end of his first term, George W. Bush called for a return to the moon, which would serve as a way station for “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” and then he pretty much never brought it up again. Shortly before the last presidential election, when he probably should have been focusing on other matters, Obama wrote in an opinion piece that the “clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space” would be a manned mission to Mars. As for Trump, his views are more or less what you’d expect. Earlier this month, in a speech at Miramar Air Station in San Diego, he expressed enthusiasm for space, in his own inimitable way: “Very soon we’re going to Mars. You wouldn’t be going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn’t even be thinking about it.” In the same speech, Trump also voiced his support for the idea of, well, starship troopers:

My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea. We may even have a “Space Force”—develop another one. Space Force. We have the Air Force; we’ll have the Space Force. You know, I was saying it the other day because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, “Maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the Space Force.” And I was not really serious, and then I said what a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big breaking story.

The week after Trump gave this speech, I happened to come across a passage in The Scientific Estate by the political scientist Don K. Price, which was first published in 1965. After lamenting the lack of participation in public policy by scientists in democratic nations, Price writes: “Science fiction…is a form of literature unwisely neglected by students of politics. On something like the theory that if I could write a nation’s songs I would be glad to let someone else write its laws, I am inclined to think that it is the space cadets of the comic strip—and their fictional counterparts back to Jules Verne or even Daedalus—who have fired our enthusiasm for the race with the Russians to the moon.” He’s probably right. But then he goes on to make a striking assertion:

That enthusiasm is certainly shared on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But with a difference, and a difference that may be more important to the future of our political system than the amount of money that we spend on space exploration. The difference is that the Soviet space cadet, in sharp contrast to his opposite number in Western science fiction, seems to be very conscious not only that he is in a race for prestige or power with another country, but that he has discovered the key to the use of the scientific method in human affairs. This is the materialist dialectic, which is supposed not merely to let the communist system make the best use of science in technical matters, but to give the scientific intellect a generally dominant role in the society of the future.

My knowledge of Soviet science fiction is regrettably close to zero, so I can’t speak to this argument directly. But I can venture a few observations within my own limited circle of expertise. The idea that the protagonist of science fiction “has discovered the key to the use of scientific method in human affairs” sounds a lot like John W. Campbell, who wanted nothing more than to turn sociology and psychology into provinces of engineering, which would allow scientists to have “a generally dominant role” in the enlightened age to come. Dianetics was conceived as a social movement as well as a therapeutic one, with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard both openly envisioning a world that would be run by “clears.” A decade earlier, the Foundation series had taken the idea of a science of history and politics to its ultimate conclusion. (Comparisons have often been made between psychohistory and dialectical materialism, to the point where Asimov later felt obliged to state: “I have never read anything by Marx. I have never read anything written about Marxian economics or philosophy.” He was protesting too much—in his late teens, he described himself as a communist, at least to his friends in the Futurians. But any resemblance between the two theories was due less to any direct influence than to their shared dream of a comprehensive science of civilization.) When Price published his book, it may well have been true, as he writes, that “as Isaac Asimov has noted, most contemporary science fiction in America is not utopian, but anti-utopian.” But this was partially a reaction to the optimistic mood of the Campbell years, and the individuals who actually worked on the space program consisted in large part of scientists and engineers who came of age during the golden age of Astounding, just as the next generation would be shaped by the Heinlein juveniles.

It seems perfectly plausible, in short, that science fiction “fired our enthusiasm” for the space race, which both America and Russia came to be see as an expression of national power. The extent to which science fiction inspired us to go to the moon in the first place is up for debate—Campbell certainly believed that it did, and I’d argue that we’re only talking about going to Mars, which otherwise doesn’t seems like an urgent priority, because science fiction got there first. And it’s fair to say that we place an emphasis on manned spaceflight primarily because of the stories that it allows us to tell to ourselves. As I’ve argued before, science fiction set stories in space because it made an exciting backdrop for adventure stories, and it was only after the genre started to take itself seriously as a predictive literature that it began to seem like part of our collective destiny. Even now, its appeal is primarily emotional, not scientific, and if Mars appears so prominently in the rhetoric of our presidents, it’s because its usefulness as a narrative symbol goes beyond politics. (Trump’s proposed budget, significantly, eliminated numerous scientific programs at NASA, including the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and many earth science missions, while sparing the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. The spending bill recently passed by Congress, by contrast, maintains or increases the current levels of funding.) Presidents tell stories to themselves and to the rest of us, and you can learn a lot from how they appropriate the images that their predecessors have used. For Trump, who otherwise displays minimal interest or understanding of science, a mission to Mars fulfills the same role as a border wall or a military parade. It’s a symbol of power, or a plot point in a story in which America plays the role of the competent man. When we hear it from Trump, this seems obvious. But maybe it was never anything else.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2018 at 10:19 am

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Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2018 at 7:30 am

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