Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The technical review

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One of my favorite works of science fiction, if we define the term as broadly as possible, is Space Colonies, a collection of articles and interviews edited by Stewart Brand that was published in 1977. The year seems significant in itself. It was a period in which Star Trek and Dune—both of which were obviously part of the main sequence of stories inaugurated by John W. Campbell at Astounding—had moved the genre decisively into the mainstream. After the climax of the moon landing, the space race seemed to be winding down, or settling into a groove without a clear destination, and the public was growing restless. (As Norman Mailer said a few years earlier on the Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise, people were starting to view space with indifference or hostility, rather than as a form of adventure.) It was a time in which the environmental movement, the rise of the computer culture, and the political climate of the San Francisco Bay Area were interacting in ways that can seem hard to remember now. In retrospect, it feels like the perfect time for the emergence of Gerard O’Neill, whose ideas about space colonies received widespread attention in just about the only window that would have allowed them to take hold. During the preparation and editing of Space Colonies, which was followed shortly afterward by O’Neill’s book The High Frontier, another cultural phenomenon was beginning to divert some of those energies along very different lines. And while I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the reception of his work, or at least the way that people talked about it, would have been rather different if it had entered the conversation after Star Wars.

As it turned out, the timing was just right for a wide range of unusually interesting people to earnestly debate the prospect of space colonization. In his introduction to Space Colonies, which consists mostly of material that had previously appeared in CoEvolution Quarterly, Brand notes that “no one else has published the highly intelligent attacks” that O’Neill had inspired, and by far the most interesting parts of the book are the sections devoted to this heated debate. Brand writes:

Something about O’Neill’s dream has cut deep. Nothing we’ve run in The CQ has brought so much response or opinions so fierce and unpredictable and at times ambivalent. It seems to be a paradigmatic question to ask if we should move massively into space. In addressing that we’re addressing our most fundamental conflicting perceptions of ourself, of the planetary civilization we’ve got under way. From the perspective of space colonies everything looks different. Choices we’ve already made have to be made again, because changed context changes content. Artificial vs. Natural, Let vs. Control, Local vs. Centralized, Dream vs. Obey—all are re-jumbled. And space colonies aren’t even really new. That’s part of their force—they’re so damned inherent in what we’ve been about for so long. But the shift seems enormous, and terrifying or inspiring to scale. Hello, stars. Goodbye, earth? Is this the longed-for metamorphosis, our brilliant wings at last, or the most poisonous of panaceas?

And the most striking parts of the book today are the passionate opinions on space colonies, both positive and negative, from some very smart respondents who thought that the idea was worth taking seriously.

Leafing through the book now, I feel a strange kind of double awareness, as names that I associate with the counterculture of the late seventies argue about a future that never happened. It leads off with a great line from Ken Kesey: “A lot of people who want to get into space never got into the earth.” (This echoes one of my favorite observations from Robert Anton Wilson, quoting Brad Steiger: “The lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.”) The great Lewis Mumford dismisses space colonies as “another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race.” But the most resonant critical comment on the whole enterprise comes from the poet Wendell Berry:

What cannot be doubted is that the project is an ideal solution to the moral dilemma of all those in this society who cannot face the necessities of meaningful change. It is superbly attuned to the wishes of the corporation executives, bureaucrats, militarists, political operators, and scientific experts who are the chief beneficiaries of the forces that have produced our crisis. For what is remarkable about Mr. O’Neill’s project is not its novelty or its adventurousness, but its conventionality. If it should be implemented, it will be the rebirth of the idea of Progress with all its old lust for unrestrained expansion, its totalitarian concentrations of energy and wealth, its obliviousness to the concerns of character and community, its exclusive reliance on technical and economic criteria, its disinterest in consequence, its contempt for human value, its compulsive salesmanship.

And another line from Berry has been echoing in my head all morning: “It is only a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do.”

What interests me the most about his response, which you can read in its entirety here, is that it also works as a criticism of many of the recent proposals to address climate change—which may be the one place in which the grand scientific visions of the late seventies may actually come to pass, if only because we won’t have a choice. Berry continues:

This brings me to the central weakness of Mr. O’Neill’s case: its shallow and gullible morality. Space colonization is seen as a solution to problems that are inherently moral, in that they are implicit in our present definitions of character and community. And yet here is a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change and subjects itself to no moral standard. Indeed, the solution is based upon the moral despair of Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that “people do not change.” The only standards of judgment that have been applied to this project are technical and economic. Much is made of the fact that the planners’ studies “continue to survive technical review.” But there is no human abomination that has not, or could not have, survived technical review.

Replace “space colonization” with “geoengineering,” and you have a paragraph that could be published today. (My one modification would be to revise Berry’s description of the morality of the technical specialist, which has subtly evolved into “we can do anything whatever that we must do.”) In a recent article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands when it comes to the problem of how to discuss the environment without succumbing to despair. After quoting the scientist Peter Wadhams on the need for “technologies to block sunlight, or change the reflectivity of clouds,” she writes: “Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.” Yet the debate still needs to happen, and Space Colonies is the best model I’ve found for this sort of technical review, which has to involve voices of all kinds. Because it turns out that we were living on a space colony all along.

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