Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Final Frontier

Here's an article by Charlie Stross about colonizing other planets, on the topic that comparing the exploration of space to the American frontier is a false analogy:

Space Cadets

I won't repeat the arguments; read it firsthand. I agree it's fairly obvious that the "rugged individualism" model of the frontier (which was an illusion even in the westward expansion era of the nineteenth century) wouldn't be practical in outer space, regardless of Golden Age SF stories of backyard inventors such as Robert Heinlein's ROCKETSHIP GALILEO. STAR TREK was promoted as "WAGON TRAIN to the stars," actually not a terribly accurate description (the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, with a group of families searching for a new home, was more like WAGON TRAIN). STAR TREK is much better described as "Horatio Hornblower in space." (I think Rodenberry himself compared Kirk to Hornblower, a swashbuckling captain operating somewhat autonomously far from home base.) The original wagon trains, however, were supported by a complex social and technological infrastructure. As Stross implies, even back then you couldn't "light out for the territory" with no help from the society you were fleeing.

But how about the final sentence of Stross's article, which asserts that colonizing space and extraterrestrial environments is incompatible not only with the frontier myth but with a libertarian ideology? If it's safe to equate the views of Heinlein with those of his characters in, for example, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, he'd vehemently disagree.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. You might be mis-reading the "Libertarian" philosophy. It's not a loner philosophy, or even "rugged individualism" -- not the "Mountain Man" hiking the Rockies all alone in winter.

    It's a method of organizing the social cooperative structures that support each other that is based on a fundamentally different concept of how to manage the human tendency to acquire power over other humans. And it's primarily about economic power.

    There are points where I agree and points where I disagree, but the Libertarian approach would work as well "in space" or "on the frontier" as it does here and now.

    The real question may be, "Why do humans keep trying to find an answer to "What's the best way to organize human society?" which is final and absolute and works perfectly everywhere and throughout all time.

    Is it that we want so desperately to stop thinking at all? Are we that tired as a species?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. Well, yes, but Stross seems to be saying that in an ET environment (a space station, an enclosed dome, or a terraformed alien planet) only a tightly organized, highly controlling form of government would work. I'm not sure what I think about that premise.

  3. Margaret:

    Well, "seems to be saying" leaves it open to interpretation, but personally, I view with suspicion anything or any one who points at something and hints, indicates, alludes, implies, (the more subtle, the less I believe it) that THIS IS THE ONLY WAY. "Only" being the operative concept.

    The universe is too big, too diverse, and humanity too well suited to this universe in flexibility, adaptability, etc, for an "only" to be plausible.

    However, it does make for great fictional conflicts.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg