Fucked in Space
what science fiction wants me to think about this holiday season
Two big sci-fi books came out in 2015: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. Both embark on a similar theme we’ve seen them deploy in other works: surviving our own wretched humanity. This time in space.
In Seveneves, the moon blows apart and humanity has only months to scramble offworld before it comes raining down on us. In Aurora, as Earth simmers in its geothermal karma, we find offworlders seeking resettlement on Aurora. Both ask the same question: what fortuitous chain of miracles is it going to take for us to survive once the planet can no longer bear us?
In 2015, the outstretched horizon of possibility is the siren song of civilization. Space calls out to us with its promise of endless pasture. We feel good about exploration because it serves as a measure of our progress. Since the advent of the Cold War, broken records are nationalist propaganda. When NASA succeeds, we feel like we succeed.
But maybe in marveling over the solutions we too often skip over the question: why are we trying to get out so badly?
I had the bizarre fortune of attending Kim Stanley Robinson’s launch of Aurora in San Francisco two weeks ago. Having just finished Seveneves, I asked him when he felt compelled to write this “confinement in space” narrative because the timing of both publications is uncanny. To (badly) paraphrase his answer the only way I can: look, everyone, I really thought about this and I have come to the conclusion that we are pretty much fucked in space. To express the sheer suck of surviving in space is to say across many pages: if we can save humanity the trouble of having coordinate a massive space exodus by fixing the planet, maybe we should do that first, yeah?
What I liked best about reading Aurora and Seveneves together is how much they make the inescapable point that space has no chill. Space will find the stupidest reason in the literal known universe for you to die and so much of your every day will be spent at the unenjoyable task of constantly cheating yourself out of a stupid death.
Which is a really fabulous way getting to an essential truth: wherever you go, there you are.
In this spirit, I’d like to share the three things I learned from these two books about surviving in space:
- It’s definitely not all about you.
- You’re stuck together, babies.
- You’ve only a few choices in space; make them count.
Thus, these narratives serve as the antidote of neoliberal modernity, where:
- It’s all about you.
- You’re on your own.
- You’re drowning in choices; none of them matter.
So it occurs to me that maybe this is paradoxically why Americans love the space mission narrative. Extreme conditions that, at least on screen or in print, constrain our choices, force us to rely on each other and dissolve ourselves in the collective enterprise of survival. Missions are cleanly defined, even if the tactics are figured out along the way. We thrill at the prospect of joining a rebel alliance and kicking space’s ass. I’ve seen Star Wars at least ten times. You can’t tell me otherwise.
Because let’s face it: Americans love collectivism. We are forever champions of teamwork, no matter how many ill-conceived group assignments we survived in high school. We will be forever drawn to narratives of survival enterprise because we know, reflexively, that this is how civilization is done.
No one wants to climb Mount Doom alone.
But in much the same way Great Man History allowed rich white men to think they were telling the story of humanity while ignoring 99% of it, today’s ideologues obscure how we actually want to function on this planet.
You know what the free market of ideas is promising?
We tease futurists for their silly Facebook predictions about how we’re unfriending people. But I, for one, don’t know how it is we got to the point after the 2008 crash where we are allowing Goldman Sachs to host international summits celebrating a fairer globalized future at the same time it tells us we can’t do any of it without working it through their debt finance channels that created the last crisis.
Donald Trump is literally threatening fascist rule on American soil and what have you been doing this week with all your choices?
Yeah, I thought so.
Where’s your team if this is not a drill?
Do you know?
What is getting in the way of seeing this as worthy of your attention?
And so you know how alienation works. Bullshit choice is paralyzing. The most absurd illustration I can offer of this is Netflix’s title selection screen. I knew a beautiful man a few years ago who would spend what had to be hours scrolling through Netflix. Never mind that we lived in Boston, were both young and brilliant, all he wanted to do was scroll through this list of terrible movies. I felt alienated almost immediately.
To have all this freedom to chill but no will to dance.
So utterly preoccupied are we with the need to maximize choice in our lives, we fail to identify the cognitive overload of the choice imperative as its own kind of constraint. The mind following this logic to its most logical conclusion is easily tortured, paralyzed and seduced by cultural interception because it has no grounding in any moral truths. It makes you easy to co-opt.
To fetishize choice is a mistake. All science recognizes the iron law of systemic limits. And history recognizes the drive to appropriate the horizon before raising the orchards has been the downfall of every empire.
If Sociology has anything to teach us about civilization, it’s that alienation is the friction coefficient of human progress. The simplest way I can explain alienation to you is this: when you don’t recognize who you are in what you are doing, you’re alienated from your life. You feel like you’re ghosting through processes, not really there. You know what this feels like.
And it’s sort of how we feel when we find ourselves overwhelmed by the imperative to choose. We are forced to choose for our life knowing there are only really a few levers that actually matter. The alienation that defines Millennials right now is that of having an abundance of bullshit buttons on the dash, but the realization that none of them are brakes.
The more choices we think we have, the more we suck at making them. Not because we aren’t excellent consumers (best the world’s ever seen!), but because we suck when we’re making them. We get high on choice because we confuse it for power. We then navigate choice mindlessly guided by few principles other than path of least resistance and the lowest common denominator. We don’t even think on the possibility of building the brake ourselves. We are slowly but surely choosing that the train should stay on fire.
As a generation, we should have zero chill.
There are people snapchatting their Seamless deliveries at 11pm after working all day who I know are dying inside.
Are we going to allow ourselves to chill again for another year?
This commitment to celebrating our capacity to make a variety of bullshit choices and mistaking it for liberty has proven itself to be utter madness — the worst kind of madness, the kind so completely scarred by contradictory delusions, the beauty of it is really hard to find. There will be no mural to paint of this mess.
And so it’s to sagas of epic constraint like Seveneves and Aurora where many of us go to re-up on humanity because it’s only in the absence of freedom that anyone ever knows what to do. In space, no tomorrow is guaranteed.
But these authors also don’t want you to get the wrong idea about space. If you can avoid getting yourself shot into space, they advise you should avoid getting yourself shot into space. It sucks.
So here’s what I’ve concluded about survival from science fiction in 2015:
- It’s not all about you.
2. We’re collectively fucked.
3. What are we going to do about it?