Cosmic escapism

The Millennial Project
July 28, 1995

Over-population and vanishing resources, says Marshall Savage, must inevitably push humanity into interstellar space; some day our teeming trillions will spread through the whole galaxy. The time has come, he feels, to draft a blueprint of the space-buff's Utopia. But the Utopia business has many pitfalls . . .

Following an introduction filled with references to "the stars . . . our legacy", "our cosmic destiny", "the clarion call of destiny", we work our way through the early sections describing the first of Savage's eight easy steps, technical plans for starting humanity on its cosmic travels - floating islands, the use of ocean temperature gradients for generating energy, electromagnetic systems for launching spacecraft, plastic bubbles for life in space. Some of these ideas are plausible, interesting and probably sound in the limited sense that, given the resources, they should be technically viable, but the social, economic and psychological issues are not seriously addressed. At this point the author's considerable imagination is still under control. As far as the technology goes, he has done his homework. One is impressed, here, by his command of so much engineering material.

However, as we follow Savage further on his eightfold way to the planets and the stars, things begin to deteriorate. The technology, first borrowed from Star Wars drawing boards, soon slides into the pure fiction of Dyson Clouds for harnessing the energy of stars and anti-matter propulsion systems. We are confronted with strange ecstatic statements like "Humans are the ultimate catalyst in the universe, animating the inanimate" and "It is up to us to fulfil our destiny by reproducing the Earth, not once, but billions of times; not just here, but throughout the universe".

Today, writers in this vein know that such anthropocentrism must be rationalised and that they must consider political corrrectness - overt colonialism is unacceptable. So they try to "prove" that the universe is at present devoid of intelligent life - indeed, Savage wants to show that it is devoid of life altogether. He appeals to the Fermi paradox ("Where is everybody?" ie why have we not heard from the ETs?) and to the similar arguments of Frank Tipler and Freeman Dyson. Such reasoning, of course, attributes to ETs motives, actions and knowledge similar to ours; it is wrecked by psychological anthropocentrism. Savage's attempt to estimate the probability of life arising on an earth-type planet, based on simplistic arithmetic for a totally random series of reactions, leads him to the absurd odds of 10-360 to 1, ie to virtual impossibility. Since we are here, it seems more reasonable to invert the argument and conclude that these figures merely give the odds against his argument being right.

At this point, this review's first co-author politely passes the word-processor to his philosophic colleague, who originally asked him in to make the scientific situation clear. That done, she now moves on from the facts to remark on the immense gap that divides right uses of science fiction from wrong. The principle here surely is that SF is perfectly all right so long as you do not tell people to believe it literally. Good science fiction uses hypothetical worlds honestly, often to great effect, as imaginative analogies in order to illuminate real-life problems. The bad kind offers these potent images as if they were realistic information in order to sell us lies about those problems.

The two uses have always been mixed. In H. G. Wells's day, an increasingly uncertain future began to provide a screen on to which every kind of fantasy could equally be projected. At that point, it was genuinely hard to sort out plausible ideas from bunkum. This allowed ingenious authors to smuggle back the exciting idea of real magic -which positivists had tried to banish from western thought - by hiding it under the mantle of science. Crude, infantile power-fantasies gained immense force from being dressed in the paraphernalia of the laboratory. And of course some of the details proposed did indeed take solid shape as telephones and aeroplanes, thus giving their authors the useful status of prophets.

But prophecy is always a moral and political act as well as mere factual prediction. Even when its predictions turn out to be true, it is never neutral. It directs us, it fixes people's attention on one set of possibilities rather than others. Science fiction has been quite powerful here. It has concentrated an extraordinary amount of attention on a few selected technical problems - notably weapons and transport - as if these constituted the main difficulties of life. It distracts us from the real centres of human trouble, which concern the nature and behaviour of people.

Schemes as elaborate as Savage's could not conceivably be carried out by humans. Even if they made economic sense, they would require beings far more docile and corporate, perhaps intelligent social insects, organising themselves with almost perfect self-denying co-operation. Such beings would probably not have to leave the planet at all; they could save it co-operatively without leaving it. But since every adult human knows that people are not docile in this way, schemes built on treating them as such are necessarily vacuous and dishonest. When Savage does mention these difficulties, his euphoria touches new and startling levels. He explains that harmonious life in his intensely organised system will only require that we become totally unified in mind: "It is essential to adopt a radically new paradigm of social organisation. . . Fulfilment of our destiny requires that we join together. We must coalesce, to become a cohesive organised society. . . We need only reach out to each other, like neurons in the developing brain - extending our dendritic branches through the telecommunications web, forming a plexus of interconnected harmonious minds." (Emphasis added.) This extreme unification, however, will be combined with equally extreme individualism, expressed in the libertarian language of the American New Right. Telecommunications will provide "real, as opposed to representative democracy", giving everyone an equal voice and yielding decision procedures which (we are reassuringly told) will be very much like those of the Chicago Stock Exchange. "'It will be utter chaos!' Exactly. And that is the point. Pure democracy allows the body politic to tap into the driving engine of Cosmos - Chaos . . . In the Foundation, each and every individual is endowed with absolute sovereign power. . . The Foundation is a society of kings."

Quite a lot of people do, of course, talk as if some scheme like Savage's was indeed available as an answer to the looming environmental crisis. Escapism on this cosmic scale is very attractive, and the space myth has been built up to the point where even some respectable scientists who ought to know better cannot stop putting their trust in it.

NASA, however, no longer gets the resources for this sort of pie in the sky. It is flatly dishonest to pretend that any private foundation could do so. No planet, in fact, could afford such resources. This Asimovian concept of the future was misleadingly kept going for a time by the cold war. But futures are notoriously chancy things. This one is an old-fashioned, obsolete future. No amount of nostalgic rhetoric can revive it.

Ivan Tolstoy is a geophysicist and historian of science, formerly at Florida State University. Mary Midgley is a philosopher with rather cosmic interests, formerly at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Millennial Project: Colonising the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps

Author - Marshall T. Savage
ISBN - 0 316 77163 5
Publisher - Little, Brown & Co
Price - £11.99
Pages - 508

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