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Our obsession with space colonies (and why they probably won’t happen).

Posted by Charles Gray on June 29, 2011

This is a part of my new book, pre-nasty-evil-copyeditor.  I’ll probably be putting much of the book on this blog, with the finished product being sold as an ebook.


The Shining City on the Hill (or in space).


If there is one factor that often crops up in both fiction and speculative fact about space colonies, it’s the idea that a colony will allow us to “Transcend” the problems on earth. The crowded cities, the pollution, the small minded bureaucrats and the criminals will be left behind, as mankind, like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, rises to the new world.

Sound familiar?  It should, because it is very similar to many years of writing about the United States’ own colonial experience, writing that more and more is seen to be myth, not reality.

What would become the dominant ideological component of the United States was initially founded by religious and political exiles. The North, from the puritan colonies of New England to the Quaker dominated Pennsylvania region, was founded largely by those who were leaving in order to find a land where they could conduct their religious views without interference, though that did not extend to letting others conduct their religion in peace.  Let us not forget that Anne Hutchinson was expelled from one of these new freedom seeking lands, due to her own religious beliefs.  The room for freedom didn’t include challenging the new orthodoxy.

But regardless, the idea of a land free of the corruption of the old world, of seeking out a new paradise, endured within American lore, not the least due to the fact that the North eventually became the industrial and social center of the new nation, unlike the South (which had largely been colonized with far more mundane goals in mind). It became an article of faith within the United States to the point that the “End of the Frontier” was once marked as a dangerous point for America’s very way of doing things, in Frederick Jackson Thomas’s frontier thesis.

And that myth has continued among the advocates of moving into space.  Book after book sees the protagonists moving from the corrupt earth to a “land” that permits them to achieve their dreams.  Here, in the darkness of  space, the hard working will keep the fruits of their labor, and the brave will make a world suited to their drive.

It is all in fact, quite mythical, and is often phrased as a coming of age story.    James P. Hogan’s young adult story, Outward Bound, which is concisely described by Publishers Weekly is an excellent example of this:

When 15-year-old street punk Linc Marani is arrested during a routine shakedown, his life is set on a new course that leads to the stars. Faced with the choice of spending the rest of his life in work camps or joining a mysterious recruitment program, Linc opts for the latter. Soon he’s transferred from jail to a series of top-secret camps where the weak wash out and the bodies and minds of the remaining incorrigibles are disciplined and honed. Linc’s benefactors, tough but fair, reveal themselves to be from the “Outzone,” the area of space beyond Mars where independent “zoners” are struggling to establish a new civilization based on truth and service.


Those who can make the cut are lifted above the mass of the undeserving and if they are good enough– worthy enough, they may be taken away from the evils of the modern world.

Beyond the physical problems described in part one, here we come to a reading of space that is less about an actual place than it is an idea. The processs of making one self ready for space is a transformative process, that not only produces material benefits, but creates a society that is spiritually elevated, often to the level of  former “street punks” becoming new pioneers– often with the added benefit of developing skills that in reality take years or decades to master.

But could such a thing happen?

First of all, it’s important to remember that our national mythology of the “City on the Hill,” and of the elevating nature of the frontier is just that– a national mythology.  Those who left for the frontier did not in fact lose their human failings– quite the opposite. It was the frontier that marked the near genocide of the Native Americans, to the point that many eastern visitors often commented on the savagery demonstrated by the western settlers (though the Easterners were able to say this because their own suppression of the East Coast Native American nations was comfortably in the past).

Beyond that, as historians have worked harder to strip aside the self-congratulatory works of the past we find that it wasn’t just the Native Americans who suffered.  Blacks, Latinos (many of whom found themselves dispossessed of their own land after the Mexican-American War), and Chinese all found themselves forcebly reminded that the great destiny was not for them.

Worse for the view of the advocates of the space colony as an escape, is the fact that very few of these societies had any difficulty integrating with the rest of the world– people did not fight to keep the corruptive influences of the “old” east away when it appeared in the form of railroads, they fought to attract those influences.  Farmers did not mourn the ending of the lonely grandeur of homestead, they cheered the ability to order goods from the east in their mail order catalogues.

Most importantly, the greatest days of the western frontier did not come during the era of the gold rush and boom town, however much that might bulk large in our national consciousness.  No, it came with the rise of citrus in California, farming in the midwest, the rise of lumber mills and the creation of the railroads   It wasn’t the pioneering 49’ers who eventually created the wealth of the new state but the farmers and businessmen who followed in their wake.

The last point is that the “old” west didn’t last very long– less than a century and the vast majority of the people who built it were trying to build something very much like their former homes back east.  Their main obstacles were physical– not social or moral.

The cultural differences that did exist were in large part due to the absence of any pre-existing society that the settlers wished to emulate, but this did not lead to a dramatic break with the society from which they had come. All one has to do to understand that is to consider just how well Bleeding Kansas managed to escape the sins of the old world.

And that is the first difficulty with our social view of space colonization advocacy.  It starts, in many cases, from a belief that is fundamentally at odds with reality– that by leaving, by removing from one physical point to another, however distant, one can escape, and become somehow different.  The problem is obvious, that humans remain humans no matter where they go, be it earth or the farthest star.  It is in fact this misconception that is at the heart much of the problems with the advocacy of space colonization.


2 Responses to “Our obsession with space colonies (and why they probably won’t happen).”

  1. mallocup said

    It’s good to know your bottomless negativism and endless despair will carry over so effortlessly into your fiction.

  2. happyhyena said

    In truth, it’s not despair at all– the problem with the idea of the shining city on the hill, is that it argues that most people need to be abandoned, that only the chosen can– or should, survive. That is in fact one of the problems with much in the way of speculative fiction– it assumes that space is the only way to escape what is otherwise a doomed situation, a claim that has not, in general been borne out by our history.

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