“Interstellar and the Spaceflight Zeitgeist” by Ben Sibelman

This essay was originally published at the Solseed blog.

Space Flight and Hollywood’s Pessimism

2013 was the Year of the Space Blockbuster. You’d think all those big-budget films featuring space travel and colonization ought to have thrilled people like us who believe in those goals, but the pessimistic tone of most of those movies rather undercuts their value from that perspective. Oblivion and After Earth portray the aftermath of planetary disasters that wiped out civilization on our home planet, while Ender’s Game, like 2009’s Avatar, describes a human spacefleet bent on the destruction of someone else’s homeworld. In Elysium, the eponymous space colony serves as a means for the super-rich to set themselves apart from an overpopulated, impoverished Earth sorely in need of a new Occupy movement. Gravity dramatizes an all-too-realistic space-debris catastrophe that wipes out everything we’ve built in low Earth orbit. The indie film Europa Report tells an inspiring tale of scientific discovery, but like Gravity, it also focuses on the deadly dangers of space travel. Even Star Trek, the venerable utopian franchise, was taken Into Darkness, with a Starfleet admiral trying to lie us into war with the Klingons and a starship crashing into San Francisco.

If the future is so bleak, as Hollywood has been telling us for years, then why the sudden focus on spaceflight, which used to be a source of such great hope and optimism? Today, seen through the lens of recent events, we could read the whole thing in two diametrically opposed ways. Perhaps these films, like the real-life disasters recently suffered by Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic, are warning us away from a renewed focus on an enterprise whose risks could outweigh its benefits. Or perhaps, like the breathtaking achievement of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta/Philae comet mission (which has its own short sci-fi film), the wondrous imagery in each of these movies asks us to accept the risks as a reasonable price for the glorious prospect of getting out there and seeing the universe.

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The bleak vision of Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s new movie Interstellar falls squarely in the latter camp. Its context is a run-up to a planetary disaster on Earth, and like Gravity and Europa Report, it’s honest about the lethal risks of traveling across the vacuum and exploring worlds that lack the necessary conditions for human life. But Interstellar firmly agrees with Europa Report that the risk is worth taking.

And if that were the film’s only message, we in the SolSeed Movement wouldn’t hesitate to support it. But Interstellar has two big problems. One is the typical Hollywood doom and gloom mentioned above. Cooper, the main character, is a firm believer in human ingenuity, but he never questions the assumption that there’s no way we can stop the “Blight” from destroying the world. It’s not healthy for a culture to be so fixated on apocalyptic visions like this, which reduce spaceflight to an escape fantasy equivalent to the Christian Rapture.

Interstellar and Anthropocentrism

The other problem is that the movie’s obsessive focus on the idea of humans taking flight, saving ourselves through the power of our technology, tells viewers that the rest of life on Earth doesn’t really matter. A scientist describes the planetary crisis in strictly human terms, referring to Cooper’s beloved daughter Murphy when he explains that “the last generation to starve will be the first to suffocate,” but neglecting to mention that the loss of Earth’s oxygen supply will spell doom for most other species as well. The Earthly landscapes we see in the film are purely man-made: fields of corn, a reservoir, a town whose streets are choked with dust. Given his experience of crop failures and frequent dust storms, the main character is surprised to learn that one of his fellow astronauts doesn’t believe nature can be “evil.”

We hope this film doesn’t signal a reversal in the decades-long trend of rising environmental consciousness, epitomized by movies like Avatar. As utopian sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson says, we don’t want to pivot from a sense of Earth as cherished home to one where “Earth is humanity’s cradle” and therefore “of only momentary importance, a thing to be used in infancy and then discarded.”* The slogan on some Interstellar movie posters, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here,” seems a clear allusion to the “cradle” concept, first articulated by space pioneer and mechanistic philosopher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky over a century ago.

So where would we want the spaceflight zeitgeist to go instead? Well, the dramatic conflict I’m setting up here, between this idea and the more humble perspective of helping life expand beyond our home planet without abandoning it, would itself make for a great story. On one side you’d have the doom-and-gloom people, convinced that Earth’s current ecological crises either can’t be solved, or require a space-baced technical fix that no one will agree to (e.g. space-based solar arrays that beam huge amounts of energy to Earth using possibly-weaponizable microwave lasers). Their space colony would resemble Elysium or the cylindrical worldlet portrayed toward the end of Interstellar, filled with big houses, lawns and sports fields, monoculture crops, and not much else. It would exist as a “backup for civilization’s hard drive,” hoping to survive long enough to repopulate the Earth after the supposedly inevitable collapse.

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The merging of space enthusiasm and environmental activism

On the other side would be a strange alliance between space enthusiasts and environmental activists, who insist that we can transform society in the direction of harmony with the rest of nature, partly by setting up experimental new societies in space. Such experiments require us to grow wild ecosystems inside a space colony, following the Biosphere 2 model. The idea is that if we can learn to coexist with those ecosystems in such a constrained and risk-filled environment, we’ll certainly be able to do so back on Earth—and that if we screw up and the ecological balance in the colony breaks down, it won’t contribute to Earth’s admittedly massive problems. To keep people motivated to succeed, the colony would eschew mechanical life-support systems and rely entirely on plants, microbes, snails, and fish to recycle air and wastewater. It would also grow all of its food using a polyculture system, which emphasizes diversity and is therefore more robust over the long term than the other colony’s simplified industrial farming model.

Taking the Image of “Mother” Earth Seriously

But why go to the expense of doing all this in space rather than, say, building a bigger and better version of Biosphere 2 here on Earth? Well, the alliance would have a quasi-religious justification based on Gaia theory, well articulated in the recent philosophical novel The Obligation by Steven Wolfe: If Earth can be viewed as a single living organism four billion years old, isn’t it about time for her to develop the power to reproduce? As my fictional alliance (and the SolSeed Movement) sees it, self-sustaining ecosystems in space and on other worlds will be Gaia’s children, and it’s our job to build the shelters, plant the seeds, and help those ecosystems to adapt to their new environments—while simultaneously modifying those environments to suit themselves, as life has always done.

Speaking of children: At one point toward the end of Interstellar, Cooper, referring to some helpful five-dimensional beings that enabled his interstellar mission by creating a wormhole, says wonderingly that “They didn’t choose me. They chose her!” The “her” in question is his daughter back on Earth, who, thanks to relativistic time dilation, is now old enough to be his mother, and whose genius for physics turns out to play a crucial role in saving humanity.

Perhaps there’s an unexpected lesson here about how we relate to “Mother Earth.” We could blast off into space like a runaway child, only to come crawling back when we realize we don’t really know how to support ourselves long-term without her help. Or we could keep exhorting each other to “protect Mother Earth” as if we were her nurturing mother, which doesn’t make much sense either.

Instead, maybe humans need to see that we are part of the life that makes up the Gaia superorganism, and find our role within that context, as cells within her body. And if that makes us feel insignificant, like tiny cogs in a giant living machine—well, it turns out humans don’t have to be just any old cells. We can be neurons, contributing ideas to the global discourse that in some ways acts like a giant brain. We can be immune-system cells, seeking out damage and healing it, and fighting off attackers like killer asteroids.

And finally, one day, when our understanding of ecology has matured enough, we can become the most unique and special cells of all: egg cells.

*Quote from the book Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, p. 254

The Author

Ben at Port Angeles small

Ben Sibelman is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement, as well as an environmental activist, amateur graphic artist, writer, and programmer. He is working on a sci-fi novel set in a hollow-asteroid colony in the 25th century.  Ben’s  personal blog is OpenSpace4Life.

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2 Comments on ““Interstellar and the Spaceflight Zeitgeist” by Ben Sibelman

  1. You know I love this Ben! The image of humans as egg cells strikes me as a little curious. I can’t think of what Gaia’s eggs would be if her children were living worlds, but humans aren’t the first thing I think of.

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