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Jeff Bezos’s new plans for space have stirred up old fights in science fiction

Is planet Earth all that we have, or do we need to go to the stars?

- May 10, 2019

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos on Thursday debuted a new lunar landing module, to be constructed by his space exploration company, Blue Origin.

As he has in previous speeches, Bezos — who also owns The Washington Post — made it clear that the moon is only the beginning. He wants to help kick-start a new multigenerational era of space exploration that would culminate in millions of humans living in space colonies.

His vision is spurred by the ideas of the physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who proposed such colonies a generation ago, but it is firmly embedded in debates within science fiction. O’Neill was engaged in fights that spanned science fiction and space exploration. New fights have emerged over the intervening decades. These fights help to explain the politics around Bezos’s proposal.

O’Neill was arguing against ‘planetary chauvinism’

O’Neill was opposed to traditional proposals for space colonization, which were aimed at colonizing planets. In his presentation, Bezos played excerpts from a famous televised argument between O’Neill and the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov over the genre’s lack of imagination. Asimov used the term “planetary chauvinism” to refer to the systematic bias of science fiction toward planetary exploration. O’Neill proposed an alternative vision in which human beings would not seek to colonize planets, but instead build their own enclosed cylindrical space habitats.

Some people — including Bezos’s chief rival in privatized space entrepreneurship, Elon Musk — have taken up the traditional idea of colonizing other planets. Musk wants to get people to Mars. Bezos attended O’Neill’s lectures and was clearly convinced by many of his arguments.

Colonizing planets has many attractions. However, it also has a variety of associated problems. First, colonizing planets in the solar system would require people to live in enclosed spaces within extraordinarily hostile environments. Mars would be a very unpleasant place to live. So why not just live in an enclosed space? Second, planets are at the bottom of gravity wells, which make them poorly suited to serving as bases for further exploration (without as yet undeveloped technologies such as space elevators). Finally, from an engineering perspective, planets are inefficient habitats: Living creatures inhabit the planet’s surface (or are relatively close to it, with the possible exception of some extremophile microorganisms), making little use of the rest of the planet. It is easy to envisage alternative structures that would have a more efficient ratio of surface to mass, including O’Neill cylinders and (depending on exotic physics) more speculative megastructures.

Science-fiction writers have proposed rings surrounding stars, spheres of matter that enclose them, and swarms of structures that do much the same thing. Bezos is a fan of the late Scottish writer Iain M. Banks, who described “Orbitals,” built out of vast flat plates orbiting a sun. Several novels by British writer Alastair Reynolds are set in a “Glitter Band” of O’Neill cylinders, orbiting close to a quasi-inhabitable planet, while Linda Nagata’s new novel “Edges” explores a future in which human-built Dyson swarms appear to have collapsed.

Other arguments have sprung up in its wake

These are disagreements about how humans should colonize space. The more fundamental debate is over whether human beings should colonize space at all. Charles Stross, for example, has written a classic rejoinder to both O’Neill’s arguments about the “High Frontier” of space and proposals for planetary colonization. Space is really big and really hostile to DNA-based life. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of a classic series of books about “terraforming” Mars to make it more friendly to human life, has written a novel about interstellar exploration, Aurora, that is clearly intended to push back against the fascination with space exploration as an alternative to fixing our problems on Earth.

One side of this fight is driven by concerns over inequality and global warming. Writers like Robinson worry that we have only one world — and we are screwing it up. They suggest that dreams of solar and extrasolar colonization are ways of ducking the real fight over figuring out how to prevent the one environment that we know human beings can inhabit — the planet Earth — from being irrevocably degraded.

The other side is driven by the belief that there are effectively infinite resources available — once human beings figure out how to sustain a version of their civilization in space. Bezos argues that human beings either face a future of rationed resources or a future of infinitely expanding possibilities. He wants human beings to make the leap to space — and is prepared to put billions of dollars behind this ambition.

Unsurprisingly, this disagreement sometimes spills over into politics. The prominent science fiction writer Neal Stephenson’s recent novel “Seveneves” depicts humans having to flee the Earth at short notice when it becomes uninhabitable. One of the major characters is a thinly disguised and unsympathetic portrait of Hillary Clinton. Poul Anderson’s 1989 novel, “The Boat of a Million Years,” presents an equally unflattering caricature of a politician based on the late senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), impeding the space program in favor of social spending. Other novels by writers such as Paolo Bacigalupi depict humans trapped in a world that has been ruined by global warming, while the triple-Hugo-winning “Broken Earth” trilogy by N.K. Jemisin shows humans being overwhelmed by vast geological forces.

To say that these fights are science fictional is not to dismiss them. As writers like the late Thomas Disch have emphasized, science fiction has had an extraordinarily influential role in setting the scale of our social ambitions (Disch lamented that the literary science fiction writers whom he favored, like Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe and Paul Park, had less influence than those who were more interested in the engineering). Science fiction (and closely associated forms of nonfiction) provide the basic intellectual vocabulary that we use to think about big issues that connect technology, society and the environments we live in. As these issues become existential, science fiction is becoming increasingly important.