For over 50 years I’ve been reading science fiction hoping humanity will someday travel to the stars and settle other planets. Obvious other people do too, just witness the frenzy behind the new Star Wars movie, which opens on the 18th. Galactic empire stories are the new locale for big sword and sorcery epics. (Isn’t it bizarre that both are enamored with aristocracy?) What deep rooted drive makes us want to colonize distant lands? Why are we enchanted by alien landscapes, strange superior beings and their surreal cultures?
Of course, the film Avatar probably reveals our true intentions. We’d do to other worlds, what we’ve done to ours.
I just finished A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak, which questioned our desire for interstellar travel. It was published back in 1977. A Heritage of Stars is a quaint little book, not particularly good, unless you relish 1950s style science fiction, where Simak, in his seventies, questions many of the tropes of our genre. This same questioning was evident in Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel. Both Simak and Robinson wonder at the wisdom of traveling to the stars. The distances are beyond fantastic, almost beyond comprehension. Characters in Star Wars zoom between planetary systems quicker than we travel between cities on Earth in our jet airliners. The absurdity of that strains the boundaries of absurdity. It’s only slightly less delusional than thinking we can travel to other worlds by dying.
Simak covers many of the most famous themes of science fiction in A Heritage of Stars. The setting is in the far future Earth, a thousand years after the collapse of a great technological civilization that went to the stars, and built intelligent robots. In some ways, it’s a variation of Simak’s classic City. America is now a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving tribes who collect the heads of robots for ceremonial voodoo. They are primitive people who can’t conceive of space travel or intelligent machines. The story is about a young man named Cushing who takes shelter in a closed-wall town, built around a former university. Cushing learns to read, discovering that humans used to be great. Cushing eventually finds mysterious references to “Place of Going to the Stars” and sets out on a quest to find it. Much like a L. Frank Baum Oz book, Cushing gathers along the way a motley assortment of strange characters to take up his quest too. A witch, a surviving robot, a horse, a man who talks to trees and a autistic like girl who can commune with the transcendental.
Along the way, Simak’s characters discover what happened to mankind, and allows Simak to philosophize about why we wanted to go to the stars. Simak also wonders if mankind is smart enough to survive his addiction to technology. Even forty year ago Simak realized that interstellar travel isn’t very practical, questioning his science fictional roots. Had Simak given up on the Final Frontier dream because he was getting old? He was in his mid-seventies at the time. I’m in a my mid-sixties and I too have given up on colonizing distant worlds. Does getting older make us realize our childhood fantasies have no foundation in reality?
Science fiction is mostly high tech fantasy that reveals the same impulses humans have always shown. This world and life doesn’t seem to be enough for us. We want more. But the reality appears that this life and planet is all we’ll ever have. Like many other science fiction stories Simak wonders if the future of humanity will be one where we give up technology and live nomadic lives much like how Homo sapiens lived its first two hundred thousand years of existence. I can’t help but believe Simak was greatly influenced by Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. And I believe Simak would have been blown away by Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a philosophical thought experiment that wonders what Earth would be like if humans just disappeared.
Shouldn’t we psychoanalyze why science fictions two strongest themes are space travel and the post-apocalypse? Why are galactic empires always suffering collapse and revolutions? Isn’t it rather telling that our favorite fantasies feature feudal governments and primitive weapons? The heroes of Star Wars fight with swords made of light. Is the reason why conservatives want smaller governments is because they don’t have the genes to imagine large ones?
Strangely, Simak reveals a problem that NASA wouldn’t discover until years later. Mainly, we can collect the data, even store the data, but we won’t always be able to access the data. One of the conundrums that Cushing and his crew face is humans went to the stars but what they discovered is locked up in technology that their post-apocalyptic world can’t access. I felt let down by Simak’s solution. Let’s just say that Simak’s hope for humanities failures is to discover supernatural powers. That was a common theme in 1950s science fiction, especially Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and its 1960s retelling, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon was never much of a technological science fiction writer, and went right for the ESP solution in More Than Human. Even the hard science Heinlein had hopes humans would discover magical powers. I guess they all grew up reading Oz books.
I feel let down by Simak, although I enjoyed A Heritage of Stars well enough. I believe he ends his story with false hope. Simak believes humanity can keep trying until it gets it right. Yet, he doesn’t attempt to describe what is getting it right might be. Not long ago I read a passage about Neanderthals that shook me up. It stated for the entire length of its long species’ lifetime, Neanderthals never showed any progress after achieving a certain level of development with their stone tools. For hundreds of thousands of years they made the same tools. We Homo sapiens feel superior because we’re quite dazzling with our technological innovation. However, I’m not sure we’re not like the Neanderthals in that we’ve continued to follow the same emotional and psychological patterns that we have for the last two hundred thousand years. We can’t get away from our Old Testament mindset, and without technology, we’d all live pretty much like North American tribal people before the advent of Western invaders, or the people who lived on the Russian Steppes and spoke the language that inspired all the Indo-European languages.
Kim Stanley Robinson has a much more sophisticated lesson about why we won’t be colonizing planets orbiting distant suns in his book Aurora. We are adapted to our biosphere. It’s extremely complex and interrelated. It’s extremely doubtful. even if we could travel the distance to another stellar system, we could integrate into another biosphere. Humans were made for this planet and biological landscape. We could probably export our biosphere to other barren planets if the conditions were right, but even that is doubtful.
Simak doesn’t give much focus to the intelligent machines of his story, but I’m guessing artificial intelligence has more potential validity than any other theme that science fiction explores. Simak points out that robots are the true species for interstellar travel. If Star Wars was realistic, galactic empires would be governed and populated by C3POs and R2D2s. Biological creatures would always stay on the planet of their origins, comfortably bound to their biospheres.
Simak wrote A Heritage of Stars near the end of his life, probably speculating about what will happen to humanity after his death, and revealing a certain level of age related pessimism about the future. I don’t know if he was aware of environmental catastrophes—he seemed to fear our mishandling of technology. Forty years later, our race doesn’t seem any wiser, but it does seem more suicidal.
More and more, I’m becoming an atheist to the religion I grew up with, science fiction. It’s not that I’m going to stop reading science fiction, but I no longer believe it. I study science fiction like many former believers still study The Bible. Both The Bible and science fiction reveal our deepest inner hopes. For some reason humans want to go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri. We need to understand why, and also need to understand why we’re turning our own biosphere into Hell.
Essay #984 – Table of Contents
12 thoughts on “Our Fantasy For Interstellar Travel is Dying”
I agree with you Jim. Our bodies are too fragile and lives too short for interstellar travel. It will require either robots (as you mentioned) or our ability to “merge” with technology to overcome our frailties. I like the idea of terraforming (by robots) planetary bodies that are “within reach” of our near-term technologies more. Regardless, all of these ideas depend on a significant advance in robotics/AI…we’re not even close. I think in the past, the idea of interstellar travel was intriguing because it seemed within grasp. Our society saw the rapid advances made during the industrial revolution and anything seemed possible. However, it seems that the more we learn about the universe and what is scientifically required to actually travel and survive these vast distances, the further away we are from ever achieving interstellar travel. This in turn likely has led to a decrease in interest you’ve discussed.
Jason, if people started thinking about it, robots are perfect for space travel. I assume we’ll keep sending out robots that get smarter and smarter, until they are smarter than us.
We need to start thinking about getting Spaceship Earth ship shape.
Ah, but it’s still a major element of recent films! Interstellar, etc. But yeah, perhaps the science of it all is a little out of our league (and near future).
Joachim, I think in the future, maybe the far future, we’ll figure out how to send probes to other systems. I don’t think that technology is beyond us. But do humans really want to risk going so far to expose themselves to alien biology? Or to sterile planets so far from home? I suppose we could develop space habitats that are perfect for humans. There’s lots of ideas for science fiction to still explore.
I’m not sure there is much too deep to psychoanalyze about either why we are fascinated with space travel or why feudal societies and colonization are also popular…(some) humans have always been curious and wanted more. It is only in the last tiny sliver of history that we’ve become so consumed with consumption that we would rather all sit at home. Or if not “rather”, by and large we in the Western world don’t have anything driving us to move towards something different or better the way that poverty, war, or simply a life free of so much frivolous time wasting motivates people for “adventure”, whatever that may be.
As regards feudal society, heck, that’s all we’ve ever known. Democracy is a relatively new concept as well, and our version of it certainly isn’t without its feudal trappings.
I’m still not sure we won’t ever travel beyond our planet. I know it won’t happen in our lifetime, but I suspect there are all kinds of kids out there that have the same space travel dreams you and I had in our childhood whose imaginations aren’t limited by what the world is today. The way we live now would have been unthinkable science fiction in many ways just 100 years ago. Who knows what another hundred or two years will bring.
I think it is unlikely, but not impossible. I just don’t know what the impetus would be for us to actually “boldly go” if it weren’t for overpopulation, depletion of resources, etc. Sadly you are correct in that we would definitely treat other planets and people the way we treat Earth and each other. It is the only motivation I can see for governments ever investing the resources need to make space travel a reality…if it could ever be real.
And I think the reason we gravitate towards the post-apocalyptic is that it isn’t that hard to see the world heading that direction instead of the direction that would produce space travel. I think we all have a morbid fascination to some degree with the things we fear. Think of how popular Cold War era movies and fiction were during that period.
I also think there is a weird form of hopeful wish fulfillment in our love of the post-apocalyptic. We want to believe that even if something that horrible actually happened that we would somehow figure out a way to make the situation work.
So to me, I think our fascination with those ideas is pretty par for the course and that the basis of the fascination is the same as it was for previous generations, the trappings are just a bit different.
I personally don’t see the desire to travel to a new planet or the current obsession with post-apocalyptic fiction or dystopia to be entirely pessimistic. I think we are all looking for hope, and there is hope in both scenarios, and both scenarios rely largely on humans being agents of what it takes to survive and thrive in those imagined futures.
As always, my two cents. Probably not worth quite that much with inflation.
Carl, I’ve always had a fascination with stories about people stranded on a deserted island, or last people on Earth post-apocalyptic stories. That just could be a desire to live somewhere with fewer people. Being a colonist on Mars or the Moon would satisfy that desire too. That might not be pessimism, but a hunger for more nature and less people. Admiring pioneers and survivors might be a very positive trait. Also, maybe we all wish our population density was much smaller.
I still don’t know why people love feudal systems and the aristocracy. Maybe some people want to be special, and pick out fantasies where they can be from royal families, or knights. Maybe such governments are easier to understand and more colorful than democracies. Genetically, we’re tribal animals, that admire alpha males and females, and aristocratic societies reflect that.
Even if Mars were a perfect world for humans, it would be practical to offload our excess population there. It would be a new genetic home for the human race, but we reproduce far faster than we can build rockets.
I think those kinds of stories are fascinating as well. I was initially really interested in that Last Man television series but the main character was such a sexual/sexist pig that after a handful of episodes I couldn’t take it anymore. But the opening of the first episode where he traveled around in an RV visiting places and collecting items had me hooked. I’ve probably had as many daydreams about what I would do in that situation as I have those “what would you do if you won the lottery” thoughts.
I have to admit, my favorite parts of the novel, The Martian, were his musings on what TV shows he was watching, music he was listening to, books he was reading. It emphasized that “aloneness” to me even more than the rest of the story.
It would be lonely, to be sure. But there is certainly a part of me, my introverted side, that would like to have an “It’s a Wonderful Life” adventure where I could experience being the last human alive on the Earth. It would be a fascinating adventure.
I’m not sure why people gravitate towards feudal systems and kingdoms, etc. in fiction/film when it comes to SFF. It may be that it is simply an easy structure to relate to and we are so used to it that it seems uncomfortable to step outside of that for lots of fantasy and science fiction.
With the science deniers gaining numbers and the republicans maybe coming into power and the Muslim world having no interest in any space travel efforts, science or global cooperation, how can we expect future generations anywhere to have any desire for space travel when the calculations dealing with light years and time and it’s association with the facts of the age of the universe being 13 billion or so years old, will be taught as false. Why go to other worlds to see the workings of the evolution of the universe, when evolution is also being pushed as false? I use to love Star Trek and had hopes that some generations down the road, we’d get there, but now I don’t believe so. Many people would rather play video games, text and watch the Kardashians.
As a big Simak fan and lover of older style SF I was really interested to read your thoughts and see the different aspects of your essay that the various commenters chose to focus on. So I reread the novel and also looked at an interview that Simak gave to Paul Walker in 1972 to get a sense of Simak’s thought processes. He does say he believes that the purpose of life may be to understand the universe but goes on to say “ But we must realize that our kind of intelligence ( any kind of intelligence, in fact ) may not be the final tool that will be forged to achieve the purpose of life.” and I think this theme is definitely expressed in A Heritage of Stars.
As for space travel Simak always seems to hedge his bets, in Project Pope people travel by space craft but there is also the listener project where people travel mentally through both time and space. In Time is The Simplest Thing, the world does not have ships capable of reaching the stars but uses telepaths instead. In A Choice of Gods some of the last people on Earth have learned to actually physically travel in the universe with no equipment at all. As to why we as a culture seem to have lost the impulse for space travel? I am not sure, if we look at literature even before SF came about people wrote of going to the moon. In the 1920’s you had wonderful pulps like Air Wonder Stories with amazing covers showing what the technological future would be and this vision seemed to carry SF and it’s readers along for decades. I wonder if the stories of astroid miners and Mars colonists preconditioned SF readers and maybe larger segments of the public, (consider that Heinlein and Bradbury graduated from the pulp ghetto to the slick magazines) to think that space was part of mankind’s destiny. Then when we actually became capable of orbiting the earth or reaching the moon, lots of us began to believe that some version of the novels and stories we read might actually take place. I am not sure why we lost it, maybe the fear that we would blow ourselves up or poison the Earth disillusioned people and created an anti-science climate. Maybe we decided it was too expensive and that FTL travel was impossible. We still use science and technology but on a personal level directed at our own comfort and it seems far more inward looking. We devote more time and toys to exploring our own inner space, and I am certainly guilty of that, rather than the universe.
Guy, I am also a fan of Simak, but I’ve only read a handful of his novels. I plan to read more now that they are coming out on audio, and be reprinted as ebooks.
I grew up reading science fiction and I think it was my substitution for religion. Many people find meaning in life through religion. I didn’t. It seem more logical to me that we explore the universe, and that was our purpose. I don’t think so anymore. I’m quite an existentialist, in that I do believe we each have to make our own meaning, but I don’t believe the universe expects anything from us. Nor do I believe that spreading humanity to the stars is a purpose.
As I have studied cosmology more, I realize that travel between the stars is all but impractical for beings that have such short lifespans as ours. I’ve come to the same conclusion that the people in A Heritage of Stars came to, that star travel is for robots, or even artificial energy beings, if we can create them.
It sounds like Simak eventually settled on paranormal powers for humans. I don’t believe we’ll ever evolve those, but they are fun fictional ideas to explore.
Thanks for your comments about Simak, they make me want to go read more of his novels. Did you know a publisher is working on his collected short stories?
Have you read Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, that came out this year? It’s a serious contemplation on these topics.
I have placed a hold on the Robinson at the public library, thanks for mentioning it. I read his novel The Memory of Whiteness some years ago and enjoyed it. I am intrigued by the Simak collected short stories, I think I will have to compare the contents to the anthologies I already have, I am getting so many books. I looked at Simak’s City today mainly the sections, Desertion and Paradise, even though this is a much earlier work than Heritage, you see a lot of the same themes, around the practicality of space travel, the purpose of life, and who might replace man. It is interesting to watch Simak come at the big questions from so many directions. I must admit my views on the cosmos are very much like Lovecraft’s it is very big and we are very small short lived gnats in the scheme of things. But we can still look at the stars and dream.
I have enjoyed discussing this with you.
Another great essay. I really like your blog.