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