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The Spacefaring Web 2.2: The Critical Response
John Carter McKnight
February 6, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Robert Nozick, professor of philosophy at Harvard University and author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, who died on January 23.

In the first issue of this column I looked at the spacefaring future we once expected and concluded that “we can’t get there from here.” A foray into literary utopian studies has returned me to that same vista from a different perspective. While I focus here on the American instance, my analysis holds true for other spacefaring nations as well. The Russian case is complicated by the peculiarities of the role of ideology in the Soviet state, but the same dynamic oppositional forces have shaped their space efforts as well. Bluntly put, the history of human efforts in space is the product of the interplay between utopian and anti-utopian forces. The players in this ongoing dialectic, this yin and yang (if not God and Devil) have names: they are the space movement and NASA.

I know I’m deeply vexing a number of my readers here. I hope to set out a coherent, if not necessarily convincing, justification for this conclusion. To do so will require a fairly dense bit of terminological definition and analysis. Drawing from but adapting the schema created by Tom Moylan in Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, I’ll set forth the following definitions:

Utopia: narrative description of an ideal society differing substantially from that of its creator. Utopias tend to be static in their depiction, an unchanging alternative status quo.

Critical Utopia: a utopia in which contrasts with its creator’s society are highlighted and which tend to be dynamic and capable of evolution.

Dystopia: an alternative society substantially worse than that of its creator, also tending to be static and incapable of change, the characters unable to reform it or escape.

Critical Dystopia: a depiction of a worse alternative society containing some possibility of transformation into something better or escape for the characters into a better society elsewhere.

Anti-Utopia: the position that social transformation is either impossible, as our current society is inevitable; or undesirable, as our current society is ideal.

Utopian writing is one of the oldest of literary genres, dating back to ancient Greece (Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” Plato’s Republic). Dystopia grew out of critiques of modernism in the late 19th Century (E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”) and totalitarianism in the 20th (George Orwell’s 1984). The critical variants are largely postwar and post-Sixties creations, and much less familiar, at least as distinct categories, to a general audience. Critical dystopias might include The Matrix and the Terminator movies, as well as Atlas Shrugged, as opposed to the straight-up dystopias of William Gibson’s works or The X Files. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy exemplifies the critical utopia.

“Utopia” came to be a dirty word with the intersection of the constant complacency of anti-utopianism and the dynamist, individualist critique of the static and totalitarian nature of much utopian theory and the horrors of 20th Century utopian practice: one of the best histories of the Soviet Union is entitled Utopia In Power. It was from this perspective that Gerard O’Neill passionately denied a charge of utopianism for his work in The High Frontier (p. 236):

“The humanization of space is though no Utopian scheme: the contrast is between rigid social ideas and restricted technology, on the part of the Utopias and communes, and the opening of new social possibilities to be determined by the inhabitants, with the help of a basically new technical methodology, on the part of the space communities.”

Until thinking through Moylan’s analysis of the complex academic debate over the above terms, I joined with O’Neill: to me, utopia meant Plato’s dyspeptic velvet-gloved dictatorship, Lenin’s blood-drenched prose, Marshall Savage’s diktats on interior design color schemes in his sea colonies. But O’Neill and I were guilty of a fallacy from an individualist perspective that Moylan indulges from the collectivist: confusing form and content. There can be “Left” and “Right’ utopias, technological and primitive, dynamic and static ones. The core of the utopian impulse is the assertion that a better society is possible, whatever “better” may mean to author or to readers.

The space movement is inseparable from that utopian impulse. Tsiolkovskii and Goddard shared it; Zubrin and O’Neill have as well. The content of space-movement utopianism has taken many forms, drawing on virtually every political, religious and cultural perspective. What unites us, giving accuracy and legitimacy to the admittedly optimistic term “space movement,” is just that belief that a better future for humanity is possible, and that the key to its realization is a permanent human presence offplanet.

Then there’s the other side. Its view is that human nature is fundamentally weak and cruel, either from a belief in the Biblical Fall, aristocratic contempt for the masses, or simple ill-humor. While marginal tinkering may be possible, the struggle for dominion and the status quo in which there are rulers and ruled is eternal. This view has been held by the masters of realpolitik from Machiavelli and Hobbes through Metternich and Kissinger. The winners in any system seek justification for their status; anti-utopianism is the modernist replacement for the divine right of kings.

It is hardly radical revisionism to declare that American human spaceflight was and is driven by realpolitik, from the Cold War counter to Soviet efforts through the coalition diplomacy of the International Space Station. The fundamental legitimacy of the governmental space program rests on NASA’s ability to deliver pork at home while serving as a bulwark of policy abroad. In the Cold War era and beyond, American policy has been anti-utopian – explicitly countering Communist utopian propaganda not with democratic utopianism but with cynical support for status-quo powers. It has changed little. NASA, as an agency of American policy, cannot undertake actions which would radically transform the domestic economy or political scene, or endanger the current structure of national alliances.

None of this should be at all shocking. The next step is a different matter. If the legitimacy of NASA’s actions and existence rests on its ability to serve as a tool in service of the realpolitik agenda of the American government, then pressing a utopian claim upon NASA is a fundamental challenge to that legitimacy. Asking NASA to undertake radical or transformational programs is a direct affront to its existence. For it to do so would put it diametrically in opposition to its purpose: enabling the maintenance of the status quo. Again, I mean to imply nothing sinister, conspiratorial or unusual here: the purpose of any governmental program is to further the interests of the government and its constituents – primarily, but not exclusively, those who currently hold power and influence and would like to continue to do so. Further, this analysis is at the institutional, not the individual level. Many people within NASA are utopians, some even working on utopian projects in the margins and at a level beneath the threshold of institutional concern. Yet, as members of an organization, they must speak and act officially in a means that furthers the goals of the institution, and those goals are anti-utopian.

This perspective explains several institutional actions of NASA that otherwise would seem quixotic or mistaken. History and urban legend describe the scrapping of the Apollo blueprints and tool dies, and the last three moon rockets’ use as decaying lawn jockeys. Why? Moon rockets completed their utility as a tool of realpolitik somewhere around Apollo 14. Their continued existence or highlighting in memory could only justify a utopian agenda of exploration and settlement, an agenda directly opposing the basis of NASA’s legitimacy.

The agency’s reaction to Dennis Tito’s flight verged on the rabid, when one would have expected co-option in order to capitalize on public attention. Why? Tito unabashedly proclaimed a utopian ideal: he flew as a product of individual means for individual motives, in direct opposition to the ISS’s purpose as a tool of collective state diplomacy. His flying was the single greatest challenge – to date – to NASA’s legitimacy.

Why is NASA research in support of a human Mars mission, along with child pornography and carrying explosives aboard an airplane, against Federal law? The humans-to-Mars enterprise is solely justified by the utopian goals of exploration, settlement and social transformation. No goal of maintaining the status quo in domestic or international politics is served by a Mars mission; therefore no such mission may be suffered to exist.

Our reality is that space is a tool of status quo power, marked by maximally expensive, minimally productive multi-governmental efforts within familiar territory. Dystopian literature posits a hellish future with no way out. In dystopia, “resistance is futile,” eternally. The dystopian response to our situation would be to abandon hope, abandon activism and turn the TV back on. Naturally, this response is encouraged by anti-utopianism, and so it is no surprise that space advocacy group membership is steadily declining.

The utopian response is to assert a perfect program of exploration and settlement, insisting upon its just-so adoption, in serene (or angry) disregard for our dystopian reality. Again this serves anti-utopian interests just fine, by draining the energies of those opposing the status quo into fruitless, unthreatening activities.

There remains the prospect of a critical response. Acknowledging the reality that NASA’s activities are driven by realpolitik, conscious of the fact that an agenda of space exploration and settlement is, whether we intend it or not, a mortal threat to the anti-utopian mission of NASA, we can set forth an alternative. The critical alternative can describe, advocate and mobilize the forces supporting the utopian agenda of space exploration and settlement: the Spacefaring Web, private capital marshaled by space enthusiasts, the network ethic, the managerial tools of the Information Age. It can put forth a myriad fresh utopian visions – religious and secular, individualist and communitarian, Near Frontier and Far Frontier, now-tech and future-tech.

I have drawn inspiration from the anarcho-capitalist philosopher Robert Nozick, who in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (p. 304) advocated

“… a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes; a society in which utopian experimentation can be tried, different styles of life can be lived, and alternative visions of the good can be individually or jointly pursued.”

From a hundred eighty degrees away, Subcommandante Marcos looked out on a similar vista (quoted in Moylan, p. 279):

“It is necessary to build a new world, a world capable of containing many worlds, capable of containing all worlds.”

Against the reductionist logic of status quo realpolitik the space movement asserts that we have the means to build a better society through space exploration and settlement, and offers myriad visions of hope and change. This Spacefaring Web we all can advocate and work to build, beginning right now with us and extending – onwards.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

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