Latent humanism in space
September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
Space seems lonely. Ask the Bachelor Sun. Ask Elton John or David Bowie, whose respective songs “Rocket Man” and “Space Oddity” each relate stories of lonely astronauts. “It’s cold as hell,” Elton tells us. What’s more, there are not many people to make friends with out there, and even if you find them it’s hard to chat without sound. The humanoid space traveler is, by default, the outsider. In Bowie’s words: “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”
For the reader, the idea of space travel must be inherently isolating as it disconnects us from the only context in which we understand our humanity. In space travel we can maintain only a tenuous connection with earth. Whatever that thread may be- radio, or satellite, or what have you- it is the only tether to our own context. This removal is clearly a draw for many readers; on the most basic level such a change is pure escapism. Often times the reader and the protagonist share the same excitement for the unknown. They are compelled by the same curiosity. The whole trope of the lonely astronaut (or time traveler, to broaden the field considerably) may in some cases exist as a foil to that shared expectation of the unknown or, more specifically, the hope to carve out some fresh new prosperity from an unexplored frontier (i.e. space, time, or both).
Consider the narrator of Far Centaurus, Bill Endicott, who is subtly exposed to the reader as someone who might not be turning his back on too much by voyaging into space. His last night on earth he is offered “A kiss for the ugly one, too” and his descriptions of his friend Renfrew suggest that all the fair haired traits Bill observes in his fellow traveler he misses in himself. The irony for Bill and his two surviving companions is that upon arriving at the Centaurus system they find entire planets bearing their names, yet they are ostracized like lepers. It is not until they return to a period of time very near the one they first emerged from that they find true adulation.
To go broader with this idea, none of the science fiction we’ve read really encourages exploration through space and time. The consequences of genetic engineering are also discouraging. The most consistent message we get is that we are better off in our own original context. We are each a product of our place and time, it follows that we would not be well disposed to alternate places and times. Underlying this message is the idea that the best thing for the human race is the human race. Thus, concealed in this escapist “literature of change” is the suggestion to neither escape nor seek some great contextual change, but rather to address our fates with those abilities already at our disposal. That’s something I can definitely get behind.