(This article was first published on zacharybonelli.com on December 17, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)
“He [Dr. Weston] was a man obssessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of ‘scientification,’ in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God’s quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome. This for a start. But beyond this lies the sweet poison of the false infinite—the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our species—a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant.”
C. S. Lewis, Perelandra
Roughly a century has passed since C. S. Lewis penned those words. I wonder how he’d feel about the fact that “scientification,” as he called it, has more or less won as the prevailing ideology.
The above passage resonated with me, because as a young person I too was very much on board the “humanity can achieve anything it wants” bandwagon. What I really wanted was validation that I could achieve anything I wanted, and that everything I wanted to get was good for me. The science fictional manifestation of the idea is that humanity is destined to spread and evolve and “transcend” (another popular science fiction trope), but what if all that really awaits is a cold, lonely end on this planet? Take a moment to ponder that over. If we presume that instead of infinite expansion of our capabilities as a species, that we will reach and pass an inflection point of raw materials and energy availability, that the scope of humanity’s influence will eventually retract, then what does that suggest about our behavior in the here and now? In my own life, reaching the conclusion that I could not create for myself my imagined “optimal experience” was a very hard pill to swallow, but having to do so made me a better person and gave me a better appreciation for the other people in my life and of life itself.
Lewis lived in a time when the colonial attitudes in Britain would have been nearing their end, but would have remained very prevalent. The missteps and horrors of colonialism were very visible, too, at least to men of Lewis’s social stratum. To him, humanity’s expansion to the stars presented the obvious opportunity for a repetition of the horror. And he perceived how the fantasy appealed to those who wished to resume colonialism, and for whom the human suffering produced by colonialism was eclipsed by the lament that humanity ran out of land and materials and people to exploit.
Surely, this is a mistake of the past, right? No one today is anxious to reenact colonialism, right? Lacking actual interplanetary travel, let’s take a look at the artifacts of our popular culture that simulate it, two recent video games: Pandora and Civilization: Beyond Earth. The premise of both games is that humanity has traveled, through some futuristic means, to a new planet, and must settle, establish cities, and expand near resources to gain strategic power. The colonists you control during these games do all the things you would expect colonists to do—they try to establish cities near the best and largest quantity of resources, and they go to war over control of such lands.
Gene Roddenberry’s ideology, which was that humanity would go to the stars having overcome the colonial impulse, has clearly failed to take root in the popular culture. That could be an essay in itself. For this discussion, I’d like to focus on how each of these games handles interaction with the new planet’s indigenous life.
Pandora features planet-native lifeform units (which I'll call “aliens” for the duration of this article, for simplicity's sake) that spawn from nests and roam the lands. They are mostly hostile by default, and even if you choose the faction that is supposed to be “nature and alien loving,” the mechanics of game progression force you to eradicate the aliens, destroy their nests, and settle their land.
Civilization: Beyond Earth, though the execution of its gameplay is far superior to Pandora’s, fares only marginally better with regard to the treatment of alien life. The game allows the player to choose an “affinity” that is, on the surface, aligned with the biological life of the new planet. While Civilization also features alien nests that spawn alien units, these units are docile by default, but become aggressive if you attack them or encroach upon their land. Aligning yourself ideologically with the aliens brings about the opportunity for you take control of the aliens and use them against your opponents. In other words, Civilization allows you to either kill the aliens or use them as a tool for your own ends. Never is the sentience or independence of the aliens established or respected. The player cannot win by building up the aliens, only by building something called a “mind flower,” which supposedly links humanity and the aliens telepathically. I’d argue that the side that comes out dominant in this linking is abundantly clear.
Who knows what would actually happen if we gained the capacity for interplanetary travel tomorrow. Whatever the case may be, our popular media of today does not bode well for the outcome.
Our society seems obsessed with its future right now. It’s as though we’re struggling with two incompatible truths: the ideology of science is telling us to expand and consume and get what we want and that we’re our own gods, everything else be damned; and yet, the facts that science is presenting us with—the degradation of our environment and the alarming rate at which we are burning through natural resources—suggest that we are on a collision course with an inflection point, if not out-and-out catastrophe.
The movie Interstellar, by my interpretation, is just such a conundrum. Near the middle of the film, we reach the reveal. The scientist, whose plan, once he finishes it, will save humanity from the confines of a deteriorating Earth, has lied. For years, he has led people to believe that his plan’s solution is imminent, but in fact, the problem is unsolvable. Science cannot perpetuate our comfort any further. There is only us, here on Earth, now. The father and daughter mattered. Their family mattered. Dipping around with toys in space did not matter, and the father naturally languishes in this regret for some time. I felt the moment and sentiment were executed well, and I was ready to applaud the film’s message… until the end. The final half hour left much to be desired—the father discovers the missing scientific data, perplexingly enough, from within a black hole, an experience which he equally perplexingly manages to survive. This data, whatever it is, allows humanity to launch enormous complexes into space that can indefinitely house humanity. And with that, the father’s abandonment is absolved and the futility motif is completely undercut. The audience cannot be confronted with the fact that we only get the here and now: one planet, one biome, one fleeting existence. And then the end.
Lewis called this “the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality.” Indeed.