Accelerating Outwards: Land and Sci-Fi


In a trilogy of posts about escaping the Earth, Land is in perfect form over at his blog Urban Futures.

In the first part Land discusses how in exploring the Shanghai 2010 Space pavilion the future is bound to a lack of hardware and an emphasis on children as the potential inhabitants of outerspace. He writes: “Anybody hoping for soul-crushing cyclopean military-analog launch vehicles and the acrid stink of rocket fuel had clearly wandered into the wrong century.” Furthermore, the naivete which must be bound to space travel leads to odd cultural developments such as denial of the moon landing conspiracy theories. One could also add the poorly executed sci-fi horror Apollo 18 as trying to give the ‘real reason’ for why the US never went back to our now haunted dusty satellite.

A distinction which forms the background (at least aesthetically) of Land’s work here is that of the industrial and futurist split in sci-fi where the former is often associated with pessimistic or captialist-realist sci-fi whereas the latter is optimistic at its core and is rooted more in the politics and look of the Cold War. JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek is pivotal in this regard as it attempts to (in the form of the story as being a knot of space time to justify its own similarity yet licence with old material) combine both of these tendencies: the bridge looks like a hyperstitional version of the Apple Store while the engine room looks like a nuclear power plant from fifty years ago (as well as the smaller touches like re-skirting the women on the ship in a laughably covered sense of sexist nostalgia).

Given the exponential heat-orgasm of economics, Land points out the simultaneous desire to, and difficulty of, escaping our planet as future-grave. Land shows the daunting mathesis of trying to stretch to even the closest star:

“If space colonization is being construed as an escape from terrestrial resource constraints, then a pattern of activity needs to be knitted across these distances, producing — at a minimum — an energy surplus. In a non-frictional kinetic system, governed almost purely by (macroscopic) conservation of momentum, the basic currency of space activity is ‘delta-v’, or the transformation of velocity. Delta-v is broadly proportional to energy expenditure on “small burns”, when fuel consumption makes a negligible difference to total propelled mass, but when complete flights or “large burns” are calculated, the math becomes nonlinear, since the reduction of fuel payload becomes a critical factor in the equation (subtracting inertial resistance as it adds motive force). In practical terms, the prospective off-planet (‘space-faring’) energy economy consists of the consumption of propellant to move propellant about, with non-fuel vehicle mass contributing little more than a rounding error in the calculations.”

Beyond this the dream of space travel requires not only a different imaginary (automated drones and not bulky staffed ships) but a different approach to the history and future of space programs. Land begins his second instalment with the fact that the US race to the moon was to ‘defeat the commies’ and not about exploration in and of itself. Part of this old trajectory lies in the technocratic fascism exemplified by the centrality of Nazi scientists to the NASA program (made famous in a Agent Mulder rant). Part of the de-Nazification of space lies in a ‘progressive’ or capitalism fed mode found in Ridley Scott’s Alien:

“Science and commerce played their parts, but the leading edge was dominated by quasi-military heavy metal, funded by massive budgets based on gravely obscure strategic objectives, directed and crewed by hard, obedient, buzz-cut types who did whatever it took to get things done. Weapons research trumped all other considerations. Breaking out into the deep frontier required a rigid, armored-bulkhead seriousness that civilians would never quite understand.”

This model, stripped of its Cold War mentality for Land, leads to a vision of space as the frontier. One can easily see why the Sci-Fi western became a functional mutation as the state colony relation seems rooted in the lore of the wild west in post-industrial minds. In Land’s third instalment, Land addresses the motivations for going beyond the terrestrial given the costs:

“The reason to be in space is to be in space, freed from planetary suckitude, and any benefits to Earth-dwellers that accrue on the way are mere stepping stones. Off-planet resources diverted to the surface of the Earth are, in the ultimate spacer scheme, wasted, or at least strategically sacrificed (since such wastage is almost certainly required in the interim). In the final analysis, the value of anything whatsoever is degraded in direct proportion to the gravitational influences brought to bear upon it, and descent from the heavens is a fall.”

Most wondrously insanely Land suggests ‘going full Vogon’ and demolishing planets for their cache of resources:

“To a moderately advanced off-world civilization, pondering the practicalities of its first planet-scale demolition, leaving this buried resource trove in place has a robotic-industrial opportunity cost that can be conservatively estimated in the region of 1.6 x 10^23 human-level intelligences, a mineral stockpile sufficient to manufacture a trillion sentient self-replicating probes for every star in the galaxy. (Even ardent conservationists have to recognize how tasty this morsel will look.)” Despite the Douglas Adams reference it would seem that Dead Space might the closest to Land’s fantasy of mineralogically gutting a planetoid with the technology of planet cracking. Furthermore, Land’s suggesting of eating the sun points to the Matrioshka technologies of Charles Stross’ Accelerando. Such technologies involve surrounding a stellar body in a Dyson Sphere like shell in order to molecularly dismantle it.

Land ends his third piece with the following:

“A serious space program is, fundamentally and irreducibly, a process or terrestrial evacuation. It requires the consistent relocation (or de-location) of enterprise, resources, and productive capabilities from the earth into space, at least until the threshold of extraterrestrial autocatalysis is reached, at which point a break has been achieved, and an autonomous off-planet economy established. Whatever the opportunities for obfuscation (which are probably considerable), the basic decision remains unaffected. The accumulation of a terrestrial fortune is not at all the same, and is in fact almost certainly economically inconsistent, with the sustained investment in an off-planet industrial infrastructure. Either stuff is being shifted into space, irrevocably, or not.”

It seems the crux of the matter is justifying the unjustifiable and hence we come back to either Utopia or Capitalism as the dominant visions of science fiction. Capitalist inevitability is, ironically, not as sellable as utopian dreams (which are fuelled by capitalism) so that leaves the dominant mode of being outward bound as escape – whether from the boredom of gravity or ecological collapse. But constructing such an aesthetic in turn would have to cut through the capacity of capital to ‘fix the environment’ as well as to replace the current dominant theme of post-apocalyptic survival being on world. So much of the chance of making a new earth devolves into lessons of colonialism or our inability to think beyond the Civilization-Colony model and to grow up (we are also petulant children of futurism even in the most industrial view).

The aesthetic of Warhammer 40K which I’ve praised previously pulls a diagonal attack and assumes only religion and a new feudalism can get us to the stars. In this sense WH40K accelerates the poisoning of Sci-fi with fantasy into (at least aesthetically) into a future without justification other than the force of the outside. The question I suppose is can posthumanism be speculative without naively transhuman but without crashing down too early in following either too low a capitalist goal or too high a Utopian one?


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