From the Series: Speculative Anthropologies
Here’s an evidently SF—science fiction/spookily familiar/strangely or strongly factual/so far—story: tired of a space agency’s bureaucratic inefficiency, an entrepreneur who wishes to retire on Mars starts a rocket company. He is a laughingstock. But within a few years, his company is launching rockets frequently. It develops reusable rocket boosters that have the global space industry scrambling because they disrupt the profitable, half-century-long economies of launch. Shortly after outlining his Mars transportation architecture, the entrepreneur conducts a test launch of an enormous rocket, sending his roadster into solar orbit as a publicity gimmick. He also successfully flies two first-stage boosters back to Earth, where they land simultaneously, flawlessly, leading awestruck commentators on streaming feeds to remind viewers that “this is not science fiction.”
Of course, this is not SF, but rather the story of Elon Musk and SpaceX, culminating—so far—with the launch of Falcon Heavy on February 6, 2018. Yet its plot is spookily familiar to anyone reading Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon, and the launch itself is evidently, intertextually replete with SF: Musk’s Tesla enters orbit to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and the “Don’t Panic” sign on its dashboard cites Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide. All of these SF tropes were amplified on September 17, 2018, when Musk introduced Yusaku Maezawa as the first paying passenger aboard SpaceX’s future BFR (“Big F_____ Rocket”), the craft that Musk plans to use to send humans to Mars.
But what—rationally—are Falcon Heavy or the BFR and their coconstitutive (not-)SFness evidence of, and for whom?
For outer-space settlement advocates, these events are strangely/strongly factual evidence not only of private enterprise’s superiority over risk-averse state-led space programs, but also of an imminent human future in space. SpaceX is only one of many commercial outer space (or Newspace) enterprises working on launch, transportation, habitats, life support, agriculture, mining, and more—toward the common goal of human settlement of the cosmos, an evidently SF storyline.
Unsurprisingly, then, SF pervades day-to-day Newspace talk in ways familiar to anthropologists and critical scholars, evidence that SF worlds lie in the gap between real-world science and human space exploration on the one hand, and futurist/utopian thinking and sociopolitical experimentation on the other (Collins 2008). This capacity is, in turn, explored by scholars to propose alternative and otherwise futures in this time of late capitalism, the posthuman, and the Anthropocene (Haraway 2016).
Yet, for Newspace advocates, SF has decidedly realist evidentiary capacities. For example, at the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s conference in Washington, D.C. in 2012, Ajay Kothari of the engineering company Astrox outlined plans for a reusable two-stage-to-low-Earth-orbit system. Using CGI images to illustrate conventional, data-driven technical and financing plans, he ended with a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, linking his plan to SF action as it performed evidentiary work in relation to the two other kinds of data. Kothari’s audience didn’t laugh or shuffle at this evidentiary use of SF, and I was not surprised. Images from SF stories and films are frequently and unremarkably shown at space conferences in an evidentiary ecosystem that includes existing space infrastructure and proposed craft, habitats, and bases—and not only as analogies or intertextual experiments. Science-based, near-Earth, near-future (if white and masculinist) SF predominates even as apparently realist sf movies, like 2013’s Gravity, are decried for ignoring basic physics. Though many questions remain for space settlement science, like the SF they cite, they are rational ones. No unobtainium is needed for such nonterrestrial assemblages. SF can thus stand as evidence of future technologies within verified parameters of material limits, human capacities, and cultural possibilities for an inevitable human future in space.
But SF as a form of realist, rational evidence toward a human future in space is beyond the pale for the social scientist, and for two reasons: first, its end is utopian and predictive, the very modes that deauthorized and derationalized mid-century social-scientific futurism (Sabin 2014). Second, such SF presumes precisely the extension of (white, global North–based) extractive, exploitative systems that got us in this Anthropocene mess, thus also indexing militarization, escapism, narcissism, and revitalized imperialisms (see Dickens and Ormrod 2007).
Yet here’s the surprise: it is at the point of dismissing nonterrestrial futures that critical scholars or public commentators can rely on SF as evidence of such irrationality. I argue that the gap that enables SF to mediate between real and imagined worlds can also be used, evidentially, to dismiss the possibility of nonterrestrial future human worlds as “lunatic fantasies” (Berland 2009, 272). For example, Bruno Latour (2015, 145) uses Ryan Stone’s statement in Gravity—“I hate space!”—as evidence that there is “no escape route except back on Earth.” In the most acerbic moments, we find space populated by the 1 percent or billionaires golfing on Mars as evidence to dismiss space settlement plans, even though these are the most fantastically SF scenarios of all, for material reasons of political economy, human biology, and physics.
I am not citing SpaceX’s launches as my own evidence for the ultimate success of space settlement, nor to defend speculative, humanized places off Earth as anthropological fieldsites. Rather, my point is that the gap between the material (the evidence of a launch) and the rational (what can be said about a future world on the basis of that evidence) on the one hand, and between SF’s realism and its novum (see Suvin 2016) on the other, enables the acknowledgment of (some) radical future possibilities and the refusal of others.
In short, the contention that the Falcon Heavy launch—or Maezawa’s ticket on a future BFR—is evidence either of a radically different human future off-planet or that it presages a deadening continuation of capitalist exploitation and settler colonialism both draw on SF’s evidentiary capacities. Moreover, neither is more rational than the other, because neither consider the fully transformative natures of the multiple places of outer space for human–nonhuman interactions, or the possibility of nonterrestrial humanish worlds that don’t depend only on white, capitalist, colonial, or masculinist futurisms (Lempert 2014). The question is, then: what kinds of evidence can anthropology bear without the future being evidently and already SF: supremely familiar?
Berland, Jody. 2009. North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Collins, Samuel Gerald. 2008. All Tomorrow’s Cultures: Anthropological Engagements with the Future. New York: Berghahn.
Dickens, Peter, and James Ormrod. 2007. Cosmic Society: Towards a Sociology of the Universe. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna J. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Latour, Bruno. 2015. “Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene.” In The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, edited by Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne, 145–55. New York: Routledge.
Lempert, William. 2014. “Decolonizing Encounters of the Third Kind: Alternative Futuring in Native Science Fiction Film.” Visual Anthropology Review 30, no. 2: 164–76.
Sabin, Paul. 2014. The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Suvin, Darko. 2016. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Edited by Gerry Caravan. New York: Peter Lang.