Space – the Final Frontier?

One of the many major changes to the western world over the past century has been the disappearance of the frontier.

In the early 20th century, in fact to some extent even up to the 1950s, westerners who wanted to opt out could find a frontier territory in which to do so. There were the remoter outposts of the British Empire (and of the other European empires). For Americans there was South America. For those who found their lives unsupportable there was always that escape hatch – they could start a new life in the Colonies or in South America where they were unlikely to be bothered too much by questions about their past and unlikely to have too much trouble with intrusive bureaucracies or police forces.

Britons would commonly choose somewhere like Kenya or Malaya. There was plenty of money to be made if you had drive and if you didn’t have drive there were fellow countrymen to sponge off, who were reasonably indulgent of expatriates (even if they mildly disapproved of expatriates who “went native”).

All that is largely gone. Escaping from the modern surveillance state is next to impossible. Any bolt-holes that are left are pretty uninviting and bureaucrats and police are likely to will hunt you down anyway.

One response to this is the emergence of the idea of space as the final frontier, the one sure refuge for someone who wants or needs to opt out completely. It became a major theme of science fiction in the 20th century and it also took on a definite political complexion. It became a popular right-wing fantasy, and it became a very popular libertarian fantasy. The fact that colonies in space would in reality face immense practical difficulties tended to get glossed over (and libertarians never do worry too much about irritating details like reality).

It’s a fantasy that also has a following among the nerdier elements of the alt-right.

Personally I find it very amusing that so many people have convinced themselves that colonies in space or on other planets would be havens of liberty, veritable libertarian paradises with no government at all. It amuses me because I’ve always assumed that a space colony founded on libertarian principles wouldn’t last a week. Space, or colonies on Mars, are not the sorts of environment that are likely to be very forgiving of rigged individuals with a contempt for regulations. They’d be the sorts of environments where one mistake would mean death, and quite possibly death for every member of the colony. Such a colony is more likely to succeed if it’s composed of rigid conformists with no imagination, no more than moderate intelligence, a respect for hierarchies and a passion for following rules and regulations to the letter. Military-style discipline is more likely than glorious liberty.

Such colonies would also have a very much better chance of survival if they adopted a very traditionalist approach to morality and to sex roles. You would only need one member of a colony to start sleeping around to very soon find yourself sitting on top of a ticking time-bomb. It’s also very obvious that no colony can survive without children and therefore the women would need to focus more on child-rearing than personal fulfilment and careers.

A space colony might well end up being more of a traditionalist paradise than a libertarian one.

Not that it matters, given that the practical difficulties (not to mention the political obstacles) are so overwhelming that colonies in space will probably remain science fiction for a long long time.

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Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel

Isaac Asimov’s classic 1954 novel The Caves of Steel might not sound very relevant to this blog but bear with me.

The Caves of Steel is usually considered to be important and interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a crucial book in Asimov’s famous robot cycle. Secondly, it’s a genre hybrid – it’s both a science fiction novel and a traditional fair-play puzzle-plot murder mystery. And it’s a rare example of a novel that is a success in both genres.

There is a third reason why this book should be celebrated. It’s an extremely interesting dystopian novel with very strong political overtones. I personally don’t agree with Asimov’s politics but he was an intelligent liberal (yes such creatures once walked the Earth) and his work has been immensely influential.

The future Earth of the novel is massively overpopulated. Almost everyone lives in enormous cities. It’s a world that makes the world of Orwell’s 1984 seem benign and even idyllic. Food is in short supply (the rationing is nightmarish in its pettiness) but living space is in even shorter supply. There is zero privacy. Zero. Even high status individuals do not have bathrooms. A washbasin is considered to be an almost unimaginable luxury. Absolute social conformity is enforced. This is the soft totalitarianism of Brave New World but combined with the squalor and misery of 1984. There is an all-pervading atmosphere of resignation and pessimism.

It’s fascinating to see overpopulation hysteria in such a fully developed form as early as 1954.

Of course being a science fiction writer of the golden age Asimov saw the answer to the problem as lying in the colonisation of space. This is something that has always seemed rather fanciful to me.

Leaving aside the overpopulation hysteria it’s a fine example of what I would consider to be a plausible dystopia, enforced by propaganda rather than overt repression. And it’s an interesting look at the psychological consequences of soft totalitarianism – the way people end up not even contemplating rebellion because they can’t even imagine doing such a thing (or even thinking such thoughts).

It’s also actually a very entertaining book and while there’s plenty to disagree with it is an interesting example of intelligent dystopian science fiction. And the murder mystery part is fun.

why Sad Puppies (and Rabid Puppies) matter

The Sad Puppies brouhaha over the Hugo Awards has been rather enlightening.
Now if you’re not a science fiction fan you’ll probably be asking what on earth are the Hugo Awards? Well they were, at one time, the most prestigious of all science fictions awards. Their prestige came from the fact that the awards were voted on by fans. If you happened to like science fiction you could buy a supporting membership at the Worldcon convention and you could vote. As a result they tended to reflect the tastes of ordinary science fiction fans. For quite a few decades the system worked fairly well. The works that won Hugo Awards up until about twenty years ago have generally stood the test of time and are generally still regarded as classics of the genre. 
Now you might think that no-one could have a serious problem with all this. And you’d be wrong. Enter the Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). The same mindless Stalinist drones who control academia, the media and these days just about every aspect of life and culture turned their attention to the Hugo Awards. And they were shocked. Many of these awards were being given to men, or heterosexual women, or even (God forbid) white people. Some (horror of horrors) even espoused vaguely conservative views. One or two even confessed to being Christians. And these evil white cis-gendered racist homophobic transphobic people were being given these awards merely on the grounds that their books were good and fans liked them. Clearly this had to be stopped.
And it was stopped. By the beginning of this decade the SJWs had effectively taken over the awards. If you failed to write books that promoted goodthink then you could forget winning a Hugo Award. If you hoped to win an award then the only safe course of action was to stick to writing books about black lesbians. There was no need to write books that were actually good, or even readable. If you subscribed to the party line you were safe. if you questioned the party line you would become an unperson.

A couple of years ago a few science fiction writers had finally had enough. They started a campaign called Sad Puppies (on the grounds that the stifling political correctness of the Hugo Awards was leading to an epidemic of Puppy-Related Sadness). The idea was to nominate a few works that were deserving of awards, works written by authors who did not  toe the party line. The idea caught on and enjoyed modest success last year. This year another campaign with similar objectives joined the fray, Rabid Puppies.

One thing that both Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies were very careful to do was to play strictly within the rules. Their intention was to demonstrate that the leftists controlling the awards had been bending the rules for years in order to ensure that only leftist-approved authors could win, so it was obviously essential for Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies to be scrupulous about not breaking any rules.
And despite the unhinged claims of the leftists that the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies were aiming to ensure that only evil white heterosexual patriarchal males would get nominated both the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies included works by women, blacks and even (gasp!) liberals among their recommendations.
The assumption behind both the SP and RP campaigns was that the leftist bullies running the Hugos would hysterically overreact to any threat to their cosy little club. Which is of course exactly what happened. The leftists responded with a vicious hate campaign, with intimidation of moderates and will libelous personal attacks.
You might be wondering why any of this matters. It matters for two reasons. Firstly, the whole affair has been a superb microcosm of the culture wars, revealing in a very clear manner the lengths to which leftists will go in order to keep control. And secondly, while this might be a very minor battlefield on a very obscure front of the culture wars it’s one of the very very few battlefields on which conservatives are actually taking the offensive.
You can keep up with the progress of the battle on the blogs of Larry Correia and Brad Torgensen, the two prime movies behind Sad Puppies, or on the blog of Vox Day, the man behind Rabid Puppies.