Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No Galactic Civilization for You (Part Four): Space Mormons

In some earlier entries I’ve expressed doubts about the likelihood of humans creating a galactic civilization. Interstellar colonies, perhaps, but not a great web of them extending throughout the Milky Way. The motives that would propel human colonists toward so grandiose a (Manifest) Destiny just don’t seem strong enough. Population and demographic pressure tend to decline with advanced technological development. Interstellar trade could perhaps take place between a few nearby star systems, but past a few dozen light years the light-speed limit and compound interest (or the future equivalent) would destroy its profitability. Setting up a biosphere haven, a New Earth to serve as a backup for our old one, is a worthy goal but a difficult one. Finding an Earthlike planet, whose lifeforms are compatible with our own, will likely take decades if not centuries of effort, and I doubt very many of them exist naturally in our galaxy.

Let me suggest another factor that, in science fiction at least, often drives interstellar colonization: religion. Colonies of Space Mormons, Space Muslims, Space Rastafarians, and the like featured prominently in ‘70s and ‘80s SF (see Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium books, or John Barnes’s slightly later and more sophisticated Thousand Cultures series). It’s a fair assumption that people of faith might succeed in settling other star systems where secular people, driven only by a fragile profit motive or declining population pressure, would fail. Religious zeal certainly drove the Puritans and the Mormons, to name two groups from the United States’ history, to colonize parts of North America that their “gentile” contemporaries bypassed.

Establishing an interstellar colony, however, will require far more resources and trained specialists than planting settlements in North America. Specialists will need to maintain the colony’s life-support system, purge locally produced food of allergens or toxins, maintain an ecological equilibrium with local life forms, medically counter the deleterious effects of high radiation or high gravity, and otherwise help the colonists survive. And one of the distinguishing features of religious groups, as Rodney Stark noted in The Rise of Christianity (1996), is the direct relationship between their zeal and the difficulty of becoming a member – the sect’s “entry cost.” The larger and more inclusive a particular church or sect or movement becomes, the less fanatical its members become. A band of co-religionists motivated enough to plunge into the interstellar abyss and risk death on a new world will tend toward both zealousness and exclusivity. The likelihood of finding people who both meet the entry requirements for the sect and the educational requirements to run a successful interstellar colony will be low. Our Space Pilgrims may have to recruit outsiders to help support and finance their colony, much as the seventeenth-century Pilgrims recruited "Strangers" to help the "Saints" build Plymouth, and much as the Saudi theocracy relies on the labor and education of millions of foreigners.

Religious colonists will also find it difficult, absent very sophisticated conditioning or genetic engineering technologies, to raise their children to meet both of the necessary standards (religious and technical) for a space theocracy. The Puritans discovered that relatively few of their children and grandchildren met the exacting standards for church membership, and rather than condemn their progeny to outer darkness they chose to relax the standards. Over time a religious colony, if it survives and grows, will have to lower its entry requirements to accommodate children whose religious fires burn lower than their parents' - or throw those children out, if there is room for them elsewhere on the parent planet. It is likelier that the spacefarers' New Zion will pitch out the few zealots who refuse to compromise their religious principles for the sake of later generations. I suppose the zealots could hire a starship to travel to a Newer Zion, presuming they have the capital to do so, but they will almost certainly face the same pressures to secularize as the "apostates" they left.

I suppose it's also possible some alien god might intervene on the Space Pilgrims' behalf. In science fiction, at least, that rarely goes well


(I have not read the novel illustrated above, but its reference to Space Catholics was too good to pass up.)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Guilty Pleasures: Starship Troopers

Whatever its other cultural merits, the decade 1990-99 did not leave us many great science-fiction movies. Most of its offerings were bad sequels and expensive dogs like Stargate. The exceptions mainly subverted or played around with established SF tropes. Men in Black gave us a twist on the First Contact theme (the Aliens are here and we've secretly absorbed them into our culture), Galaxyquest both lampooned and paid homage to fandom, and The Matrix cleverly inverted the occult modern fantasy genre typified by the X-Files (there isn't a fantastic world just below this one's surface – our everyday world is the fantasy). While marketed as a space-war action movie, 1997's Starship Troopers fit into this subversive sub-genre.

The source material which Starship Troopers subverted was Robert Heinlein's now-classic novel (1959). Heinlein set his tale in a future society where flogging is legal, voting and office-holding are restricted to veterans, military service resembles a civics lesson, and war redeems all participants, or all of the good guys anyway. Heinlein did recognize that he needed to tell an actual story, so he included a halfway-decent coming-of-age story and a space-war narrative, in which humans in power armor (a concept RH invented) fought a race of alien insects. The author made it clear, though, that he mainly wanted the novel to showcase his speculations on civic virtue; since RH originally wanted to market Starship Troopers as a young-adult novel, he also indicated that he wanted people to take his vision seriously.

The movie, directed by Paul Verhoeven, does take Heinlein more seriously than perhaps even he intended. Verhoeven and script writer Ed Neumeier recognized that a society so wedded to redemptive violence and skeptical of social democracy would quickly become fascist, so they presented Heinlein's humans as, essentially, space Nazis. Rather than preach against Heinlein, however, the filmmakers turned the movie into propaganda for the space Nazis: structuring the first act of the film as a high-school drama, the second as a recruiter's vision of boot camp (ample food, coed showers, a tough-but-fair drill sergeant played by Clancy Brown), and the rest as elements of a special-effects-intense war movie with lots of scary bugs and explosions. Video newsreel clips provide a window into the giddily-militaristic larger society. Private Johnny Rico's (Casper Van Diehn) rapid ascent in rank and loss of his family and colleagues, including the attractive athlete who dies almost immediately after seducing him (Dina Meyer), tell us how one becomes a real adult in this society. Rico's brilliant friend Carl (Dougie Houser) provides an alternate model of maturity, as he evolves from teen psychic to mad scientist to, essentially, an SS officer, or at least someone with the same wardrobe.

In the end, the surviving good guys fulfill their short-term missions, and the movie tells us “They'll keep fighting – and they'll win!” - though perhaps with more emphasis on the first than the second part of the phrase. The audience is left unsure whether they've been had, which is perhaps the point.

I'm sure Heinlein's more humorless fans, the kind who dominated the 2013 Worldcon, hated this film. Serves them right.