On Loftier Notions


Golly! It’s been a long time since I posted. This has been a busy winter, much as expected. I’ve been scrambling to finish certain projects before deadlines, and February has also been full of memorable events. Recently, the kids at work went through February Vacation, something which I guess is particular to Massachusetts (although we’re probably not the only state that does it). My after-school program ran a day camp, so I’ve been in full overdrive mode. We put on a fun skit for the rest of our group at the end of the week, basically it was a staged slasher movie. Elementary schoolers can be very morbid these days, but who am I to deny their creative sensibilities? We designed the story collaboratively, and then I filled in the gaps as a narrator, like usual. We were able to work in sound effects, creepy lighting, and I borrowed a microphone from the computer lab, allowing me to use my best Vincent Price voice to full effect.

Some other crap that I did recently –

  • Went on a long-weekend journey to New York City, and experienced biting cold and wind, terrifying cab drivers, lewd puppets, and pretty good beer.
  • Applied to grad school for elementary teaching after several years of crippling indecision.
  • Wasted a lot of time on a brutally addictive game.
  • Started a Fifth Edition D&D campaign with fiancee and friends. It’s going really well, and I’ll have to post about it soon.

The subject of my post today is a bit random, in that it has little to do with anything else I’m currently working on, or even thinking about very much. But I’m always thinking about this to some extent: going into space. We should totally go into space. This is actually a pretty big part of my philosophy in life, and I love discussing it with both friends and strangers alike. I also want to talk about/review some of the science fiction that got me excited about the subject.

So, of course, I’m a fan of people like Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Stephen Hawking, all of whom have said at various points that not only should we go into space because it’s cool, it would also be a really great way to survive and thrive as a species. Keep in mind that when I discuss things like philosophy and science, I’m no academic, and in my opinion I’m not even that well-read on these subjects. But what I have read has only confirmed and strengthened these beliefs. Still, I’m always eager to hear other people’s take on this stuff. since I also believe that personal philosophy should be a changing, growing thing that is continually challenged. ANYWAY, here are some key points to what I think –

(Edit: I won’t expound on these points too much. I feel like they speak for themselves, and after an earlier draft I felt that I was being too preachy and apocalyptic. While I’ve been told that I look like a crazy street preacher, it’s not how I like to think of myself)

  • It’s reasonable to have some degree of pessimism about the human race’s overall chances of success if we stay on Earth, living like we do “Success” here means our continued growth and rise to complexity, without a bunch of people dying needlessly or living terrible lives.
  • Space colonization solves a bunch of our problems: It potentially relieves population pressure, it allows us to create new homes for our species without screwing over other people or living things (which is what I usually think of when someone says “colonization”), it reduces the chances of succumbing to an extinction event (comets anyone?), it makes it easier to create new societies that are intentionally designed (we currently have a better understanding of how to make sustainable communities, so I think that’s a good thing).
  • Spreading complex life throughout the universe is also probably a good thing Freeman Dyson calls it “beauty,” to me beauty is complexity. Allowing life to flourish in different places creates more complexity, more diversity, and more ways to understand being and existing.
  • It allows us to give entropy the finger The human race is its own living archive of how people can exist. Some humans live on the bleeding edge of the hi-tech lifestyle, and some people herd reindeer, and those are both fine. What’s great is that we become better when we can exist with our past and our future at the same time. Being spread across the stars allows for enough free space and resources for people to continue existing in traditional ways, while others can pursue their own thing.

Stuff I Haven’t Figured Out Yet

There are some legit problems with these ideas that I continue to struggle with, and I thought I should list them, and maybe answer them.

  • Going into space is expensive Yep, it’s true. When I talk about this with people, I often get asked, “shouldn’t we be focusing our resources on other things, like medicine, improving the economy, international aid, etc.?” Yes, we should. But Neil pointed out that right now, in the USA, we’re only paying something like half a penny to fund NASA. And that gets us the ISS, the Mars Rovers, crews of astronauts, and so on. Even if, in a perfect world, our country wasn’t sinking ridiculous amounts of money into defense, we could still probably help a lot of people and advance the dream of space travel at the same time.
  • Living in space is implausible Right now, it kind of is. Especially living without gravity. It seems like the ISS crew is always discovering new, unpleasant things about being in space. And living on other planets, the more feasible option, has it’s own share of obstacles. Bad atmosphere, radiation, having to live in sealed environments, and so on. To me, none of this stuff is a deal breaker, although traveling in space would probably trigger a panic attack for me (I’m not a good flyer 0:43). I have faith that technology and experience will provide better answers to this, especially transhuman tech. I’m not a transhumanist (not yet anyway), but I’m on board with changing our bodies if it means we can adapt better to new environments.
  • Do we have to leave people behind? Here’s a humanist dilemma that’s ties in with lots of things I’ve already touched on. Does colonizing space, and by extension, seeking new places to live in general, mean that we have to leave behind people struggling with poverty and other issues that keep them stuck on the ground. I feel like it depends a lot on what form the means of transportation will take in the years to come. Space travel is still just a dream for the vast majority of human beings, and I wonder how people in power will bring that dream to the people, or if, in the years to come, we just won’t have dealt with our class issues yet. Elon Musk’s SpaceX currently builds the world’s cheapest space shuttles, and they give me hope for what space travel could look like in a few decades. Then again, that guy kinda sketches me out.

So, in summary, I want to go into space. Or at the very least, I want more people to go into space, eventually. If there’s a direction I think our species should be moving in, it’s up.

I’ve sort of always felt that way, but since college I’ve expanded my science-fiction reading list, and gotten generally better acquainted with the ideas behind the philosophy. Here are some good reads that I recommend first because they’re beautiful, well-written books, and second because they’re thought-provoking.

Schismatrix Plus

Strange, wonderful, and sad, this is a transhuman masterpiece by Bruce Sterling. He’s considered to be one of the big “Cyberpunk” founding fathers of the 80’s, along with William Gibson. Schismatrix (which is the novel, the “Plus” refers to the short stories set in the same universe) is about humanity living out in the wider solar system, and the life of one particular man, Abelard Lindsay. The novel follows Abelard from passionate, idealistic youth to old age as he travels between different space habitats, and gets involved in system politics. Humanity has split into different transhuman factions, divided along their chosen form of enhancement technology. Foremost among them are the “Shapers,” who prefer genetic modification, and the “Mechanists,” who favor cybernetic mods. I love this book, mainly because it’s just so weird. The future society he envisions is filled with eccentrics, fanatics, and murderous space hermits. He also manages to cram a million great ideas into one book, and still write a hell of a story with a real human core.

Red Mars

Oh, this book. It was quite a bestseller back in the day, and I remember being curious about it as a young lad in the 90’s (I didn’t actually get around to reading it until recently). It’s an epic future history of the human colonization of Mars, focusing on the “First Hundred,” the original mission crew who became the leaders of the planet’s settlement. I love the characters, I love the science (if you like geology, you’ll be all over this), and I love the politics (which I admit are not for everyone, but I would totally be a Martian pinko commie). It feels a little dense at times, but I blasted my way through it. Diaspora

This book blew my mind when I read it. Greg Egan has a reputation for being challenging, and it is well-deserved, but this story is like nothing else I’ve read before. It’s about a community of posthumans who live almost entirely as sentient computer programs. The first part of the book focuses on their interactions with other human groups inhabiting the physical world, and a mysterious natural disaster. From there it follows the characters on a journey across space, and eventually across other universes. The scope of their journey is incredible, and despite all the ruminations on computer science and physics, there is still a beautiful and very human story underneath it all. Egan really does go off on some ridiculous tangents, but it’s easy to tell where they start and end. They usually have little to do with the story, and you could probably just skip them to enjoy the rest of the story.

WHOA, long post, sorry, but I think I needed that! I feel ready to tackle some other projects now, so until next time!

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