Sunday, October 21, 2018

Suburban domesticity on the Moon? VR, cyborgs, and other strange beings?

I had a little conversation with Bryan Alexander over First Man and our capacity for experience. It came down to this (Bryan): “Yes, there's a cultural pattern here, an arc from dread/possibility to suburbs. I just hope we don't give up on it.” So Columbus and his men set off to the West with a sense of dread – so much empty ocean, are we lost, forever? – and possibility – we’re going to be rich! Four centuries later the West had been won, the country was populated (with mostly white people of European descent, but, oh so many others as well, and not all here of their own choosing–so much pain and cruelty) from coast to coast, and moving to the cities at a furious pace. By mid-century suburbia was on the rise.

What are the chances of anything like that EVER happening on the moon, Mars, the asteroids, anywhere above the earth’s surface? Yes, it’s all over science fiction. But we’re now in a zone where some of that could come real. Some, but how much?

It’s one thing to have small groups take limited tours of duty on the moon, asteroids, or Mars. That will be expensive enough & I don’t know whether there’ll be enough economic return to pay for it. But there might. Maybe have a small crew to maintain and repair the robots that do all the heavy lifting.

Permanent babies-to-adults generation-after-generation settlement, that’s a different game altogether. Where’s the comfortable domesticity, the relaxed suburban sprawl with the lawns, pools, tennis courts, and country clubs (we’re talking elite suburbia here)? You can’t just go out the door and talk a walk on Mars. You’ve got to suit-up and go through an airlock and watch your step!–like Neil Armstrong did in the movie. That’s not so convenient.

I’m thinking virtual reality and other immersive tech might have an allure there that it just doesn’t (yet) have here. You don your slip-on VR suit and walk on the treadmill while experiencing a stroll down the Amazon deep into the Atlantic where you sip mojitos in Atlantis before riding the space elevator to low earth orbit and catch the sunrise and then backflip back home to Mars. Maybe you even go (partial) cyborg. Genetically engineered fittings at birth so you grow into an assortment of prosthetic appliances that give you, if not superpowers, a greater capacity for easy mobility on the Martian surface.

Do we have whole new races of cyborg hybrids, natural organics plus synthetics plus composite materials plus who knows what kind of sensors and computational extensions of the central and peripheral nervous systems? Can it will it happen? I don’t know.

The point is that the cruel and unnatural (unnatural!) environment(s) of outer space  are perhaps niches with affordances in which new forms of hybrid life can evolve. Over time, 10s and 100s and 1000s of generations. If only they can make it through the first 10s of generations to some kind of quasi-comfortable if bracingly rigorous modus vivendi.

Is it whole new worlds?

Somehow after seeing First Man it doesn’t seem so extremely utterly impossibly far-fetched, so, you know, science FICTION. Maybe one day bio-engineering REAL? & the film wasn’t about anything like that. But as it filtered into the nooks and crannies of my mind, that’s what’s come up.

Who knows?


  1. (I still haven't seen First Man. Hope to.)
    I think we're really getting into the cyborg experience on multiple levels, starting with the quite shocking mass adoption of psychopharmaceuticals, plus the underappreciated use of new materials and technologies to add implants, especially for bone. At a less direct level we also have close connections w/media and data. The idea of an unmodified human being occasionally working with disconnected tools is receding.

    Cyborgs in space: there's a tradition of this in sf. Fred Pohl's Man Plus is one important example. Like most things, the idea is already present in Olaf Stapledon's novels (Star Maker and Last and First Men). If I'm right, we're headed that way. We should expect some space- or other-planet-specific human alterations.