Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law famously proposed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But there is an subtle corollary to this... call it the Bateman-Clarke Conjecture: “Any entirely imagined technology is interchangeable with magic.” To put it another way, the only difference between science fiction and fantasy is that the former depends upon manipulating our scientific beliefs, whereas the latter can make up absolutely anything. Thus with a passing knowledge of contemporary theory, you can invent a sci-fi technology to do anything... plausibility disguises itself as possibility.
With this in mind, there are three essential kinds of spaceships: those we have built, those we can plan to build, and those we can only imagine. The trouble is, those latter two kinds get mixed up all too easily. Is a Europa lander something we can plan to build, or merely something we imagine? What about a colony ship? A Dyson sphere? Not seeing a technical objection is not equivalent to possessing the capability to implement. Science fiction consistently deceives us in this way, and we let it because we are imaginative beings and while we are capable of debunking other people’s mythologies, we can never quite manage it for our own.
The NASA lunar missions, and the Russian orbital missions before them, served political roles that entailed crafting the way people imagined them. “First man...” is a logic that serves political goals – as with “First woman...” and “First black...” There are positive aspects to this mythos-crafting, and Joseph Campbell was keen to stress the way the first Earthrise photograph (pictured above) opened the door to a new perspective on our planetary existence. But this hoped-for shift in perspective did not spread very far (although it’s there in utopian visions like Gene Roddenberry’s). Rather than uniting the planet, the post-Earthrise planet is fragmented into different responses to the existential threat humans pose to themselves: the environmentalist rally for prioritising the Earth; the reactionary denial of any need to save the world; and the insane confluence of those positions in the ‘flee the planet’ mythos that proposes that rather than solving the problems of human life on Earth, we should escape our doom here and magically work out our problems on another planet. The Bateman-Clarke Conjecture strikes again!
Part of the moral problem of spaceships is that we deceive ourselves about them in the same way we do about cars. We imagine the autonomy of the Millennium Falcon and ignore the immense cybernetic network required to make any industrial vehicle tenable. Bruno Latour remarked that airplanes don’t fly, it is airlines that fly. Well, spaceships do not visit other planets, it is space agencies that do, whether public or privately owned – and at a considerable cost in resources. If the achievements of NASA in producing the Earthrise photograph are not understood as the product of immense and expensive co-operative endeavours, then all space travel scenarios dissolve into mere fantasy.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #39