REVIEW: “Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit” by William K. Storey

Review of William K. Storey, “Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 51-61 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This non-fiction piece is a companion both to Steven Barnes’s “Mozart on the Kalahari” (read the review) and to Carter Scholz’s “Vanguard 2.0” (read the review). In it, Storey picks up on the dark side of space-exploration — that one cannot explore and settle new lands without colonizing them. Storey argues that “the U.S. has never been entirely comfortable with colonizing or dominating other societies” (p. 54) — a somewhat surprising thing to say, I’ll admit — but also points out that the aspects of colonisation that are picked up in each of the stories “reflect the times that we live in and the aspirations that we have, rather than being problems that are somehow inherent in the stories” (p. 55). And this, after all, is one of the great joys of fiction, that in it we can explore issues of the present under the guise of issues about the future, and that we can choose what to foreground and what to background. When Storey says “the future of the nation and the world are linked, in these stories, to decisions about colonization” (p. 60), the “in these stories” phrase could just as easily have been omitted: What is explored as fiction in Barnes’ and Scholz’s stories is, in its barest form, true for reality as well.

As Storey makes clear, the colonisation inherent in space-exploration cannot be understood except against a political backdrop, a context where private (often capitalistic and corporate) and public aims are in conflict with each other. These tensions are seen quite clearly in Scholz’s story, but Storey wants to highlight these same tensions in Barnes’s story, albeit perhaps less front-and-center:

Both stories contrast a bleak future on Earth and the possibilities of exploring in Low Earth Orbit (p. 54).

Storey also highlights another, internal, tension of both stories: If things on earth are going so badly that our only hope is to head out into Low Earth Orbit, who is it paying for the development of technology that allows us to do so? We already have first-hand experience of how unlikely it is that such developments are government funded; but it also isn’t clear that private corporations will be able to provide the financial support necessary. Looking to history to see how large-scale explorations have been funded in the past gives us many examples of public-private partnerships. On one measure, these joint endeavours are wildly more successful than any only-public or only-private venture. But on another measure, they were the cause of some of the worst acts of humanity: “public-private partnerships in the form of chartered colonial companies helped to produce some of the worst cases of misrule in modern history” (p. 57). All of these threads come together in Storey’s concluding remarks:

If NASA has a role in the future colonization of Low Earth Orbit, it is not only to promote and develop technologies; it is to articulate a vision of what that colonization might look like. The stakes are high. One can only hope that the Earth’s health will be greater than the authors of these stories suggest (pp. 60-61).

Let us hope.

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