First, if you celebrate any of them, Happy Easter, Happy Passover, and Happy Ramadan.
It’s fair to say that science fiction writers and readers skew freethinker/atheist. Even if a sci fi story doesn’t explicitly refute religious beliefs, sf tends to be set in futures that are secular and rational.
In my latest appearance in Analog, I tilt at this sacred cow of science fiction and explain why it’s a mistake.
Curious? The following Q&A will tell you more.
How would you summarize your fact article in the May/June 2022 issue of Analog, “The Believers Shall Inherit the Solar System?”
Today, space travel is so expensive, that if a space colony is expected to pay for itself by shipping mass back to Earth, it couldn’t make enough profit to justify the expense.
Future advances that lower shipment costs won’t help, because there would be comparable advances to lower the cost of mining, refining, and manufacturing on Earth.
The conclusion is that it will never be economical to colonize space.
What? I thought you liked science fiction and space travel?
I do. I grew up reading Analog. Larry Niven stories about belters mining the flying mountains. Jerry Pournelle’s fact articles collected in A Step Farther Out. I know there’s vast wealth out in space. I expect someone will settle out there and prosper. But not because the money people on Earth will expect to make a profit by sending them.
Then why will people settle space?
For the same reason European-Americans settled about half the thirteen colonies, plus Utah: religious freedom. Though I would broadly define “religion” to include political ideologies and cultural ways-of-life. Basically, space will be settled by communities that think the best place they can thrive is far from 21st century Earth. Which means communities far outside the mainstream.
You just want your kind of people to settle the Solar system, don’t you?
I have religious and political beliefs and cultural preferences. Like every other science fiction reader. I want people who share my beliefs to settle outer space. Again, like every other science fiction reader. But the solar system is a huge place, and even if a Jeff Bezos or an Elon Musk each spent a hundred billion dollars to colonize it, they would barely make a dent in it. No matter my beliefs or yours, most space settlements will embody religions, ideologies, and cultures both of us won’t like. And even the ones we do like will be driven by levels of obsession and fanaticism we’d find uncomfortable.
The flaw in your argument is that religious fanatics or political ideologues can’t be good enough at science and engineering to build or maintain a space colony.
History disagrees. Isaac Newton worked as hard at alchemy and biblical numerology as he did at calculus and physics.
But Newton lived in a superstitious era.
Human nature hasn’t changed since the 1600s. Many modern scientists and engineers combine technical competence with ideas that are false, strange, or repugnant. For example, at this writing, the first results page for “creationism books” at amazon.com includes In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation. Example #2: one of the most notorious books of Holocaust denial was written by a tenured electrical engineering professor at a Big Ten university. Example #3: Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel in Chemistry for inventing PCR, spent the last decades of his life arguing that the virus designated “HIV” did not cause AIDS.
You’re saying that if I want to live in space, I have to share the beliefs of some commune or cult?
No. You just can’t publicly disagree with the settlement’s belief system. Here are some ways that might play out.
Keep your “abberrant” beliefs on the down-low. Especially if you have an essential skill that keeps the system running, many authority figures will look the other way at what you might do on your free time. As long as you’re discreet. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a common, unwritten policy in many places before Pres. Clinton made it official for the US military in the 1990s.
If you want to go public with your beliefs, there’s a way you might be able to. In numerous human societies, people with specialized skills can become a subcommunity with a unique set of privileges and restrictions, like ironsmiths in many African cultures, or many of the traditional jatis (“castes”) in India. In a space settlement’s caste system, you might be a second-class citizen, but that might exempt you from the more onerous demands placed on the upper castes.
Third, some colonies may function like 1950s-style mainline Protestantism. Spend an hour a week sitting in the pew, paying lip service to the Nicene Creed, the Preamble to the US Constitution, or “workers of the world, unite,” and you get to spend the rest of your waking hours living and working in space.
Finally, it might be that you don’t agree with their beliefs, but you enjoy the company of your fellow colonists. There’s an anecdote about the Jewish atheist who was asked why he attended synagogue services. His reply: “Garfinkel goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Garfinkel.”
In other words, if I want to settle space, I have to either be inauthentic to my true beliefs, or believe in something false and strange?
In every society, some behaviors are discouraged, forbidden, or taboo, and others are encouraged or mandated. And as for false and strange beliefs, can you be certain your cherished notions are good and true?
That said, there are two other ways to settle space.
One is to find a community whose weird beliefs are ones you agree with. The other is to start your own. Since you probably aren’t a multi-billionaire, your best route forward is to find a multi-billionaire and sell him or her on your vision for your space colony.
You make it sound so simple.
Simple doesn’t mean easy. But persuading a billionaire to bankroll you would be easier than convincing an accountant to invest tens of billions on an asteroid mining project with a return of maybe 0.1% over a decade.
Thanks for a thought-provoking conversation. Before we go, have you published books or stories that explore in fiction some of the topics of your article?
Religious or religious-like motivations for space settlement pop up in a number of my works. Those motivations manifest in several ways.
In some of my stories, traditional Earth religions and ideologies make their way to the solar system and beyond. Some of the colony worlds visited by Earth government operative Stone Chalmers were founded to preserve particular cultures or religions. Book one of the series is free here. A Mighty Fortress is about a Lutheran interstellar expedition to terraform a rocky planet. The deep background for the Portia Oakeshott, Dinosaur Veterinarian stories is that New New South Wales, the colony planet where the stories take place, was settled by 0.1% of Australians who brought the monarchy and high church Anglicanism with them into interstellar space five centuries from now.
Some future religions arise from Earth religions or ideologies mixing in space. Kind of like the Fremen of Frank Herbert’s Dune officially calling themselves the Zensunni Wanderers. One obvious one is in Take the Shilling, the free first book of the Confederated Worlds military science fiction series, where most of the action takes place on New Liberty, a colony where the Presidents of the ancient United States are venerated like saints. For that matter, the main character of Take the Shilling is raised in a religion that mixes Eastern and Western spiritual traditions into something new.
It’s also possible that technological interventions in the brain can be combined with the religious impulse to create brand new religions. The last two books of the Stone Chalmers series are about a high-tech religion calling itself Alignment with the Universe. Brain hacking helps people break free of the Selfish Gene (atheist biologist Richard Dawkins’ rediscovery of Original Sin) in my novel New California.
To sum up, religion is going to be part of human lives and human societies when we colonize the solar system and the galaxy. It’s also going to be part of conflicts. Between religions. Between God and Mammon. Between faith and doubt. As a science fiction writer, that’s a good thing. Because conflicts make stories.