I’ve been thinking about space a lot recently.
Maybe it’s because a friend of mine went to see Rogue One – the most recent addition to the bloated Star Wars franchise – a few weeks ago, without having seen any of the original movies. So we had to start from the beginning and watch them all.
Which took me back a bit. Having grown up on those films, it felt like a reenactment of childhood, and a pang of nostalgia for simpler narratives, ones in which things explode immediately when they crash into something and there are forested planets full of cute aliens.
In Star Wars, we don’t need an explanation for why the Empire is Evil and the Rebels are inherently Good. We just have the intuitive understanding that this is the case and that all is as it should be. Even though the technology might be more complex, life is actually simpler: you know who whose side you’re on and who the enemy is.
I wonder whether that’s part of the appeal of space in storytelling: when life on Earth feels increasingly complex and incomprehensible, and our grip on reality feels slippery and nebulous, space offers the possibility of escape, and of perspective – we get to see ourselves as we really are in relation to the rest of the universe. It also affords us the possibility of change and redemption – of being able to begin again, away from the failures and havoc that we’ve wreaked on our home planet.
But equally, space can bring us the opposite: far from offering a new beginning, or the start of a new phase in our evolution, space can become just a wider canvas on which to paint our collective pathology.
Take Netflix’s The Expanse, for example. Its premise is that humanity has colonised the rest of the solar system: Earth and Mars have become two competing powers, while in-between sit the belters, human inhabitants of the Asteroid Belt, who mostly do all the heavy lifting, and who seek independence.
The labyrinthine plot notwithstanding, it offers a more realist depiction of what life on other worlds would be like. Humans are still humans, doing humdrum human things, and our old ways – conflict, hierarchy, violence, lust for power and control – are still very much with us. Resources, such as water, are still scarce, and human existence is as precarious as it ever was.
Maybe what I’m trying to get at is that right now there’s more than ample reason to want to fantasise about getting the fuck off the planet and starting again elsewhere. But even though we might be able to envision traveling into hyperspace, part of our brains are still descended from reptiles, and we’re apt to keep making the same mistakes over again. We might long for the possibility of escape. But it won’t help us to escape ourselves.