This Week in Armchair Futurism

Elon's vision of space is banal. He needs to read Octavia Butler.

I’m still figuring out the tone, style, and cadence of this newsletter. This week, I wanted to do something simple, accessible, and shippable in 2-3 hours.

This week, I’m trying out a possibly recurring feature I’m calling…

This Week In Armchair Futurism

This is not to say that the folks featured in these tweets are “armchair futurists”. Far from it. I usually assume most of the folks I follow on Twitter are way more qualified to predict and imagine the future.

I’m calling it Armchair Futurism because it’s Twitter. In my mind, there’s no more apt metaphor for Twitter than a big, never-ending party. I don’t know what kind of party exactly, maybe some kind of multiverse of wedding receptions, house parties, and bar talk.

Whatever you picture that environment to look like, the important thing to note is that people are shouting.

If not shouting, blue-check and other popular accounts is speaking with their outside voice. That’s just how Twitter works.

They’re impassioned, they’re outraged, they’re sarcastic. They’re dunking on people like Cancun Cruz, and the U.S. Government, which leads me to my first topic.

Healthcare

Healthcare is abysmal in the U.S.

Especially if you’re poor, working class, freelancing, and/or don’t have a job that provides healthcare benefits.

Hell, even if you do have money and benefits, you might be financially ruined by just about any chronic medical issue. As an example, see Vox’s article, “The Case of the $629 Band-Aid”.

Here’s some tweets about the current state of healthcare in the US:

In the context of Things That Should Exist, it seems like a small ask. A big “Should Exist” is a having nationalized healthcare system that doesn’t bankrupt citizens, rather than whole country depending on a crowdfunding startup to fill the gaps when they receive outrageous medical bills.

Healthcare is not the only thing that’s on fire in 2021. A functional state would be nice too.

Hey, at least NASA put a robot helicopter on Mars this week.

The Mars Rover, Perseverance

I will concede that colonizing space seems necessary when our governments are failing us on a spectacular scale–even though we’re at least 20 years out from actually doing that.

I’m not so much a Mars Rover guy. Despite being a Star Trek fan in my tween years, I’m not really even a “space guy”.

There are too many problems on Earth.

As previously mentioned, human settlement on Mars is still a ways off. NASA plans to launch manned space missions to Mars in the 2030’s, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to launch the first manned mission to Mars in 2024, and to start constructing the first city on Mars in the 2030’s.

NASA have publicly mused that astronauts’(and by extension, Mars colonists’) DNA may even need to be modified(with Tardigrade DNA, no less) to survive the “high-radiation loads and bone-wasting microgravity”.

I recently attended(read: lurked) in Near Future Laboratory’s weekly “Office Hours” zoom chat(sign up for updates via their newsletter) and learned a couple of interesting things about the Perseverance Rover mission:

  1. We’re going to get to “hear” Mars for the first time. The Mars Rover has microphones that will pick up and transmit the sounds of Mars back to NASA central command.

  2. One person on the chat described the NASA’s PR around the event as NASA “singing for its supper”, since Obama cut funding to NASA by 20% in 2013. Despite being a Star Trek fan, I did not know that China is currently the only country with a “manned” space program–they’re currently the only country sending humans into space.

With NASA operating in a diminished capacity, four rich, white, male billionaires(Paul Allen, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk) have stepped in to fill the void. Christian Davenport’s book, The Space Barons, came out in 2018, but a lot has happened since then.

Namely, Elon Musk has become the world’s richest man, and the poster child for private investment in space travel, ousting Bezos twice for 1st place. The feud between the two has been well-documented.

We could see SpaceX and BlueOrigin play out their rivalry for decades, or, conceivably, much longer.

Obviously, Musk is easily the more compelling character.

We don’t need to compare the two to say that Jeff Bezos has no soul. What more could be said of a man who views people, even schoolchildren, as customers, and customers only.

Sure, Elon clobbers Bezos in terms of charisma, but he is no less of a capitalist neo-robber baron than Bezos. This 2018 study ranks both Amazon and Tesla as two of the most dangerous paces to work in America, at least for blue-collar workers.

Let’s Go to Space!

In a world where there is no imaginable alternative to capitalism, our only realistic hope for space colonization is a problematic messianic billionaire.

Do we really expect that Musk’s libertarian experiment in colonizing Mars will be any less brutal than his factories on Earth?

Despite a narrative of Musk being fascinated by space travel from a young age, there’s no evidence that Musk has ever read Octavia Butler’s work.

I’m sure he’s read many of the canonical, and also white, sci-fi writers. Of course, there’s a Musk tweet for that.

Elon’s Vision of Space

Elon should read Butler precisely because Elon Musk’s vision of space is banal.

In Ashlee Vance’s book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Musk is quoted as saying tickets to Mars will initially cost $500,000 to $1m. Obviously the 99% won’t be able to afford that. Musk tweeted out this plan for indentured servitude for the future workers of Mars.

Perhaps it seems presumptuous to imply that the world’s richest man, and the current sole hope of space colonization for humanity, should be familiar with a writer who is arguably one of the greatest sci-fi writers to have existed.

Obviously he’s read sci-fi, professing to be a fan of Iain Banks, and is a huge fan of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

However, it’s worth considering the impact of Musk’s privileged upper-middle-class upbringing in developing his political views.

Musk’s father, Errol Musk, had half-ownership of an emerald mine in Zambia in the 1980’s. Elon Musk grew up wealthy.

From the family’s emerald sales, Musk’s father is quoted as saying, “We had so much money at times we couldn't even close our safe.

Musk’s Opinions

Musk’s tweets reflect this elite and privileged background. Kind of what you’d expect an upper-middle-class, white, American, straight, Ivy League-educated male would say at a cocktail party, or a sports bar.

Musk also had a public falling out with his partner, the pop singer, Grimes, over a tweet he made that was widely interpreted as transphobic.

My intention here is not to roast Musk, but to place him in relation to another, better thinker who also thought very much about a common topic: space travel.

Octavia Butler is a visionary, it bears repeating. I suppose I have to admit that Musk is as well.

However, their two visions are not equal.

Through her work, Butler predicted a fascist America whose leader ran under the slogan “Make America Great Again”. She wrote about a California wrought by natural disasters, the increasing influence of new age cults(ie Q-Anon) on US culture and politics, and trends in attempting to escape the material world via digital experiences and opioids. This blog post by Tim Maughan explores how Butler, and other sci-fi writers envisioned the 2020s.

Butler’s vision of space colonization as written in her Earthseed series is vastly more holistic, human, complex, and interesting than Musk’s.

Why? Because Earthseed, despite being a fictional religion(as well as the title of the series), retains a sense of the sacred.

The sacred text of the Earthseed religion is called The Book of the Living. It contains verses such as:

5. God exists to be shaped

God is Power—
Infinite,
Irresistible,
Inexorable,
Indifferent.
And yet, God is Pliable—
Trickster,
Teacher,
Chaos,
Clay.
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.

∞ = Δ”

Possibly, Musk would find much to agree with in reading Butler’s work.

But between the depth and clarity of thought, there is no comparison between Butler and Musk.

Undoubtedly, Elon is one of the great Captains of Industry, of all time.

However, as one Twitter account puts it:

Butler’s A Few Rules for Predicting the Future

In closing, I’ll offer this excerpt from Butler’s short essay, A Few Rules for Predicting the Future.

I suppose I share this here as a way of saying that no billionaire is going to save us, we’re not going to colonize Mars anytime soon, and I suppose that it’s up to individuals to dream up and execute on positive visions of the future.

“SO DO YOU REALLY believe that in the future we’re going to have the kind of trouble you write about in your books?” a student asked me as I was signing books after a talk. The young man was referring to the troubles I’d described in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, novels that take place in a near future of increasing drug addiction and illiteracy, marked by the popularity of prisons and the unpopularity of public schools, the vast and growing gap between the rich and everyone else, and the whole nasty family of problems brought on by global warming.

“I didn’t make up the problems,” I pointed out. ‘All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.’

“Okay,” the young man challenged. “So what’s the answer?”

“There isn’t one,” I told him.

“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.

“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

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What do you think? Is a better and more holistic vision of space colonization possible? How do we get billionaires to read better books? Are all non-Tardigrade humans doomed to roast alive on planet Earth?

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