Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space by De Witt Douglas Kilgore
In the last few years, the black presence in sf has become stronger, no longer dominated solely by Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler and perhaps Steven Barnes. With Nalo Hopkinson’s success and with Sheree R. Thomas’s two Dark Matter anthologies (2000 and 2004, rev. in SFS 28.1 and 31.3), it has become apparent that the number of black sf writers is increasing. Criticism lags behind, however, with only a slim volume by Sandra Grayson, Visions of the Third Millennium: Black Science Fiction Novelists Write the Future (2003; rev. in SFS 32.2) and a number of articles paving the way. In spite of the title Astrofuturism, which gestures toward Afrofuturism, and despite the mention of race in the subtitle, Kilgore’s book is not about black sf writers, nor is it a study of race in sf, although it will be a useful tool to examine those two subjects. Instead, it focuses on popular science writing and sf as they deal with the subject of race while constructing utopian futures in their treatment of space flight. Kilgore uses a version of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of paranoid and reparative readings as part of the protocol for handling his materials, resulting in a fair, thorough, and sometimes liberating view of works it might be easier to dismiss, or to feel guilty for remembering with a fondness that implicates us in racism. He manages this without letting us, or the works in question, off the hook.
After a very clear Introduction, the book alternates chapters on popular science writing with chapters on sf. The first two chapters deal with popular science writing from the 1930s to the 1950s. The third and fourth chapters treat Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. The fifth chapter addresses the more social or “domestic” agenda of popular science writing of the 1960s and 1970s. Ben Bova is the focus of the sixth chapter, and a concluding chapter pulls things together.
In the Introduction, subtitled “The Wonderful Dream,” Kilgore defines his subject:
Astrofuturism forecasts an escape from terrestrial history. Its roots lie in the nineteenth-century Euro-American preoccupation with imperial expansion and utopian speculation, which it recasts in the elsewhere and elsewhen of outer space.... [I]t is also the space of utopian desire. Astrofuturist speculation on space-based exploration, exploitation, and colonization is capacious enough to contain imperialist, capitalist ambitions and utopian, socialist hopes. (1)
Kilgore sees writing about space exploration, both in fact and fiction, as being “distinguished by its close connections to engineering projects funded by the government and the military” and as sharing a number of dramatic conventions: “characters that embody the future of humanity; the historical, political, literary, and scientific knowledges that those characters represent; the environments they craft, explore, or occupy; and the machines/instruments they create, control, and deploy” (2). Science writing is, then, “deeply implicated in debates on race, class, and gender; inequities thought to represent the chief impediments to the perfection of democratic society” (4-5). Kilgore concludes his introduction with a discussion of Homer H. Hickam, Jr., a NASA aerospace engineer who rose from a coal-mining family in West Virginia and whose story was told in his autobiography, Rocket Boys (1998) and in a film based on the book, October Sky (1999). He also discusses George Takei, the Japanese-American actor who played Sulu in the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) and, more briefly, Nichelle Nichols, also of Star Trek, and Mae C. Jemison, the first black woman in space. As he says of Hickam’s autobiography, Rocket Boys (1998), “[o]ptimistic and critical readings ... are equally true. Since life is lived in that duality, it would be cynical to deny how creatively people make do with what they have, particularly as they rearticulate pedagogical narratives of the status quo into subversive vehicles of their utopian longings” (21). However narrow the visions of the dominant culture (and of the writers of science fact and fiction), for these people, and for Kilgore himself, astrofuturism provides “a language of aspiration” (16). This pattern of critical (or “paranoid,” as Sedgwick would say) and optimistic (or “reparative”) readings will be repeated throughout the book as Kilgore treats both fiction and non-fiction.
Chapter one begins Kilgore’s examination of the contrary motions of space exploration in British, but to a greater extent, American culture—both exclusionary and democratic, conformist and subversive, imperialist and socialist. In “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: David Lasser and the First Conquest of Space,” Kilgore looks at the amateur rocket societies of the 1920s and 1930s, what he calls “first-generation astrofuturism” (32), and the career of David Lasser, who represented the utopian and socialist vision of astrofuturism. As an editor for Hugo Gernsback’s Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories in 1929, he saw science fact and fiction as closely connected, each requiring both scientific plausibility and “heroic invention” (34). By 1930 he was president of the American Interplanetary Society, whose aim was to promote space travel. Later, as president of the Workers Alliance of America, he became involved in political change, focusing on the needs of workers across racial boundaries. In his book of popular science, The Conquest of Space (1931), Lasser presents his version of the astrofuturist dream: “Lasser identifies national and racial antagonism as the central impediment to a glorious global unity. The conquest of space will increase civilized knowledge and unite the human race” (38-39). Lasser attempted to make connections with the rocketry pioneer, Robert H. Goddard, but Goddard avoided any close association as he sought funds for his own research. Kilgore says, “[t]he exchange between Lasser and Goddard exposes the tensions between science and fiction that have always attended the astrofuturist pursuit of the wonderful dream. The serious tone [of Lasser’s The Conquest of Space] ... could not mask the enthusiastic, utopian, and, as a consequence, radical nature” of his ideas (43). In later years, after the Depression dragged on and World War II began, Lasser left the WAA and became active in New Deal projects, although in spite of his repudiation of communism, “[T]he political atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s discouraged any visible link between Lasser’s liberal progressivism and the military-industrial complex” (47).
If Lasser belongs to democratic, subversive socialism, the subject of the next chapter belongs to its opposite. “An Empire in Space: Europe and America as Science Fact” describes the career of Wernher von Braun, the German developer of the V-2 rocket in Germany and later in the US Kilgore makes clear the connection between Nazi totalitarianism and American ambitions: “the record of rocket team complicity in Nazi war crimes was adroitly covered up by the US Army and the War Department to avoid the public outcry that would have resulted” (50) if the connection between the new American rocket scientists and their Nazi past had been made. Proceeding through the 1950s, this chapter emphasizes von Braun’s (and the American rocket program’s) moral ambiguity. He points out “the irony inherent in [the program’s] formulation of space futures: in order to achieve the benefits that they expected from the space frontier—more wealth, freedom, and democracy for the individual—the world would have to be organized and its masses mobilized as never before” (51) in order to finance and build the project. Furthermore, as Carl Sagan pointed out, central to von Braun was the “dread ambiguity” that “[t]he modern rocket, which [von Braun] pioneered, will prove to be either the means of mass annihilation through a global thermonuclear war or the means that will carry us to the planets and the stars” (qtd. Kilgore 56). And yet von Braun became a scientist-celebrity throughout the 1950s in America, helping shape the vision of the future in Disneyland and becoming “an ambassador for the space program” (59). Von Braun’s success must “be attributed to the positive value assigned to whiteness in the middle of the last century.” He became a model “for American youth because he was an educated and cultured European and was not racially other” (60). At the same time, Kilgore acknowledges von Braun’s efforts to promote civil rights in Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked. Kilgore goes on to look at von Braun’s own writing, including a novel called The Mars Project (1952) and the popular science essay “Prelude to Space“ (1952), and goes on to make the valuable point that science fact and science fiction are in a feedback loop, with sf learning its science from popular science writing, which, in turn, uses science fiction conventions to explain and illustrate its science.
Kilgore then turns to the science writing of Willy Ley, another German rocket scientist, but one who fled the Nazis. In contrast to von Braun, Ley allied himself with the amateur rocket societies and the science-fiction community, writing for Astounding Science Fiction, becoming science editor for Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952, and writing many books, including his own novel The Conquest of Space (1950) with the artistic collaboration of Chesley Bonestell. Ley’s book, unlike Lesser’s, made a big splash: the atom bomb, which was associated with rocketry, had made rocket science, and by association science fiction, more respectable. In Ley’s work, and in general, “the astrofuturist consensus formed around progressive science and technology, territorial expansion, and a tacit acknowledgment of a social order that placed Europe and white America at the pinnacle of racial and nationalist hierarchies” (78). Ley also valorizes big science and the conquest of nature. In other words, “[r]ather than presenting alternatives ... the space future of the 1950s and 1960s was to be a realm in which the contemporary status quo would find infinite room for expansion” (78).
Chapter three, “Building a Space Frontier: Robert A. Heinlein and the American Tradition,” engages sf literature from the same angle that the previous chapters engage popular science writing. That is, Kilgore looks at Heinlein’s work as a cultural artifact revelatory of attitudes toward space exploration and toward race, gender, and class. Heinlein is his first example of an astrofuturist sf writer for whom “[o]ur ability to control and manipulate the natural world through technoscience is the central assumption” (83). Kilgore describes Heinlein’s work as “sociomilitary,” envisioning “a social order based on an idealized notion of military service” (84). By seeing Heinlein’s work in this way, Kilgore sheds light on its most disturbing aspect for contemporary readers:
The equality between men that the sociomilitary form imposes from the top down is one sign of the tension between control and freedom that structures Heinlein’s narratives. The gender politics of his work are another sign: because of his reliance on the sociomilitary form, Heinlein has difficulty allowing equal places for men and women in his future. (85)
The sociomilitary form also divides the world into the military ruling elite and the undisciplined and ignorant masses. Kilgore has more of great interest to say about how Heinlein deals with issues of bias and stratification in his examination of Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), The Star Beast (1954),Space Cadet (1948), and other novels of space exploration. He says that for Heinlein, “racism is a peculiar attitude that can be overcome with the right environmental stimuli[,] ... defin[ing] intolerance as an historical human problem that can be left behind without a serious accounting” (101). Sexism, too, is seen as an individual rather than institutional flaw, although it is less easily ignored: “The masculine can remain undisturbed if women are allowed to assimilate into it and if cultural assumptions about romance and reproduction are suspended or ignored.” If that is impossible, then women in Heinlein’s narratives “represent a difference disruptive to the efficient operation of any professional environment or mission” (107). The required tolerance of his ideal society “must be imposed and maintained from the top down by a scientifically and technically trained elite” (102).
Kilgore broadens his discussion to point out the ways in which these attitudes toward race, gender, and class reflect American attitudes. Specifically, he sees in Heinlein’s future histories “valorization of social and physical sciences and ... devaluation of religious authority echo[ing] the rising prestige of technoscience after the Second World War.” Heinlein uses space exploration to extend America’s vision of manifest destiny “for endless economic expansion.” Kilgore cites parallels between Heinlein’s plots and major events in American history: “[a]s a result the social, political, economic, and cultural past is mirrored in the future, rendering that future recognizable as a smooth and unsurprising extension of the familar” (89). Heinlein’s future extends capitalism and rugged individualism into an expansionist dream that undercuts its own “egalitarian individualism” (95).
As in his discussion of Heinlein, Kilgore gives Arthur C. Clarke his due without letting him off the hook in the following chapter, “Will There Always Be an England? Arthur C. Clarke’s New Eden.” Kilgore sees Clarke’s writing career, both in popular science and sf, as an outgrowth of his early involvement with the British Interplanetary Society. He notes that Clarke spans “the entire length of the space-flight movement,” from the early amateur rocket societies of the 1930s to the space race of the 1950s and 1960s to its continuing development as a post-cold-war project. But Clarke’s future belongs to civilians rather than a military elite, and it emphasizes internationalism and biological evolution rather than capitalism and individualism. In Clarke’s earlier work, such as Prelude to Space (1951), civilization’s evolution is contingent upon the conquest of space, and “human history [is] the expression of a biological imperative toward perfection” (115). Imbedded in Clarke’s optimistic internationalism and dream of perfection is what Kilgore identifies as “imperialism without empire” (119), dominated by British and American culture and language. “[H]is progressive history defends the possibility of imperial benevolence on the grounds that it readies subject peoples for self-government and equality with ‘advanced’ cultures” in bloodless conquests (118).
In later work, Clarke “exchanges his early, optimistic evolutionism for a troubled recognition of race-based inequities as the principal impediment to a human apotheosis” (127). Using Rendezvous With Rama (1973), Rama II (1989), and The Garden of Rama (1991)—the last two are collaborations with Gentry Lee—Kilgore outlines a falling away of optimism as the technological advancement of Raman civilization is associated with a new caste system of real and artificial classes, and as “humankind is prevented from achieving paradise by its history and its biology, its genetically and environmentally determined identification with terrestrial models of hierarchy and identity” (143). Clarke and Lee “replace the failed technological utopianism of the past with a biological utopianism that calls for the erasure of difference through miscegenation” (138). Only through a great leveling, in a social future that divides cultures into progressive (good) and primitive (bad), does their vision permit “harmony on the space frontier” (149). Kilgore is obviously stacking the deck here, as he limits his discussion of Clarke to the rama novels, reminding us that this is not a book about science fiction but about how we look at space exploration in fact and fiction.
The fifth chapter, “The Domestication of Space: Gerard K. O’Neill’s Suburban Diaspora,” marks out what Kilgore calls the second generation of astrofuturists. He sees the first generation—von Braun, Ley, Heinlein, and presumably, though with some qualifications, Clarke—as imagining a future that “would reinforce a familiar status quo with new wealth and provide it with an eternal frontier for expansion” (150). The new generation is more concerned with social change, with solving social problems through the conquest of space. While during the space race, spaceflight was enthusiastically funded by big government, now domestic issues were more pressing, so that “the core of astrofuturism moved out of the halls of policy and back into the popular culture and literature of science fiction.... The futurists of the second generation tend to be academic scientists and popular writers of science fiction and popular science rather than engineers in government service” (151). Furthermore, Kilgore sees the astrofuturists as polarizing into conservative and liberal forces (rather like American politics), with the left imagining space as “the site of utopian experimentation” and the right imagining it as an arena for the continuation of middle-class American social values (153). Gerard O’Neill’s idea of space colonization seems to be the answer to problems of population growth and resource exhaustion, but Kilgore examines O’Neill’s project for the humanization of space and finds that his emphasis on “escape rather than struggle for reform” results in a “space future [in which] the heterogeneity of the whole is assured by the homogeneity of the parts,” with myriad separate monocultures each segregated from the others. He goes on to parallel convincingly O’Neill’s vision of space colonization to the white flight from urban centers to the suburbs that was occurring in the 1970s when O’Neill wrote The High Frontier (1978) and its 1981 sequel, 2082: A Hopeful View of the Human Future. Kilgore doesn’t find the sequel hopeful at all, instead finding “a catastrophic tension between an unmarked whiteness representing technological modernity and a marked blackness (racial/cultural others) representing the atavistic survival of preindustrial culture as tourist trophy or exotic spectacle” (176-77).
In the sixth chapter, “Ben Bova: Race, Nation, and Renewal on the High Frontier,” Kilgore describes Bova’s movement from working within the structure of the space program in the 1960s, to writing popular science and science fiction and editing Analog and Omni in the 1970s, to becoming a lobbyist for space flight in the 1980s. He sees Bova as rejecting imperialist narratives for an emphasis on “pluralistic inclusion,” “secular salvation rather than greedy acquisition” as a motive for space flight, and the use of space-based technology as a cure for social ills (187). Kilgore then looks at Bova’s non-fiction book The High Road (1983), in which he introduces the Prometheans, people who use technology to improve social conditions, in contrast to communitarian and environmentalist Luddites and the Establishment. Bova’s novels Millennium (1976) and Kinsman (1979) also illustrate this idea that “the space frontier is to be the site of political, social, and economic renewal” (202), although, as with Heinlein, space provides a way to escape rather than solve earth-bound racial inequities. Bova’s later Mars (1992) and Return to Mars (1999) employ a half-white, half-Navajo character to explore a more integrated vision. On the one hand, these novels “imagine that various indigenous peoples ... might stand as the defenders of science is to reverse the hierarchy of knower and known, ruler and ruled” (220). On the other, Bova allows the Navajo to “perform the role that people of color often undertake in liberal systems: atoning for the sins of their conquerors by succeeding within the systems established by conquest” (221). Here we see both restorative (or optimistic) and paranoid (or critical) readings of Bova’s work. Indeed, this balance has been present throughout the book.
“On Mars and Other Heterotopias: A Conclusion” uses the career of Neil de Grasse Tyson, a black astrophysicist who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, along with novels by Allen M. Steele, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Kim Stanley Robinson, to illustrate the third stage of astrofuturism: “astrofuturist writers of the last two decades have pursued postmodern futures that grapple with the claims of peoples whose role as active participants in the advance of human knowledge has been routinely devalued or ignored” (226). By imagining “a more participatory culture of science,” they can envision “a greater spectrum of possible futures” (227). Allen Steele’s working-class futures build their space conquest from the bottom up rather than from the top down, while McIntire imagines such a multi-gendered and -raced society that social and political consensus must arise out of “reasoned argument, common interest, and emotional commitment,” since there are no racial, sexual, or class bases for consensus (233). Robinson uses “the Mars of his imagination [as] a test site for the innovations required to solve the social and physical problems of our native planet rather than as an escape from them” (234). Robinson in particular becomes the hero of the book: “[h]is futures are not the gift of a single privileged people or messiah but emerge from a cacophony of voices that never quite resolve into a single, harmonious choir” (235). That cacophony is, for Kilgore, the sound of formerly silenced voices speaking up at last. Kilgore’s inspiring, if rushed, conclusion is that the astrofuturists “exemplify our ability to imagine just social orders using the materials at hand, seizing help from unexpected quarters. It is through this kind of imaginative work that we develop the tools we need to change the future” (238).
I like this book very much. Its subject matter, its historical and descriptive approach, and its even-handed view of the race, gender, and class assumptions of his subjects make for an illuminating journey with a rigorous but compassionate guide. Importantly, Kilgore demonstrates not only how to read non-fiction with the same analytic eye as one reads fiction, but also how to read all texts without the cultural filter of whiteness as the default perceptual mode, a lesson vital for the overwhelming majority of sf critics, at least for now. It leaves some questions that I hope Kilgore and other scholars will address. What, for instance, has astrofuturism to offer black sf writers? Delany and Butler both look to the stars and find toil and enslavement, opportunity and aspiration. Are black sf writers somehow more likely to avoid the narratives of conquest—the conquest of imperialism, the conquest of domestication, the conquest of incorporation into the mainstream—outlined in this book, based on their history? How do non-white writers of science fiction treat space exploration? Are there significant differences? Let Astrofuturism inspire other scholars through hard work to the stars.
Grayson, Sandra. Visions of the Third Millennium: Black Science Fiction Novelists Write the Future. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2003.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003.
Thomas, Sheree R., ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner/Aspect, 2000.
_____. Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. New York: Warner/Aspect, 2004.
In: Science Fiction Studies 97, Volume 32, Part 3, November 1995.