On New Planets, Mars, & Colonization


I want to be an astronaut when I grow up. I am a child of the Challenger era and I vividly recall watching the Challenger explosion in 1986. Pluto was a planet when I was a kid and I’ve now come to terms with why we no longer classify it as such (thanks NdGT). I would not call myself an emotional person but things related to space just get me good. I openly wept watching Commander Hadfield’s performance of Space Odyssey on the ISS. I cheered out loud watching the Dragon 1 successfully dock with the ISS receiving odd looks from my co-workers (I should have been working but the ability to now watch via live-streaming is just so awesome). My kid recently asked me why I was crying at the computer – I was watching the Falcon 9’s successful landing. I also cried seeing Atlantis in person at the Kennedy Space Center last year, was on the verge of tears the whole time I was there because it was so overwhelming to actually be at Cape Canaveral, and was devastated to miss an actual launch by just two days. Sarcastic Rover is easily one of my favourite twitter accounts and I honestly feel sad knowing Curiosity is alone on Mars. I have always known what Earth looks like from space from photographs and have wanted few things more than to be able to have the experience of seeing it first hand. As I’m unlikely to go in life, I’ve asked my family to send a small portion of my cremains to space. However a love for all things space (and of course science fiction) does not make me any kind of expert in astronomy (#notarealdoctor) but my anthropological perspective can add some insight into recent discussions regarding new planets, colonization, and human evolution. Side note: I’m pissed I didn’t figure out that I could be a space archaeologist sooner because wtf that’s actually a real thing!

So here are some thoughts I’ve been trying to process lately. Note that most of what follows has little to do with space and more to do with the intersection of science fiction and anthropology. I’m reading and watching a lot of science fiction right now so it’s really up in my brain right now.

First, there seems to be a long history of anthropologists or children of anthropologists or people who took anthropology courses as writers of science fiction. H.G. Wells, Ursula K. Le Guin and C.J. Cherryh all have links to anthropology (note: there’s a whole wiki page on anthropological science fiction ftw! [Ed: filed under “things I will have to make you nerds review at some point]). This makes so much sense to me. Culture contact, race, gender, technology, and evolution are all major themes in science fiction; who better to write about it then the discipline of scholars who explicitly study these topics. In particular I think anthropological contributions to understanding what happens when cultures come into contact with each other is invaluable in science fiction and speculative fiction. C.J. Cherryh’s (1983) “40,000 in Gehenna” explicitly asks the question of what happens when a new planet is colonized by humans then is “lost” for forty thousand years before being contacted again? The answer – culture change and speciation.

So here’s my second point: evolution IS occurring now and will continue to occur so it’s not unreasonable to consider the consequences of interplanetary travel on human evolution. Mars is far away. It will take time to get there and back. It will take time to establish a colony; those first Martians will be unlikely to ever return to Earth. While colonizing Mars seems less like science fiction these days, colonizing further out is tougher for me to accept as possible mainly because humans are so short lived and space is so very vast. That said it’s not just a matter of time and distance. Speciation is not inevitable; it’s reasonable but space exploration does not necessarily mean that it will occur. Unless we get into a “lost colony” situation as in Cherryh’s work then we’ll still likely be in enough *ahem* contact to continue to interbreed. Along these lines I like the recent television show Expanse’s portrayal of the “reality” of colonizing Mars and beyond – that eventually there will be changes to and therefore differences in the populations found on Earth versus Mars versus “Belters“, but that ongoing contact between the populations will keep us a single species. What the Expanse gets “right” is not just the anatomical changes but I also appreciate the linguistic changes too AND how these changes all increase tension between populations.

Because colonialism is not good. While I am SO excited about the prospect of humans becoming an interplanetary species, I also find it really hard to be excited about colonizing other planets when I see so many problems caused by colonialism and the colonial mindset here on Earth. The Expanse gets this “right” too – that humans are exceptionally good at dividing ourselves into “Us” and “Them”. I worry that we’ll use it as opportunity to further marginalize humans we’ve already othered on Earth – if we don’t care about you as a human on Earth, why would we care about you as a Martian or as a Belter? Would we privilege the Earth way of life? Would all other populations be Earth’s inferior, labourers who procure the resources we are rapidly diminishing here on Earth? Probably.

Cultures changes. Populations change. Technologies change. These are fact. Change is also good. Variation is very good so we should not fear change. We should reach for the stars but I have two (final) concerns. First, we need to be cautious of framing technological change as advancement; this is a whole other can of worms but while we clearly need different technologies then the ones we have now to get to space, we must be critical of positions (and leaders) that firmly state advancement is progress and therefore inherently superior. Second we need to think about what we are taking with us. Some values (xenophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) have no place here on Earth; space doesn’t need them either.



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