Noah Smith over at Noahpinion does a rundown on why Firefly doesn’t really resonate with him. I agree with his take:
But in Firefly, why do we – meaning the crew of Serenity – go to space? It’s not for a higher purpose. There’s no science being done, no galaxy being saved. The show’s theme song may be about freedom, but unlike many of the people around them, Mal and his crew aren’t colonists. They aren’t going to found a new, more liberal republic on the virgin soil of a distant world. They aren’t going to build a city on a hill. They have no quest, they seek no knowledge, they fight for no cause, they meet no aliens. Their existence is simply a big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.
And for the same reason, it doesn’t resonate with me much, either.
But neither Noah and I are space colonists. I can’t speak for Noah, but I am above all else a science fiction fan, wedded to romantic notions of human expansion into the wider universe as a higher calling. A secular religion, if you will. Being human feels good, mostly (and I say that as someone who has experienced plenty of strife and difficulty, as well as physical disabilty and mental illness). And being human in the technologically augmented universe of fifty or five hundred years from now — boosted by 3-D printers, artificial intelligence, robots, smart drugs, transhuman implants — will probably be significantly better, just as the present is vastly better (less poverty, less child mortality, less starvation and hunger, greater variety of tools and products, etc) for the vast majority than fifty or five hundred years ago.
So, if being human feels good, why not go forth and make more of the universe human? After all, if we earthly humans — and our vast chain of simpler and simpler evolutionary ancestors — are little more than awakened chemical elements, why not go forth, spread out, and wake more of the universe up? Let more of the universe experience love, emotion, mathematics, music, logic, technology, and all of the other things that make us human. Could there be a more manifest destiny?
In reality, though, I suspect that the motivations for space colonization will be far baser and more mundane. America’s early European colonists were not exactly motivated by the romantic ideals of free speech and free religion. They were much more motivated by lebensraum, and freedom from rulers they did not like.
First, resources. Resources are limited on earth Asteroid, moon and interplanetary mining offering up the potential to vastly expand the human resource base. This, of course, is basic economics. Humans are often greedy and avaricious. On earth, resources are guarded by the international military order and mutually assured destruction. Invading a country to take its resources is, to say the least, increasingly difficult. And I predict it will get more so as more and more technology (e.g. drones) up the stakes in terms of mutually assured destruction.
In space, no such thing. The universe is — to the best of human knowledge — effectively limitless. If the U.S. — or Microsoft, or China, or SpaceX — seizes one asteroid, there are plenty more to seize. Once we’re done with near-Earth asteroids, beyond that there’s the asteroid built, and Venus, Mars, Jupiter and their moons, and so on. Then there’s the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud and onward and outward to the nearest stars. Beyond the nearest stars are billions more in our galaxy. And beyond that, lie billions more galaxies. If we are alone in the universe, there’s a whole universe for us to bring to exploit (or, in my romantic vision, bring to life). If not, then we may well have to fight other species for that right.
Hunger for resources and for lebensraum, I expect, will be a very major factor in bringing humanity to the stars, then.
But so too will also be the need to stick a “big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.” In absolutely no way are we humans ideologically homogeneous. Watching the rise and fall and rise of Donald Trump and American nationalism is reinforcing this point.
I am a universalist humanist, and that view stems directly from my view of humanity as a planetary species with the potential to go interplanetary. The vast majority of humanity are substantially more tribal than I am. And very many different tribes of people alienated by the earthly mainstream are likely to want to go. Racial and religious and ideological and tribal supremacists will go to space seeking out their own pure paradises, where rules are set by them, and not by the mainstream. And let them go, these Nazis, and radical Islamists, and cultish sects, and neo-Confederates. Let them fly off to some distant planet or asteroid or space station off in the black infinities to pursue their authoritarian dreams, rather than have them subjugate a corner of the Earth.
The point is that these ideological minorities have far more concrete reason to travel away than anyone from the mainstream. Our species is not homogeneous. That is one of our strengths. Our decentralization allows us to experiment with different modes of government and ideology. Our species over the aeons of history has undoubtedly been carried forward to each new generation by many men and women that we today would deem to be insufferably awful — genocidalists, bigots, rapists, murderers, alongside a few who, I assume, we would see as good people.
It doesn’t matter if we are carried to the stars by the dull and the bad. The point is that we are going. And we — the species — are as a whole species neither dull nor bad. Our children all possess the capacity to deviate from us. Such is the long and winding road of genetic and cultural evolution. Maybe that doesn’t make for great science fiction. But often reality is unspeakably dull, and unspeakably bad.