As Above, So Below: A Review of Space Forces

As Above, So Below: A Review of Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Space by Fred Scharmen

Jay Owens

Under Review:
Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Space. Fred Scharmen. Verso, November 2021.

In October, “New Space” company Blue Origin — founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos — announced plans to build a commercial space station named Orbital Reef. In a press statement, the company outlined how “The station will open the next chapter of human space exploration and development by facilitating the growth of a vibrant ecosystem and business model for the future.” The “ecosystem” described is not a biological one, but economic: Blue Origin’s vision is of the curiously suburban “mixed use business park” in space, serving clients ranging from state space programs and private companies to ultra-rich tourists. Their goal is, above all, “to open multiple new markets in space” — to extend the sphere of earthly commerce ever outward, from a planet perhaps too small for Bezos’ celestial ambition.

Fred Scharmen, Associate Professor of Architecture at Morgan State University in Maryland, has been thinking about these visions of exploring and settling the solar system for some time. His new book, Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space presents an illuminating history of living in space, from the speculative imaginations of sci-fi writers and the Russian Cosmists, to NASA’s space laboratories and Bezos’s platform capitalist dreams. On a popular science shelf dominated by space mission adventure stories and “great man” biographies of astronauts and innovators, Scharmen’s book stands out as the first critical history of living in space. This endeavour remains substantially imaginative: to date, only 574 people have been to space in any capacity, with just 244 spending any time on the International Space Station. As such, Scharmen tells it as a history of ideas as much as individuals, exploring seven “paradigms” from the last 150 years, focusing specifically on plans for long-term occupation of off-Earth environments.

The chosen examples provide a conceptual history for the two major space-faring nations of the twentieth century, Russia and America, and a genealogy of ideas informing the visions of today’s commercial “New Space” companies. The narrative braids between geocentric visions of space exploration as an extension of an earthly status quo, in which space stations function as mineral resource colonies (Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill) or nuclear missile silos (former Nazi rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun) — and more utopic notions of constant change, where living in space offers the opportunity to start over and do better. Edward Everett Hale’s Brick Moon (1869) imagines a new society living on a 200-foot diameter artificial satellite; Russian cosmist philosopher Nikolai Federov’s “common task” of overcoming death and resurrecting everyone who ever lived would require humanity to venture into space to fulfil it. For all it claims singularity, Scharmen shows Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to be continuous with what has come before. 

Space Forces benefits from evident care for the reader. The introduction in particular is a marvel of clarity, setting out the premises of this book — what does it mean to live in space, and what are the main arguments made for why anyone should want to do such a thing? — in lucid, engaging prose. Chapters often conclude by explicitly contrasting the worldviews of their subjects — Bernal vs. Von Braun, cosmists vs. Tarkovsky, and so on — making their differences clear in a neat couple of sentences. For teachers and classrooms this is invaluable, and Space Forces could make a productive assignment not just for astro scientific disciplines, but courses on design, literature, and environment as well. 

The book is centred around the insight that “there are no hard and fast boundaries between space science and science fiction; both are places where people get to speculate about other worlds.” Scharmen’s examples abound: von Braun’s fictional narrative Project Mars: A Technical Tale, written in 1948, described the Martians having electric vehicles, an underground hyperloop, and a leader known (almost unbelievably) as “the Elon”. In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. implored Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, playing Lieutenant Uhura, not to quit the show because “You are our image of where we’re going”. In the 2000s, speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson was the first employee of Bezos’s Blue Origin, tasked with brainstorming alternative methods for launching people and payloads beyond Earth’s orbit. It’s not just that the boundary between science and fiction is permeable, but rather that imagination drives the whole endeavour. 

Narrative matters, then — and Scharmen’s response is therefore to seek other narratives, as this sort of book always does: “planetary imaginations that embrace questions along with answers, differences beside repetitions, and open possibilities next to closed explanations”. 

The crucial difference between Space Forces and other critical technology books is that Scharmen makes the case for how acts of imagination actually do influence the makers and doers: Bezos in particular has been guided by the O’Neill paradigm since his high school graduation speech in 1982. As such, this counter-speculation gains some heft: it might be more than just wishful thinking; it has a theory of change.

Scharmen offers us two counter-imaginaries. Chapter 4 pairs Arthur C. Clarke and his implacable space monoliths with Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic and Tarkovsky’s Stalker to explore a different orientation to the cosmos beyond. “Instead of the cosmist ethic of conquest, terraforming, and eternal life for everyone who ever lived, these later Russian works rely on a principle of accepting limits and difference, and deliberately remaining vnye, aloof and reluctant to interfere with other ways of life.” Instead of making space a human conquest, they “multiply the mysteries, rewilding the Earth and making the cosmos mysterious again.”

The conclusion sketches a second route, toward a vision of space settlement that inverts the grand modernist projects of domination for something that is “messy”, “radical”, even xenophiliac. Utopia is undermined and seen as unstable, best used “for what it is good at, not to provide cover for realism but to critique it, to undermine it, to change it by demanding the abundant and impossible.” We race through Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism, Bruce Sterling’s decaying Shaper/Mechanist universe, Rachel Armstrong’s metabolic starships, and the “unapologetically Marxist space program” of The Intergalactic Railroad podcast. To imagine space otherwise is, in the end, a desire to remake life on Earth.

Jay Owens is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently working on her first book, Dust: A History and Future of Environmental Disaster, for Hodder (2023), a story about the deep entanglements of people, capitalism, and the natural environment, from the earliest industrial history to the latest speculative technologies for geoengineering a cooler planet. Jay has written for the Guardian on “big tech”, created an episode of BBC Radio 4 Four Thought, and published creative non-fiction in Vector, the journal of the British Science Fiction Association. Her essay on “post-authenticity” was included in the anthology Post-Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production (Punctum Books, 2019). You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by an email pitch to the ARB editors in September 2021; the author and editors had no prior acquaintance. It was edited by Summer van Houten and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB did not arrange a review copy for this article.

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