Rethinking the Final Frontier: Review of Astrotopia by Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Rethinking the Final Frontier: Review of Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race by Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Jeremy Brett

Under Review:
Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. Mary-Jane Rubenstein. University of Chicago Press, November 2022.

Few books of late have given me such pause as Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s thoughtful Astrotopia. Like many, I had considered space travel an untrammeled good (despite its origins in the destructive political rivalries of the Cold War and recent reliance on individual, stupidly-rich capitalists to move its development forward). Like many, I would love a Star Trek universe where humans peaceably co-exist and thrive on hundreds of new worlds, the sins of the past behind us as we progress together in the noble spirit of exploration ever onward into bright futures. But what Rubenstein makes so clear is that today that kind of future utopia seems wholly unlikely. Without a severe imaginative reset, we may be doomed to repeat our imperialist and colonialist sins of the past, this time with the planet at stake. It is an ethos whose ultimate origin lies in the Cold War and the Reaganite private-over-public model, but which Rubenstein also traces to Barack Obama’s fateful 2010 decision to cut the Constellation project and begin the deregulation of the space program in favor of the private sector.

Rubenstein’s book is a cri de coeur for the decolonization of space – as she puts it,

diversifying the astronautic industry along the lines of race, gender, and class – not just for the sake of representation but in order to approach outer space from as many perspectives as possible. Decolonizing space would mean centering Black and Indigenous voices in all plans concerning extraterrestrial labor and territory, which must not be romanticized as “hard work’ and the “empty frontier.” It would also mean refraining from polluting other planets (and the interplanetary spaceways), refraining from extracting “resources,” refusing to commodify land, and subjecting private enterprises like SpaceX and Blue Origin to strict national and international regulation.

But that is NOT what we have now, nor is it what we’re likely to have with our current trajectory. Obama and a bipartisan Congress together facilitated private ownership of property in space in 2015, opening the doors of space for that nebulous word that covers so many terrible things – “development.” And now we have a new imperial project in play, this one set among the stars, ready to exploit resources for the very few (while claiming it is for the good of everyone)—one dominated by two figures, Jeff Bezos and Elmo Musk, whose approaches and destinations may differ but who share the same individualist, heedless drive. Or, as Rubenstein puts it in her pithy fashion, “So these are the two utopias: ‘fuck Earth and occupy Mars’ versus ‘save Earth by drilling the universe.’” This individualist and exploitative mindset is rooted, Rubenstein informatively details, in the European and American colonial projects that themselves are steeped in Christian traditions celebrating salvation and sacred destiny via conquest and the brutal suppression of both natives and the natural world. 

That mindset, and the promise of divine sanction, runs through the conquest of the Americas into the development of the Apollo program (as a cosmic extension of earthbound imperialism, fueled by military and corporate interests) and beyond. Rubenstein notes in particular Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Space, which under the fraught term of space pioneering “added two major items to the US space agenda. First, building settlements beyond Earth; second, jump-starting a free market economy in space.” Like the American frontier, the new space frontier will be conquered via a mixture of private enterprise and imperial extension, feeding off each other and, along the way, setting the stage for space to be not the common property of all humanity but the private property of whomever can get it. As Rubenstein puts it:

What I’ve come to realize, however, is that Trump’s executive order [which declared that the US does not recognize space as a commons] doesn’t actually do anything new. It presents the US space program as it’s always been, just without its traditionally humanitarian coating. From Johnson’s quest for “total control” to Kennedy’s insistence that “we must be first” to the ritual banning of international flags to Obama’s corporate space act, the US position has always been, as Moon Treaty-killer Scott Pace is happy to declare – without philanthropic flourish – that “outer space is not a ‘global commons’, not the ‘common heritage of mankind’, not a res communis’, nor is it a public good.”

Rubenstein expertly pulls apart the high-flown language of space travel as a humanitarian and beneficial effort, showing it as an ongoing imperialistic and corporate project designed to extend colonialist and toxic religious attitudes into space, and to do so only for the rich and fortunate. 

I mentioned Star Trek earlier, but Astrotopia leaves me with the fear that NewSpace (as Rubenstein refers to the alliance between private and public agencies led by a few charismatic CEOs) may lead us into the darkness of other examples of televised SF, instead. It might be the weirdly jingoistic and individualist For All Mankind , Apple TV’s soapy series about an alternate history Space Race, in which international rivalries dominate space travel with little or no attention paid either to scientific progress or how space travel serves anyone on Earth aside from the plucky staff at NASA or the Soviet space program. Or it might be the even-worse situation of The Expanse, where a permanent underclass (the Belters) labors under uncaring capitalist and militaristic governments on Earth and Mars. Are these the futures that NewSpace is leading us toward?

But Rubenstein doesn’t just point out problems. The book’s last chapters explore different ways of thinking and interacting with the world that could help guide us to a more equal, more sustainable future in space. She talks about small numbers of astrophysicists and social scientists who envision new approaches to space travel—rooted in community-based methods, listening and caretaking, respecting planetary bodies for what they represent rather than as subjects of potential extreme terraforming, or in creating counternarratives to accepted Western-based systems of capitalistic and human-centered exploitation. Astrotopia is dark, but ends on a note of hope and positivity.  I take away a feeling of optimism  from Rubenstein’s conclusion that there are other ways forward into space, and that we need not repeat our disastrous and destructive frontier explorations of the past. Rubenstein tells us that space can indeed be a place for all, if we have the will and the imagination to forge new paths.

Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an archivist and librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world. 

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly listing. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB reviews. It was edited by Adam McLain and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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