Interstellar and the end of space opera

Good God, Interstellar is tedious. Even seen at a suburban multiplex, when you’re killing a couple of hours waiting for a Greyhound bus – about the best conditions in which to see any movie, the pure gift of relief from tedium – it doesn’t lift off. For me anyway. The problem has nothing to do with the way the story is handled, it’s the failure of the central motif: interstellar travel. Or, at least, interstellar travel done by people in a future sufficiently distant to have wormhole, multidimensional technology – but who talk and act so exactly like us that poor old Michael Caine sounds just like Alfie, defrosted from cryonic sleep centuries hence: ‘Allo there. Go and find us a new ‘ome’’

Everything about this sort of space opera irritates. We don’t talk, or walk, or hold our bodies like we did even fifty years ago, much less a hundred. Our everyday social relations are unimaginably different. What will they be like in a few hundred years’ time?  A plausible far-future space opera could be made, but only as if it were a foreign film, with subtitles. It would have to be essentially incomprehensible at the start: not just ‘what machine are those people using?’ but ‘what are they actually doing? what sort of action is that?’

If it was made so that only after a few hours we began to get a handle on the film, the differentness of the future would be sort-of established.

But please, no wormholes in space! The possibility that complex objects, much less conscious beings, could somehow jump dimensions is so out of the realm of possibility, that any being that could do it would be unknowable to us, utterly. The whole conceit relies on the most literal interpretation of post-Newtonian physics: that the multiple dimensions necessary to posit M-theory universes are somehow as real as the space we know we inhabit. As Lee Smolin as argued, all this stuff seems the product of a vast and unreflective positivism on the part of a dominant physics community (and the retreat of a non-scientistic philosophy).

Space operas work for kids, and for the kid still in us, as a projection of will onto a vast canvas, even if the inhabitants of every planet seem like they came from the next town over. The fantasy starts to cramp when parochialism creeps in. The wormhole effect, where you can jump around the universe, simply reduces the universe to the size of the planet we know. Thus, space opera is never really about exploring the universe. It’s about the one limited period of history when ceaseless adventure was possible – the period from the rise of the city-states and writing (when the wideness of the world came to be known) to the decisive closing of the last frontiers in the nineteenth century.

Brutal, power-obsessed, but unquestionably alluring, the period formed ideas about what shape our lives should have – that they should be, in some sense, an adventure, in which the passage through time is akin to a passage through space, in the centuries when one could voyage out and meet people and places like one but also not like one. What possible space opera creation could equal the landing in Mexico or Mombasa or China in the sixteenth century? Space opera is an endless reprise of these moments. We are always rounding the Cape of Good Hope, with steadily diminishing returns.

But there’s a disjuncture between space opera and colonial adventure, and it’s that of purpose. Space opera usually summons up the fate of humanity as the purpose of all its strivings but that only makes visible a more pressing question. Why sodding bother? If the survival of the species hangs in the balance in a cold universe, then who gives a shit? The survival of consciousness in an otherwise inert universe, simply brings the Schopenhauerian question forward: how can life supply the purpose of living itself?

It can’t, of course.

Any grittier portrayal of a species-extinction situation would convey that most people would simply accept it, Hindu-style, as part of the turning wheel of Being.

So where does space opera gets its energy from? The answer is obvious. Its species universality is a disguised form of race. Its reprised colonial narrative is an endless retelling of racial spread, supremacy and competition as understood in the great age of imperialism. Space opera reminds us of something often neglected in an understanding of the era. Racist imperialism prospered because it provided an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to individual life.

To be a ‘white man’ was to be something very general, yet utterly concrete and embodied, to feel part of an enormous world projectthat was manifested in your flesh. You couldn’t be thrown out of the club. You were white wherever you went. Military sacrifice, unremarkable lives: all could be mitigated by this vast enterprise. Subaltern nationalisms would adapt it, the Bolshevik project would try to universalise it, but only the Holocaust would really knock it on the head.  No coincidence that the golden age of sci-fi arose as its parallel, nor that its closing text was the original Star Trek, which only makes sense if you assume that its pre-story is the triumph of Stalinism.

They may be led by a white American on a ship called ‘Enterprise’ but the Juche-uniformed, multinational, mulitracial, ego-suppressed, spartan crew members only make sense if the civilisation they came from all looked and dressed like that. Star Trek postulates a civilisation in which Stalinism normalised itself, and regularised the psychological changes inherent in the idea of ‘Soviet man’ to create an enduring civilisational form.  Indeed Star Trek seems unquestionably influenced by transcosmism, the bizarre vitalist cult of late nineteenth century Russia. Originating from Orthodox theology, transcosmism postulated that human purpose was to spread life to every corner of the universe, and ultimately to raise the dead, using science.  As John Gray has noted, its superhumanism influenced not only Bolshevism (particularly Bogdanov, who gained an idea of body-mutability and hence blood transfusion – from it), but also the eventual architects of the Russian space programme.

You can see how this falters in later versions of the show, where the various ships become giant floating multispecies encounter group, vast intergalactic Californias barrelling through nothingness, everyone trying to work out how they fucking feel about someone who has a stingray for a face. Futility stands not far outside the automatic doors.

But even Star Trek was provisional. It was the last of the space opera cycle and the first of something else, because it put the question of meaning and domination up front. Could there be adventure, without enslavement, or is the domination of other races at the core of adventure’s excitement (on a collective level, at least)?

Star Trek often used humour and absurdity to let itself off the hook – to have the adventure without the payoff. But adventure, in its great era, needed that payoff, the making-of-meaning by becoming master.

That raises the point that, in a renewed hunger for space opera, the real adventures, now necessarily social, collective and purposeful, are ignored. The great and obvious example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, which forever gravitates to the allegorical.

But it’s possible to imagine a yet more realistic adventure, which does not reprise colonial motifs, but focuses on a far more realistic possibility.

Ideas of ‘terraforming’ planets are grandiose, but what is possible is ‘worldhousing’ where vast, inhabitable structures are built on Mars prior to human arrival. A remotely operated and semi-autonomous system of robotics and replication (3d printing) would use the sands of Mars to build vast artificial living areas to be aerated and then atmospherised, with plants that could be left to grow autonomously until the first human colonists arrival – not people on some sad, doomed one-way mission, but those travelling a long and arduous journey, to a habitable world already awaiting them. Were the collective will there, we could do that in the next ten years, and that is no exaggeration.

I’m not sure why, or whether it is the highest priority, but it would make a hell of a movie.

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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