Return from the (not yet) Stars

Dis is da future, man

So the last space shuttle has taken off, and what’s there to say about it? New York Times’ newly minted opinion columnist Frank Bruni thinks about it and decides he has nothing to say on the matter. Kinda disappointing, but considering he replaces Frank Rich, who himself was no stranger to the nothing-to-say problem, maybe it’s not so bad. Well, what have I got to say that’s any better? Mainly that it got me thinking about Stanislaw Lem’s book “Return from the Stars”, which is a really, really, really good book. To me, it is one of the few books to look at the future both honestly and with great insight, and yet without extreme pessimism. The book is about Al Bregg, an astronaut who returns from an interstellar voyage to find the Earth has no more use for his kind. And why should it? Adventure is costly and unproductive. Adventure doesn’t really satisfy the cost-benefit analysis, and so, it will be prudently eradicated from the future.

Return from the Stars ...although my copy's cover was a really creepy naked chick

I am not all against this. To those who say to hell with cost-benefit analysis and what about dreams, man!, you must point out the actual choices involved. You are going to fund the space shuttle rather than feed hungry children? Rather than a myriad things that actually alleviate human suffering on this Earth? It is a difficult problem. Given zuuko’s overarching philosophy, I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine that fulfilling people’s material needs is just to go to a Wall-E utopia of bored, lazy hedonistic blobs riding hover-chaises longues. And yet, to deny people pleasure just to fight materialism, just to spur them to adventure, to humility, to grace, to whatever – is this not incredibly cruel? Is making life worse for your fellow man just out of some bullshit nostalgia not absolutely morally repugnant? Is this not the “Donner Party Conservatism“* so well pinpointed and eviscerated by John Holbo? Is this not the subject of the last of the three quotes from Memoirs of Hadrian – that life is hard and serious enough without our cruel attempts to make it harder and more serious for some misplaced idea of what greatness is? Perhaps, in the end, all I have is that this is a difficult question to which I have no more of an answer than Frank Bruni. Oh well, at least no one is paying me to. And yeah, “Return from the Stars.” It is awesome.

*This essay is monstrously long, very out of date, and spends a large portion of the space mocking David Frum for opinions David Frum probably no longer has. So you’d think it prolly isn’t worth your time. And yet, it is very worth your time.

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2 Responses to Return from the (not yet) Stars

  1. Zuuko says:

    Progress is never achieved through leaps and bounds, but step by step. My view on the space shuttle program is that it was primarily symbolic in nature at this point, and like all others, this symbols over time has lost its effect.

    Now the march to progress: well, its a long hike, over many days and lulls and breaks are required. “You are going to fund the space shuttle rather than feed hungry children?” I reject the premise of your question. The space shuttle was defunded because we want to feed ourselves for a while. Inevitably, we will reverse course and fund another space program. Maybe it will be China or India. Who knows?

    Are we doing it to protect ourselves from adventure? Again, I reject the premise. Humanity is not some homogeneous, borg-like mass. Some will crave the adventure; others security. But, space will be tamed, painfully and slowly. Fear not.

  2. zaarden says:

    Very interesting.

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