Should Contemporary Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program?

The spaceship Prometheus

Jon Spaihts, a screenwriter for the recently released film Prometheus, recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Can Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program?” In it, he details the relationship that science fiction has had and can have to space exploration. He details how space travel “originated” with the Cold War and how the “space race” helped to produce a rich volume of science fiction that was tied to the competition between the USSR and USA.

In a way he romanticizes the Cold War, which is not dissimilar to many academics and pro war politicians who long for the days of clear national competition and what they see as an easier appeal to patriotism (in other words: having the big Other to remind the public to fear). Spaihts’ brief history of science fiction here leaves out important historical ties between SciFi and space programs, most notably the “Star Wars program” (see the role of The Citizen Advisory Panel on National Space Policy where SciFi authors were encouraging the implementation of the military  program).

Many on the Left and the Right want to see a sort of space exploration, but what kind of space program does Jon Spaihts want to see revived? Aside from the end of the article where he is implicitly promoting space tourism as a potentially exciting new trend for rich folks who have always dreamed of space, the most telling phrasing is when he discusses trends in SciFi:

Although these trends are cloudy, one can argue that in the last fifteen years the space epic has fallen from favor, as sci-fi films have concerned themselves more with cyberpunk scenarios and Earthly dystopias than travel between the stars. As if our culture as a whole had turned its eyes away from external adventures to internal struggles.

David exploring a space map

So in essence, he sees the “internally looking” science fiction sub genre of cyberpunk as problematic and is advocating for a more outward and escapist space exploration style of the genre. We can certainly see this in Prometheus: a rich corporate boss wants to fulfill his life by funding a trillion dollar space ship to discover the meaning of life. While the film does not necessarily promote this sort of expansionist ideology, nor is it as much of a critique or warning against the corporate lust for profits in space as we find in earlier influential Scott films like Alien. This is problematic for science fiction: the ignoring of the internal contradictions that genres like cyberpunk offer in favor of “outward looking” space exploration stories that move our attention from real struggle to a dream of future prosperity and wonder (which is interestingly very similar to the “American dream” itself).

It would be interesting to hear Ridley Scott’s take on this question, considering he was not only the director of Prometheus but of perhaps the most influential cyberpunk film of all time Bladerunner which is a clear “inward looking” science fiction critique of a future ruled by corporate power.

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