Wednesday, August 26, 2015

'The sweet poison of the false infinite': C.S. Lewis on the ethics of colonising outer space

In 1944, Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis published the second book of a trilogy about space. Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) is a lyrical evocation of the planet Venus, before the Mariner fly-by of 1962 revealed it to be a lifeless world. It's also a moral tale of the battle between dark and light, infused with Lewis' Christian theology. Through Professor Weston (dark) and Ransom (light), Lewis presents two different experiences and ideologies about humanity's place in space.

I find myself returning again and again to the first two novels in this trilogy. Informed by his deep knowledge of Medieval worldviews, Lewis' vision of space is profound and poetic. I've quoted him more than once in academic papers (here for example), and frequently discover new insights in sentences read a thousand times before, depending on where my own thoughts are tending at the time.

Source: Twisty Turny Lanes


In the passage below, Lewis' distaste for the nascent genre of science fiction, and for the amateur societies who were the vanguards of space before the end of the war brought the potential of the V2 rocket to the world's attention, is very evident. (Never mind that he was now writing science fiction himself). However, the way he captures the tension between what we might now call an ecological position, and an colonialist one, prefigures very contemporary debates. You are left in no doubt which side he supports.

Professor Weston....was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of 'scientifiction', in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs strive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God's quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome. This for a start. But beyond this planet lies the sweet poison of the false infinite - the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our own species - a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant. The destruction or enslavement of other species in the universe, if such there are, is to these minds a welcome corollary.

Even in the last few weeks, I've come across debates about humanity's right to propagate indefinitely, in whatever form that might be. Space narratives still cleave to a naive colonialism abandoned (mostly) everywhere else in the modern world. 

But for Lewis, we are seduced by the 'sweet poison of the false infinite'. Infinity, he implies, is deceptive. The concept of a virtually endless universe is not an invitation to expand, in our own messy organic big bang, to fill all available niches; nor is it a palliative for the fear of death. 

Perhaps that is the crux of it. We must solve infinity within ourselves before we can drink the 'sweet poison' and survive.


References
Lewis, C.S. 1944 [1975] Perelandra. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, p 81





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