Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Railway to the Stars?

A few days ago, Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail put me onto the revelation that Joss Whedon's short-lived but fan-favorite series Firefly has been named by the Exurban League as the #2 conservative television show of the last twenty-five years. After having thought about it, it's not that much of a surprise. The idea of personal freedom is generally of extreme importance in the conservative world of the mind, and one of the great themes running through Firefly was personal independence from the centralized government. The vast spread of space provides endless opportunities for a free and personal life - presuming that you have the resources and capacity to maintain a life in the final frontier.

Ideas of frontier independence, themselves influential throughout history, have been successfully married with space-based settings for a long time. Fifty years ago, Gene Roddenberry had begun drafting what would become Star Trek, which was pitched to the networks as "Wagon Train to the stars." Considering the historical preponderance of American creators in the Western science fiction field, it's understandable that attitudes about humanity's reach into space would be informed by the experience of the Old West. Popular culture especially has come to enshrine the pioneers' covered wagons as the quintessential symbol of Westward expansion. American settlement of the lands opened up by the Louisiana Purchase was in full swing by the mid-nineteenth century, spurred by the promise of open country or religious freedom.

In particular, the settlement of the American West can further parallel to pioneering flights into space in that there is no fixed route there. The settlers followed rough trails charted by fur traders or explorers; anyone who's ever played The Oregon Trail knows that the journey west was hard, with dysentery lurking around every corner. It wasn't until 1869 that the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and even in 1860 there were nearly four hundred thousand people living in California alone. In the United States, the settlers went first and the infrastructure followed them. Similarly, in the present-day reach into space, our pioneers have braved dangerous environments and been forced to build their havens with what limited resources they could bring with them.

The Canadian experience was rather different. Canada's transcontinental railway came later than that down south, completed at Craigellachie, British Columbia in 1885. Not only did the Canadian Pacific Railway tie Canada together from sea to sea, it played a great role in the settlement of the prairies. Before the railway, non-First Nations populations were rather thin on the ground north of the border. Calgary and Vancouver, large and prominent cities today, did not even exist when the American transcontinental railroad was completed. While in the United States the railroad followed the settlers, in Canada the settlers followed - and, for that matter, rode in - the railway.

For me, the Canadian experience parallels the promise of a space elevator. With a fixed and inexpensive link to orbital space - presuming, of course, that we can find something with sufficient tensile strength and a sufficiently low bulk manufacturing cost in order to build the damn thing - it would be possible for space development to expand beyond the constraints imposed by rocket launches from the bottom of the gravity well.

There's more than one way to space. People won't necessarily take a latter-day wagon train to get there.

1 comment:

  1. You might argue that Star Trek's ended up following the Canadian approach more than its writers might be willing to admit. Starfleet filling in for the RCMP, making sure that there's some kind of law already in place, whether that of the Federation or of the local star nations.