A couple of years ago, my father decided to do some landscaping in front of my childhood home. The acres of fields out front was always something of an adventure for my siblings and I growing up: there was a collapsed cellar from which massive poplar trees sprouted, where we'd find ancient nails, shards of glass bottles, and the occasional rusted farm tool. It was a good thing for our imaginations: we wondered who might have lived in that house, and what they might have been like. How did they arrange their furniture in such a small place? Where did they sleep?
Eventually, my dad pulled the stones of the foundation out to build a wall, filled in the hole, and sowed seed over it. If you know what you're looking for, you might see that that was something there, but a quick glance as you drive down the dirt road will just look like a copse of trees.
I've been thinking about the idea of what lingers under the surface when you transform it into something different, especially after reading Edward Ashton's latest novel, Mickey7. It's a gripping space opera thriller with an entertaining premise: in this distant future, colonization missions will bring along an "Expendable": a crew member who's had their mind scanned and backed up, and when they need someone for a risky job where a machine won't operate — say, figuring out what the effects of an alien pathogen are on the human body, or fixing a radiation-filled compartment — you toss them into the mix. They go in, work whatever the problem is, and then die, hopefully yielding some new data on their way out. They're effectively immortal, but it's not a happy existence, especially when a colony dies around you.
As Mickey7 opens, Mickey is on his 7th iteration, having died in a bunch of horrifying ways, and he's left behind by his friend and fellow expeditionary on an ice planet called Niflheim when he falls through a crevasse an is apparently captured and eaten by some local, indigenous lifeforms that they've been calling Creepers. He isn't killed, however, and soon ends up back on base, where he comes face to face with himself.
This is a bit of a problem for both Mickeys. The colony isn't going well, and they're on extreme rations while the colony desperately tries to get their footing and to get enough food grown to survive. It also doesn't help that the colony's leader, Marshall, is ideologically opposed to the idea of expendables, seeing them as a perversion of nature. If they're caught, they'll both be fed into the recycler.
The book is a fun sci-fi romp, part Andy Weir's The Martian and John Scalzi's Old Man's War and Sue Burke's Semiosis, with lots of plausible science and problem solving bolted onto a tense thriller as the Mickeys come closer and closer to being discovered. It should make for the basis of a solid film (one is in the works from Snowpiercer and Parasite director Bong Joon-Ho), and there's already a sequel on the way, Antimatter Blues, due out next March.)
If there's any one trope that science fiction is best known for, it's of taking a crew or expedition and jetting off for an alien world, where we'll plant the seeds of humanity and grow our presence throughout the universe. H.G. Wells imagined us at the receiving end of such an effort in War of the Worlds, while authors as varied as Ursula K. Le Guin (The Word for World Is Forest) to Allen M. Steele (Coyote) to Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem), to James S.A. Corey (Cibola Burn), Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora) to Adrian Tchaikovsky (Children of Time, Children of Ruin, and next year, Children of Memory).
There's a seductive idea at the core of the idea of interstellar colonization that I think has its origins in the heart of the founding of America: the idea that humanity (really, white, European-descended settlers) have a duty to propagate into lands as-of-yet-unknown, carrying their gospel, genes, and ideologies to the untamed lands and peoples they find out there. Certainly, the romantic imagery of the wild west is important to how science fiction as a genre formed, but it's a misguided influence. While we imagined plenty of planets out there for the taking, the reality of the universe is that space is harsher, weirder, and more inhospitable than we've ever imagined.
The idea of terraforming a world, transforming it into something that's human-habitable, dates back to Jack Williamson's story Collision Orbit from 1942, and it's been used throughout ever since, with authors like Robinson in Red/Green/Blue Mars or Tchaikovsky's Children of Time, exploring how we might take those inhospitable and strange worlds and turn them into new Earths.
Tchaikovsky explores some of the ramifications in Children of Ruin, watching as a terraformed world slowly comes into contact with something overlooked from before the terraformers arrived. The results are devastating as that originating life form begins to infect the colonizers and transform them into a larger hive mind.
Ashton's future of humanity in Mickey7 is a bleak and oppressive one. We end up decimating Earth before flying out into the stars for a second/third/fourth chance at redemption, which he gives up in bits in pieces as Mickey reminisces about his past lives and the reading he's done into humanity's history in the cosmos. Humanity — and the expendables who're at the tip of the spear — comes into contact with alien life on the various, rare alien worlds where the conditions are just right to transform into our own, even at the expense of the existing inhabitants.
All of this comes to a head as both Mickeys try and stave off not only their own destruction, but the potential xenocide that their leader is prepared to inflict – something humanity has demonstrated that it's more than willing to rationalize and carry out:
"Command dropped a small exploratory party from orbit, just to get the lay of the land.
Even with armor and heavy weapons, they didn't last a day.
The inhospitality of the place put the Bergen's Wrold Command in a bit of a pickle. As I've mentioned, colony worlds don't really have the option of packing up and heading to a new destination once they've settled down. So they made the best of it.
They sterilized the smaller continent. Burned it down damn near to the bedrock.
It's a beautiful place now. Practically a paradise, from everything I've read.
So yeah, it's not true that every time we make landfall on a new planet we end up dying. I mean, somebody almost always does."
There's a level of primal conflict at the heart of these sorts of stories, with the stakes raised by the harsh and unforgiving emptiness of the cosmos. We expand because we've rendered where we live inhospitable, whether it's from oppressive governments in Europe in the 1600s and in books like Steele's Coyote, to agricultural and environmental degradation like in 1845 in Ireland to the destruction of our homeworld in Tchaikovsky's Children novels and Ashton's Mickey7, we're driven by desperation that comes as a direct result of our actions.
Those tragedies and crimes go deep into our collective history and psyche, and should we ever get to the point where we can expand into the cosmos, it's something we'll have to reckon with. Otherwise, we'll leave behind plenty of fields where we'll wonder what we sowed under, and only be able to imagine the lives that came before us.