Tech CEOs should stop using sci-fi as a blueprint for humanity’s future in space

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have repeatedly highlighted how science fiction has influenced their worldviews

Tech CEOs should stop using sci-fi as a blueprint for humanity’s future in space
Image: NASA

Earlier this week, Virgin founder Richard Branson launched himself into space aboard a spacecraft that his company constructed, and will soon be followed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It felt like a good time to republish this piece, which was originally published on PandoDaily back in November 2020.

In September 2016, Elon Musk went before the International Astronautical Congress with a program that outlined an ambitious set of goals: lay out the steps that would help establish a permanent human presence on Mars.

“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible,” he said. “Make it seem as though it’s something we can do in our lifetimes, and that you can go. And is there really a way that anyone can go if they wanted to?”

“I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually history suggests there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multiplanetary species, which I hope you would agree, that is the right way to go.”

Cue the applause.

Over the course of the presentation, Musk outlined his ideas to create a self-sustaining city and beyond. Our options, he says, are limited: Mercury is too close to the sun, Venus’s atmosphere is too inhospitable. Jupiter and Saturn’s moons might be an option, but they’re too far away at the moment. Our solar system “really leaves us with one option if we want to become a multiplanetary civilization, and that’s Mars.”

In the year since, Musk has revealed, developed, and tested heavy-lift hardware called the ‘Interplanetary Transport System’ (later renamed BFR and BFS, and then simply just Starship), a reusable system that would carry cargo to and from Earth to Mars, eventually setting up a supply chain that would help supply a budding Mars colony.

His plans are certainly ambitious, and might have been ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel. Indeed, Musk has spoken about his early love of science fiction, and how it has shaped his mindset when it comes to the future of humanity.

But while science fiction imagines the future, it’s not a reliable signpost. It is a mirage — and one that tech founders should be wary of misinterpreting.

Science fiction has pushed the most influential tech CEOS to think about the world as it could be.

Science fiction as a literary genre is one that often has its eyes planted firmly on the future — near and far. Often, fans and technophiles will cherry-pick instances where science fiction seems to have predicted what’s to come.

Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon in 1865, H.G. Wells and editor John W. Campbell predicted the use of nuclear weapons, Star Trek featured a communications device in 1966 that predates the flip phone. In 1993, Octavia Butler imagined a power-hungry and xenophobic US President who used the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Those examples are often few and far between — the product of authors who pay close attention to the state of the world and who are able to extrapolate their imagined futures from the present.

But while science fiction isn’t great at predicting the future, it is good at inspiring it, pushing scientists, engineers, corporate leaders, and others to think about the world as it could be. Musk, certainly, is one of those individuals.

In his biography of the SpaceX founder, Ashlee Vance charted Musk’s early forays into the genre, noting that he had a “compulsion” to read, and that some of his favorites were J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In particular, Musk has pointed to Asimov’s Foundation and its depiction of a civilization in decline as a major influence, telling Rolling Stone that “the lesson I drew from that is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”

Originally published in 1951 as a collection of short stories, Foundation charts the fall of a massive galactic civilization, something that the fictional mathematician Hari Seldon predicts through the use of a field known as psychohistory, which uses probability to predict the future. Seldon discovers that within three centuries, the galactic empire will collapse, leading to a 30,000 year dark age. But armed with that knowledge, he explains, they can shorten that dark age to just a thousand years by setting up a repository of knowledge, the Encyclopedia Galactica, which would protect the civilization’s knowledge from destruction, and allow it to rebuild.

In 2018, when Musk launched a Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit with a cherry-red Tesla Roadster as cargo, he included a copy of Asimov’s Foundation encoded into a 5D optical storage device.

Musk isn’t alone in his love of science fiction. Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has noted that he’s a particular fan of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Star Trek. In Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race, Tim Fernholz notes that Bezos had long been interested in space exploration, saying in his high school valedictorian speech that we could save humanity “by creating permanent human colonies in orbiting space stations while turning the planet into an enormous nature preserve.”

Disasters befalling Earth and humanity are the perfect fodder for science fiction novelists.

Science fiction novelists have imagined everything from alien invasions (such as H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds or Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest), to catastrophic wars (Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War), to natural phenomena (Edmond Hamilton's Thundering Worlds or George O. Smith's Troubled Star or Cixin Liu’s The Wandering Earth).

While some of those are improbable occurrences, there is one trope that seems far more likely: a deadly asteroid strike. James Blish and Norman L Knight's 1967 novel A Torrent of Faces featured a catastrophic impact, while Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used the trope in their 1977 novel Lucifer’s Hammer. More recently, author James S.A. Corey depicted an asteroid strike in their novel Nemesis Games, while Mary Robinette Kowal imagined an asteroid strike kicking off an alternative space race in The Calculating Stars. Movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact likewise imagined efforts to try and redirect such catastrophic events.

If there’s one thing that both Bezos and Musk have taken from science fiction, it’s that humanity enjoys a precarious existence on Earth: it’s the existential equivalent of keeping all of your eggs in one basket; a catastrophic incident has the potential to wipe out our existence completely.

Indeed, the solar system bears scars of such catastrophic incidents, and geologists have uncovered numerous examples of massive impact sites that in some cases — like the Chicxulub crater located off the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico — might have led to mass extinction events. Incidents like the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013 demonstrate that the possibility of major meteor impacts are a lurking danger that could pose a very real threat to human life and property. As a result, both tech CEOs envision a similar solution: turn humanity into a multiplanetary species, so as to ensure that one incident doesn’t eliminate all of humanity in one go. It’s an argument that’s widely shared amongst space and science fiction enthusiasts — more than once, I’ve heard someone proclaim that our destiny should be out in space, because if we don’t, our sun will eventually die, taking us with it.

While that’s an argument that has a certain amount of logic to it, taking guidance from science fiction can be a tough or complicated prospect. At its core, genre fiction is less an exercise in prediction than it is in reflection. Works like Star Trek or Foundation might have dealt with interstellar civilizations, but those settings are used as window dressing for the times in which they were created. Asimov wrote Foundation in the midst of the Second World War, and drew his inspiration from the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision for the future in Star Trek examined themes of inequality and social justice — at a point when American politics were roiling with conflict in the midst of the Civil Rights Era.

While science fiction makes for fine inspirational material, it needs to be treated with some level of skepticism. Countless writers and artists have imagined what life in space might look like, but the genre they built got its start at a time when rocketry and space travel were in their earliest stages. They took technological leaps beyond our capabilities to imagine interstellar ships, space stations, intelligent robots, and more, which made for fine storytelling material, but which were also several steps away from reality. That was their job: to imagine fantastical, entertaining adventures, rather than write about what they were seeing around them.

While it’s steeped in a form of realism (depending on how “hard” you want your science fiction), the arts are only a simulacrum for the world around us. Based on what we know now, interstellar empires, travel between star systems, and colonizing other planets are improbable ventures.

In 2015, author Kim Stanley Robinson sought to tackle the long-standing trope of the Generation Ships — a spaceship designed to take hundreds or thousands of years to reach its destination, the descendants of the original crew carrying on the flag of humanity — with his novel Aurora. The result was a bleak outlook for his crew members: riding a starship that had begun to break down because of unforeseen problems and shortages, and a destination that proved to be habitable, but extremely inhospitable for human habitation. Other authors have drawn on recent scholarship to imagine a more plausible universe in which we might end up. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and its sequel Children of Ruin each take the enormous interstellar distances into account and imagine various survivors of humanity’s ambitions as they seek to terraform the universe to better suit them.

Ultimately, both authors come down to a similar conclusion: we humans are simply ill-suited for venturing out into the cosmos.

Although these stories make excellent adventures, we have, after all, evolved to live on Earth, protected by a breathable atmosphere and magnetosphere, with liquid water. Moving out into the cosmos requires us to replicate that exact environment. Science fiction authors have depicted this many times, but Robinson and Tchaikovsky’s works do what Asimov and Roddenberry don’t: they show how incredibly difficult it is to do that, from ensuring that cosmic rays don’t tear our genes to pieces, that we can create food to sustain us, and that we’ll have plenty of food and water to last us an indefinite amount of time. And that’s before we reach our destination, whether it’s the Moon, Mars, the satellites of the outer planets, or artificial stations that we construct ourselves.

Earth has a depth of resources that is impossible to replicate in any way that’s durable. It’s also a resource that’s incredibly fragile in and of itself. Aside from the risk of catastrophic asteroid impact, our existence is quickly draining those resources upon which our lives depend. Speaking with Robinson earlier this year, he explained that “the survival of the human race depends completely on getting into a sustainable, long-term balance with Earth, our one and only hope. Other planets are irrelevant to this project, and thinking about them as places to go is just an escapist fantasy, [one that is] detached from the realities of the situation.”

Robinson also refutes the feasibility of a project like terraforming Mars, as he depicted in his book, pointing out the time scale is an enormous one. “I know that the accelerated speed of the terraforming of Mars in my trilogy has given some the impression that I was suggesting it could be some kind of salvation for us,” he said. But his story was just that — a story, rather than a blueprint. “I hurried the process for the sake of the story. Now what we’ve learned since has a couple of effects —  if it can be done at all, terraforming will take lots longer than we thought.”

As tech CEOs begin to look beyond our home planet, they should think about the stories that got them started on their respective paths. Are the stories of adventures in the depths of space really pointing them towards interstellar habitation as a potential solution for humanity?

Or are they pointing to the problems that surround us here on Earth, the pressing issues of racism, inequality, environmental degradation, or other systemic issues that we must deal with here at home before we venture out beyond our home?

Without a healthy Earth, a colony on Mars is only a temporary curiosity.