space and why it’s not for me

It was recently suggested to me that the reason I prefer fantasy worlds in stories and games–i.e., I am way more about the fantasy part of “science fiction and fantasy” than the science fiction part–might be because I prefer a whitewashed environment where the (incorrect) assumption that there simply weren’t any people of color on the playing field alleviates any feelings of white guilt, or the need to acknowledge and deal with racial strife.

That criticism has to be valid in a lot of cases, and I’m sure many people may use fantasy–not all fantasy, since of course it’s not all whitewashed, but surely the vast majority of it–now, and have used it in the past, to escape, for example, news of Ferguson, of trans women of color being slaughtered, of the world not caring a great deal if large swathes of brown people die of a horrendous disease in Africa. It may be that somewhere in the makeup of everyone who reads, writes, produces or engages with fantastical fiction or games is a kernel of desire for escapism. I don’t presume to be able to measure that accurately, but it’s a fair bet.

This, though–the ability to ignore these particular injustices in the world I live in, in favor of a world I don’t, and which makes itself willfully blind to such injustices–isn’t why I find trouble investing in space. In space as a setting, as a goal, as a future. It’s not human-vs-human injustice that makes it dark and empty.

That’s just how it is.

And this, maybe, is part of the trouble NASA has with people of my generation–post space-age people, who take all of the multitudinous technologies the space race gave us for granted, who grew up having to memorize names and acts related to space, and not fantasizing (see what I did there?) about space.

Because space is fucking dark.

For us to go there–for us to need to go there–some pretty bad shit has to have gone down on this planet. Worse, yes, than we’ve yet seen. And that does not feel good. Knowing that you should probably as a species have an escape route from yourselves does not feel good. And I realize that this may again be an issue of privilege–if I had, with my family, had to flee the land of my birth due to persecution, maybe I’d view the eventual necessity of flight with the cynicism of familiarity. Maybe I’d expect no better of us. Or at least, maybe I wouldn’t be surprised, or seek to pretend it might get better.

I am home, sick. I watched that Interstellar trailer. There were some blurred moments, and I thought briefly of my mother’s claim that she never cried at movies until she had children, and how I never cried at movies until a plane flew into my father’s former workplace. I am fine, in this trailer, until again, we see the dad try to say goodbye to his daughter, to “fix this before I go.” And then, of course, the poem.

At work I recently had to look up a bunch of biographical info on Dylan Thomas. It seemed odd that it was required–surely the authorities would have already pinned down all they needed to on so famous a figure?–but I did it, and in so doing discovered what probably most people already knew: that he was difficult, troubled, and frustrating to work with. This might have been mentioned briefly when we “did” this poem in high school, but probably not in great detail thanks to our system’s overprotective regard for how much of reality students are allowed to see. Or read about. It probably came up in relation to the forked lighting verse:

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Fear of having written nothing, done nothing, of consequence. That sort of thing. And I thought, lying ill on my couch, that that would have to be where I’d be to submit myself to space. Everyone I love dead–maybe even some of them having gone in a way I could find a way to blame myself for. (I thought of Gravity.) That great, black emptiness–it may take the greatest minds we can produce to fathom and traverse and even manipulate it, but it has to be a very bleak soul willing to surrender itself up to that. You go out there under the grand banners of advancing knowledge, saving mankind, exploring unknown territories…but you are physically alone in a way most people on this planet only feel under, I gather, the onslaught of severe depression. There is no pharmaceutical cocktail to combat the desolation of space. The inhumanity of it. You are not supposed to be there, there is no one to know if you go gentle into that good night or not.

The dark heart at the center of next to every space story is that we fucked up. We fucked up big time. So badly that we had to leave. Whether we forged a spacey UN spanning galaxies, or a totalitarian regime lasting thousands of generations thanks to genetic engineering applied to our leaders, or entered into a good-vs-evil struggle against ravenous creatures with many legs–all of that is epilogue to the fact of mankind’s total fucking failure vis-à-vis Earth. And that is goddamned depressing.

Because I like Earth.

And if the only excuse we have by which to claim that we didn’t fail is that we didn’t go extinct–that we found our way off this rock and onto others–well, that’s a pretty measly excuse. And it’s not success. Maybe it is in an evolutionary sense, but not a metaphysical one. If we’re too awful for this planet, it is difficult to condone our migration onto others. Or even into the in-between spaces between planets. Earth is like a learner’s permit. Can you handle this planet? No? Then you don’t get others, sorry. No license to wreak havoc on the universe.

But since the very reason for trying to get that license–the only reason that carries any cultural weight, in this age where we have such a lukewarm regard for the travails of NASA and its foreign counterparts–is that we utterly destroy(ed) our learner’s permit planet, the whole ethos of space and space travel and space fiction is tainted by the spectacular fuck-ups of mankind. Any love or struggle or triumph that follows that cannot undo it. For me to invest in characters flailing along through space requires me to think “oh, well, Earth is a twisted warped rock of molten goo now, oops, but forget that, back to the love triangle between these space aristocrats…” Which does not sit well with me.

I’m aware that you could cry hypocrite, since what are we doing in fantasy other than ignoring the mess we’re presently making of the world? Were I to say in my defense something about being able to see better into ourselves, via tweaked backward-looking windows, and thus to gain a greater chance of doing better today, you might retort that the same thing is possible in science fiction. People still being people and all that. Moreover, you might claim that by positing stories in alternative pasts, or worlds at whatever pre-enlightenment-age level where the characters are typically not working to prevent things like the great global imbalance in power, resources, and technological facility, is no more heinous than telling stories about fictional future people who carry on with their lives as though their species didn’t completely wreck the planet they were born onto. It’s the same damn thing, you’ll say.

To which I can only respond that space is fucking dark. So, surely, are the hearts of men. But those, at least, I can fathom. Space I can’t. At least down here we have the chance to choose how we go into that good night. In space, it’s always night, even when you’re alive, and if there’s anything good about it–any miracles out there exploding amongst the stars–they will probably kill you. And only a handful of co-pilots will even be there to say goodbye.

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