The Case for a New Frontier

Here at Vaguely Circular, we love outlandish ideas. We love exploring the boundaries of fiction and art, and creating strange word-based concoctions. But we are also interested in frontiers other than those found in the world of art…. and one of our favorite frontiers also happens to be the largest.

That’s right, we’re talking about space.

New Frontier (2)Space exploration, for the larger part of the Cold War, was an essential part of the defense program here in the United States. The eventual goal was to build up such superiority in space travel and related technology that the Soviets would be unable to (among other things) build a base on the moon or rain nuclear missiles upon us from the safety of orbit. It may sound a bit ridiculous now, but these were considered legitimate fears which justified the expenditure of more than two hundred billion dollars (2007 value) for the development of spacefaring technology.

In the intervening years, spending on space exploration and research has remained around or below 1% of the Federal budget, as opposed to the average of 2.5% during the peak ten years of the Space Race. Increasingly, private companies are entering the realm of space exploration and research as NASA continues to reduce its operating capacity and cut back on programs. Personally, I happen to think this is a good thing (just check out the Mars One program), but that’s not the point of this post.

Unfortunately, I think the prevailing attitude of the American public is that space is not worth spending money on. “There are better things for our government to do with its finances,” the argument goes, “like making healthcare more expensive and complicated than it should be!”

Political snark aside, the truth as I see it is that we’ve given up on the last big frontier. Just… given up and let it die. Back in the 60s and 70s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a school without a few aspiring astronauts. But now, with the increasing prevalence of digital distractions and video games (and with full VR probably just a few years away), space is getting neglected.

By now, you’re probably wondering what I’m doing talking to you. “We’re writers and artists!” you say. “Not scientists and researchers and astronauts.” And this is true.

But what you’re missing is that, as artists, you’re a source of inspiration.

Look back at the era during and after the moon landings. Science fiction was at an all time high. The acknowledged Grand Masters of the genre were hard at work promoting, by their art, the idea of space as a frontier. And while we still see movies and the occasional TV series with that outlook, it seems like the space-as-frontier books have dropped off the radar. Now, when I browse the science fiction shelves, I’m finding bleak, boring worlds which are essentially nothing more than a stagnant Earth propagated ad infinitum across the galaxy.

No wonder the public isn’t interested in space!

Now, I know there are many other factors involved, among them a lack of media coverage (because all networks know that if you’re not scaring someone, you’re not making money; and space travel is too optimistic for them). But the fact remains that space exploration science fiction, as a genre, seems to have come to rest.

I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because writers think that all the stories they could tell in the genre have been told (which is not even close to being true). Or maybe publishers aren’t picking it up like they used to, seeing how dystopia is basically a guaranteed money-maker now. Whatever the cause, the genre has dwindled; and our interest in space-as-frontier has as well.

And this is actually really scary.

Without a frontier or frontiers, civilizations quickly grow narcissistic, stagnate, and die. Look, for example, at some historical empires. The Greeks were divided by infighting and eventually pulled back into themselves, becoming obsessed with mental disciplines. The Romans conquered the known world, then settled back to relax and celebrate. A few hundred years later, their empire had vanished. The Japanese closed themselves off from the outside world and became an anachronistic culture, stuck perpetually in the medieval ages. China had an impressive technological and scientific culture, but with the advent of religions, such as Confucianism, which focused on the past; they allowed their scientific abilities to atrophy and closed themselves off from the world. This pattern is repeated through history.

Western civilization is currently on the verge of a slow collapse. Much of the problem is, of course, the degeneration of morals and loss of our Judeo-Christian roots (argue if you will); but there is also the loss of any notable frontier. For much of American history, we have had frontiers of one kind or another to conquer; most of them located in our backyard, so to speak.

The conquest of a frontier forces a given civilization to expend resources on new development, forces the people thereof to become more innovative, and drives commerce and creativity. Without a frontier that can capture the public’s imagination, we will become an increasingly narcissistic society; a society of consumers who do not create. Clearly, this is not in our best interest.

We have explored most of our world to its farthest reaches. Now the time has come to turn our attention to the rest of the universe. There is so much out there we have not seen and have yet to understand– how can we be content to sit here on our comfortable blue marble and stagnate? We should not be.

And you, fair reader; you’re the writers. The artists. You’re the vision-shapers. The people who can work to motivate us to get our lazy haunches off this pebble and move out into the galaxy at large.

Do you think you’re up to the challenge?

 


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