This is the third in a series of posts that question some of the classic tropes in science fiction. This series was inspired by observations made while reading Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.
The book is a really wonderful space opera, first in The Expanse series, which later inspired the creation of the SyFy Channel show, The Expanse, in its third season as I write this. But it does seem to accept unexamined some of science fiction’s time-honored (and, in my mind, outmoded) tropes.
In particular, my comments center upon Ceres Station, its population, and its governance, as portrayed in the book. I compiled a short list of outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:
- Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
- Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
- The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
- Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.
Last week I took issue with the idea that there would be abundant, expendable excess humanity available in the extrapolated setting and time span.
The primary reasons why humans won’t be that abundant are the difficulty of achieving a viable pregnancy in most space (or space-adjacent) environments, and the lowered rates of childbearing among well-educated women who can control their fertility, a reality we already have seen played out in developed nations for several decades.
Today, I’d like to look at the reasons why the humans who do get there won’t be expendable at all. ASIDE from the human rights angle, which ought to be the FOUNDATION of any discussion about the “expendability” of human lives, if we’re not going to have lots of excess babies in space, then Earth is probably exporting the vast majority of the people who live in space.
Every human being who is technically educated to the point of being employable Out There, then hauled up out of the gravity well is going to be an extremely valuable commodity.
“Hauled up out of the gravity well” alone gives you one reason. In 2009, Michio Kaku explained the cost of transporting someone to Mars this way, in a Forbes article: “imagine your body made of diamonds.“
Even now, it doesn’t cost as much to put a human in orbit as it did in the early days of the Space Race, and that cost will inevitably continue to go down. But I guarantee you it’ll never be so cheap and easy that “anybody can do it.”
Nor should “anybody” do it. Space is dangerous. Learning how to survive there takes a lot of training and highly specialized (not cheap) equipment. Which brings me to my next point: the “technically educated to the point of being employable” part.
If humans are neither able nor inclined to breed like rabbits in the tunnels of Ceres, that means in space most of the “grunt labor”–and more of the advanced processes than you might imagine–will be done the way more and more of it already IS, here on Earth: by robots. Robotic manufacturing processes are already essential to the current aerospace industry, and this trend won’t go away. I examined this and related automation issues in a series of posts about the automation of labor that started last March.
Who will manage, troubleshoot, and integrate those robots? That’s the role for highly technically skilled and trained humans. Humans with master’s degrees and doctors’ degrees, sure–but also highly skilled technicians, to keep everything running as it should. We’re already experiencing a critical shortage of skilled labor, and the push into space will only add competition to entice workers in this job niche.
Typically, competition for workers means good salaries, signing bonuses, enticements, and perks added to sweeten the offer. If you want a model for what the workforce of the future will look like, look at Silicon Valley and the current aerospace industry—not the coal mines and textile mills of yesteryear.
|Skilled workers, designers, and more are needed to put Spacex rockets into orbit–and the need for such teams will only grow as human expand their enterprises into space.
Moreover, companies are going to have to treat their employees with respect, or those intelligent, educated people will find ways to organize for change, mutiny, or jump ship to sign on with a competitor. How has science fiction not figured this out yet?
IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; the XKCD Web Comic, for the gravity wells size comparison chart; to Cerasis, for the photo of robots manufacturing something (I can’t tell what, though, and Cerasis author Adam Robinson didn’t include that information in the article); and to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, for the photo of the Spacex Team.