Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 2. Oh, the humanity!

This is the second post in a series that questions some basic assumptions that underly several classic science fiction tropes. To start from the beginning of this discussion, go back to last Wednesday’s post.

Last week I took serious issue with the way the people running Ceres Station were doing their job in the must-read space opera Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey.

Apart from the abysmal law enforcement practices I discussed last time, I made a list of other 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.
I’d specifically like to take up the first point this week, because it’s one of the great, universal “givens” in most science fictional universes: that humans will breed like rats, once we’re finally unleashed like a plague on the universe, and that we’ll mostly all live miserable, short, brutal lives under the heel of this or that authoritarian system.
1973’s Soylent Green created a what-if future (in this case, in New York City) overrun by excess population, as envisioned in both the movie and the 1966 book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, which inspired it. Realities have changed since then, but the trope hasn’t.
Yes, life is brutal, out there in the Mean Future, but it makes a handy low point from which Our Heroes can rise up and conquer whatever their particular nemesis is. And I suppose if that’s the story you’re writing, it certainly has a long and–sorry!–storied history as a canon trope in sf.
But seriously. This trope treats human life like detritus, and the vast bounty of space like a zero-sum game. I personally do not see either of these things as inevitable, especially not in an in-system situation such as what we have in The Expanse. Let me explain.
First of all, where are all these people supposedly coming from? Six million on Ceres Station alone? Really? If you are going to treat human beings as if they’re worthless, this implies that there’s an endless, inexpensive supply of them, readily available. But would there be?
This tiny person (fetal development at 16 weeks shown here) would really have a hard time surviving and developing properly in a space environment.
It’s not as if we’re going to be growing them like having litters of kittens out there on the Final Frontier. I mean, pregnancy would be a really hard thing to support in a space-based environment. Yes, I’m going to talk about matters that concern icky lady-parts (note, that’s any lady-part NOT being currently utilized by a protagonist for coitus). If any of you guys can’t handle it, you can skip down a couple of paragraphs.
Like many physical functions, human pregnancy and childbirth have evolved in a 1-G environment. Heck, we can’t even maintain muscle strength and bone density in micro-gravityNot to mention what space radiation can do to sperm or growing fetal cells (yeah, it’s a good thing the squeamish folk skipped this paragraph). Ceres Station supposedly has a gravitation of about 0.3-G, which means mamas ain’t havin’ no (healthy) babies there.
Yes, all that.
I know I’m probably not the only woman who daydreamed, when I was 8 or 9 months along, of floating in micro-G, where my ankles wouldn’t blow up like balloons and my kid’s head wasn’t squashing my bladder into a 1-cc-capacity pancake. But so far the science isn’t encouraging. studies on animals show viability levels are lower, and serious abnormalities can develop. Given that kind of outlook, I’d choose put up with football-feet and micro-bladder.
Also, birth rates fall, even without the environmental difficulties, in more technologically advanced societies. We’ve seen that industrialized nations with access to good birth control (which you’d absolutely have to have, in space) historically show birth rates well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman.
Somehow, science fiction consistently misses this basic fact.
Thus, any model that assumes runaway population growth in an industrialized society is based on a seriously retro–and misogynistic–fallacy. Actually, I believe it’s based on a flawed model promulgated in the 1950s-through-1970s. As far as I can tell, it has not been seriously examined in science fiction since then. I think it’s time we did.
IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; to The Ace Black Blog, for the still from Soylent Green; to WebMD for the 16-week-old fetus image; to MumBlog, for the “Pregnancy Symptoms” graphic; and to ValueWalk, for the fertility rate chart. I deeply appreciate all of you!