“The Grand Tour”, Or Why Unbelievers Must Not Be Allowed to Spearhead and Control Space Exploration

[Repost from March 2005]

It’s been a while since I wrote an entry for The High
Crusade, the category I created on this blog for posts about science fiction issues and their relationship to Christian faith. So here’s a partial rectification of my “lapse”.

In the long series of books that some of his fans have taken to calling “The Grand Tour”, noted science fiction author Ben Bova has for about eight years or so been constructing an excellent argument for why Christians committed to the cultural lordship of Christ the King ought to be seriously involved in planning and executing manned space exploration.

Of course, Bova doesn’t realize that he’s been arguing for why Christians ought to be doing this. He seems to think he’s arguing for why Secularists ought to be doing it. But as I have been reading through the series (not quite done yet) it has progressively been impressed upon me that it will be a serious indictment against modern Christians if we allow men and women like the ones Bova’s series portrays to take the reins of space exploration and spread the City of Man out to the stars without any serious, sustained challenge from the City of God.
Bova writes compellingly enough to make one want to keep reading the series, even though there are some objectionable parts scattered here and there. I’ve approached the series chronologically out of order (partly because Bova’s internal story chronology is vague) and also astrophysically out of order (mostly because I grabbed the ones that looked “most interesting” first). In other words, I started with Saturn, then went to Jupiter, then to Venus, then to Moonrise, and am now beginning Moonwar. In addition to hopping around helter skelter through the solar system, this also means I started somewhere around the year 2100 (my best guess based on Bova’s vague chronological clues) and am now back somewhere around the year 2040. As well, Mars and Return to Mars are not yet on my horizon, and I just found out last night that Bova has completed a novel on Mercury which will be released shortly. Before I get to that, however, I’ll first read the three volume “asteroid wars” sub-series, consisting of The Precipice, The Rock Rats, and The Silent War, which again basing on guesstimates from the vague internal chronology I presume are set somewhere between Moonwar and Venus.

I have to say this, at least: Bova certainly spins a gripping near-future history. The basic outline as I’ve gleaned it from the books I’ve read is this. In the early 21st century a serious manned space program has been initiated by various powerful corporations, mostly American. These corporations sometimes work for the U.S. Government but more often work on their own and for varying motives including humanistic philanthropy, nationalistic pride, or petty personal power grabs. Earth’s population has soared to nearly 10 billion, straining resources dangerously and excerbating most of the political and economic and social problems that currently plague us. As the space programs have gradually come into their own, the United Nations has gained more power for the reason that the clashing private interests in space must be somehow adjudicated in a fashion that all will recognize. In a sense there is a “world government”, but it seems to mostly function as a ministerial arm of the most powerful national governments, attempting to keep the peace in the new, dangerous frontier that the corporations have opened up.

As technology advances fairly rapidly because of corporate profit motives and the old fashioned “necessity is the mother of invention” truism, the more or less “global culture” on Earth begins to enter an extremely conservative phase that appears to be a kind of natural reaction to decades of extreme liberal excess (such as what we are experiencing today). The major cultural effect of this ultra-conservative swing is the rise to power of a coalition of
“Fundamentalist” (Bova’s own term) religious interests, including Christian, Muslim, and others, which calls itself “the New Morality”. Being by its very nature a radical reaction to a previous radicalism, the New Morality puts its increasing social power to work in physically beneficial but spiritually repressive, ways. The interesting thing to me is that for all it’s overtly moralistic propaganda, the New Morality is constantly portrayed as a movement that is willing to advance “morality” by nearly any means necessary, blackmail, fornication, political dishonesty, and even murder. It’s “religious” aspects, the frequently mentioned Christian and Muslim and Eastern mystic connections, are really only skin deep–the “God” the New Moralists constantly claim to be serving is never defined, for instance, and “redemption” seems to be restricted only to maintaining an outward show of conformity to an increasingly restrictive, and very selectively applied, code of ethics. The “New Morality” thus seems to me to be a paradigmatic example of the Modern tendency to divorce morality from religion, which has the effect of making morality its own religion–and a hypocritical and unstable one at that.

Beginning well (in the 2020s-30s) with such things as cleaning up the moral cesspools in many large cities and setting many millions back on the straight and narrow way, the New Morality ends up (as early as the 2050s or so) as every Secularist’s nightmare: a religion that dares to impede “progress” by insisting upon ludicrously outmoded, tyrannically obsessive social norms which seem to attract more than their fair share of whacked-out fanatics willing to do just about anything “in God’s name”. A disgusting caricature when it is applied to say, the Christian Middle Ages, but quite an accurate description of the 21st century New Morality. So for instance, a New Morality fanatic in Moonrise guns down an advocate of nanotechnology (which is an “evil” in God’s eyes because it keeps people healthy and helps them live longer), while similar fanatics appear decades later to use their positions of power on space stations to outright murder the “blasphemers” who discover “demonic” lifeforms in the gas clouds of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. Now it is true that not all of Bova’s religious characters are such shallow caricatures, but most of the most visible ones are, and by contrast there seems to be very little sense of moral moderation or restraint among the non-religious characters.

An additional factor that greatly helps the rise of the New Morality to total cultural dominance on Earth is that sometime in or around the 2020s (or maybe the 2030s–I am not sure thanks to the vagueness of the internal chronological hints) Earth begins to experience increasingly drastic environmental effects caused by “greenhouse warming.” Many coastal areas, including both coasts of the United States, are devastated by tsunamis, and various other environmental problems elsewhere cause massive social havoc in other countries. Because the widespread forces of the New Morality seem always available to help the teeming masses rebuild their destroyed lives, this furthers their influence and intensifies the essentially religious war between the “Fundamentalists” who only want to maintain their repressive, backward-looking regime on Earth and the “godless Secular Humanists” who are busy “blaspheming God” by colonizing the solar system to try to save the human race from itself.

I honestly do not know what Bova’s own religious viewpoint is, but in some ways this Fundamentalist / Secular Humanist cultural scenario he’s created for his books is a very typical Enlightenment-style parody of what a religion supposedly “must” do when it gets into a position of cultural power. In that light I find the series to be a shallow portrayal of a basically Modernistic creation myth and eschatology–a much more technologically primitive version of, say, Star Trek or Babylon 5. Nevertheless, the series is captivating for several reasons.

One is that it portrays a very realistic near-future move into space. From book to book Bova simply builds, and very realistically, on our current level of space technology, though here and there he does push from hard science into science fiction with such things as the perfection of working nanotechnology and fusion reactors. The attention to details, such as how the dust on the Moon constantly gets into everything, mucking with machines and spacesuits, meteorological conditions in the upper layers of Venus which cause trouble for spacecraft trying to land, the use of a different mixture of oxygen and nitrogen at a lower pressure so as to have spacesuits that are actually flexible, and so forth, constantly reminds the reader of the nitty-gritty realities of working in space. The frontier feel is palpable especially in the actual space travel department. There are no magical “warp drives” or “jump gates” to get us to Alpha Centauri in a few hours; even the best fusion-powered “torch ships” of ca. 2080 can only get you “as far out” as Jupiter in three weeks. I’d like to believe that warp drives or jump gates are possible, but we won’t get anywhere in space exploration waiting for someone to develop something that fantastic. We have to start where we are, and where we are is in our own solar system. In Bova’s “Grand Tour”, colonizing just our own solar system is constantly portrayed as what it obviously must be: an extremely dangerous enterprise which will be undertaken by the few and the brave who refuse to capitulate to maps with arbitrary lines labelled “Here There Be Dragons”. Some will do it for selfish gain, some for mere adrenaline rushes, some for abstractions about “the good of the whole human race”, some because they are unable to live in harmony with others and require “breathing room”. But all will do it because they dare to do what the Christian astronomer Kepler described as “Thinking God’s thoughts after him”–even if they do not realize that is what they are doing.

A second reason I find the series captivating is that it shows what a consistent religion (even one which takes itself to be the supposed absence of religion) ought to do with the created world in which it finds itself. That is, a consistent religion must account for the created world and attempt to absorb the created world into itself (redeem it). Paradigm changes may sometimes force a rethinking of certain of its goals and attitudes, but no religion worthy of the name simply sits on the cultural sidelines and watches the world pass it by. Thus, by the time the story of Saturn rolls around (ca. 2100), even the New Morality has come to realize that humans must move out into space. Even their extremely overwrought moralistic belief that scientific progress (nanotechnology, fusion power, etc.) is or closely approaches “blasphemy” does not keep them from sponsoring an attempt to create a self-sufficient colony (a 20-mile long spinning cylinder that can house hundreds of thousands) that could, if necessary, be launched out of the solar system and spend centuries travelling to another star merely for the sake of preserving and spreading some form of New Morality culture. Of course, even in Saturn the “Secular Humanists” are not simply going quietly into the night–they have their own agendas for the space colony, and presumably elsewhere are busy constructing their own (perhaps for as yet unwritten Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto books?).

For a series of books ostensibly portraying a Secularist-led push into space, religion is everywhere in Bova’s “Grand Tour.” Mostly it appears in the form of the oppressive New Morality and / or reactions against it, but here and there are seen brighter spots. Even the Church at last makes a serious appearance (though I would have liked to have seen her much sooner, as in from the very first book) in the form of a kindly Presbyterian pastor assigned to care for the spiritual well-being of those who inhabit the space station orbiting Jupiter. Further, throughout the books there is a continuing theme of the incomprehensible grandeur of the solar system. Jupiter features as its main character a devoutly religious man (who seems to be at least nominally a Presbyterian), and most of the quotations with which Bova heads the divisions of the book are from the Bible, particularly passages speaking of man’s utter dependence upon God and the glories of the created world.

But even shockingly godless characters often enough remind the reader of what Francis Schaeffer called “the mannishness of man”–man’s inability to escape from his creaturely finitude and deep awareness of his absolute dependence upon God. For instance, the unrepentant adulterer who nearly single-handedly keeps the vision of Moonrise alive and kicking repeatedly stands on the surface of the Moon and marvels at the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar surface, which absolutely humbles him in a way that probably no sermon ever could. The worn-out, bitter asteroid prospector who plays a central role in Venus frequently quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost to describe the indescribably violent, yet indescribably awesome, surface of the planet and his consuming desire to explore it. The crazy space stuntman who risks life and limb to fly through the rings of Saturn merely to create a virtual reality simulation for paying customers on Earth cannot seem to step out of the airlock of his ship (on several occasions) without quoting Scripture to describe the terrifyingly overwhelming beauty of open space and its countless stars staring impassively at his utter insignificance. Bova himself, as the omniscient narrator, writes so vividly of the awesome scale of Jupiter as viewed from near orbit that it makes you feel like crawling into a hole and hiding in absolute shame over your impotence to even comprehend, much less control, a planet that produces hurricane-like storms that last hundreds of years and which are large enough to hold over 100 planet Earths within their maelstroms. Not to mention the whale-like creatures the explorers discover lurking over a hundred kilometers below Jupiter’s gaseous surface, in an ocean made up of water that has been so fantastically pressurized that it literally grades smoothly from gas into liquid without crossing any perceptible boundary. “Whales”, I say, which are over ten kilometers in length and travel in schools to avoid even worse predators.

In all of this, I think that Bova has unwittingly made a fine argument for why Christians need to spearhead space exploration and not leave it to the (ironically) “fanatical” forces of the “Secular Humanists.” As I wrote a few years ago in my paper Onward Christian Spacemen, I see no reason why the dominion mandate should not apply to space as well as to Earth (prescinding for the moment from the question of alien intelligences created by God on other planets). Especially for those of us living today who are concerned with building a Second Christendom, the idea that men who deny our God and all that we stand for should be the first ones to set foot on Mars, the first ones to build homes on other worlds, the first ones to exercise dominion by naming the exotic creatures that may roam yet undiscovered alien landscapes, should be more than a bit repugnant. Do we really want to look up at the Moon and realize that the thriving cities spreading across its face were planned and built by men and women who profess themselves to be wise but have become fools because they deny the Creator and worship the created things instead?

Of course, we could just sit by in our comfortable current position as only one of many religious voices in a “neutral” Public Square and watch the telecast of some atheist stepping off the lander, making the first human footprint on Venus or Mars, and as he utters some silly paean to whatever pseudo-deity he worships we could console ourselves with abstract talk about the wonders of “common grace” and “natural law”. (Which would not, technically speaking, be incorrect, but just tragic given our own tremendous Christian legacy of exploration and civilizing of new frontiers). We could be concerned only with redeeming “souls”, and leave the “body” to the enemies of God.

But if we take our holistic redemption seriously, a redemption that we are told will ultimately include the remaking of the entire physical universe, I think we should borrow and rewrite the grand idea expressed almost a quarter of a century ago by astronomer Robert Jastrow, who, though not a Christian certainly had some profound insights into the bankruptcy of modern science’s efforts to provide purely naturalistic approach to creation. The words that follow are mine, but they echo Jastrow’s own [from God and the Astronomers (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), pg. 116]:

For the agnostic space explorer who has lived by his faith in the power of autonomous human will, the story ends like a bad dream. He has boldly hurled himself across the vast black ocean of space; he is at last about to plant the flag of Unbelief on a new world; as he takes the first step through the airlock, he is greeted by a band of Christians who have already terraformed and civilized the place for the glory of the Sovereign Lord Jesus Christ alone.

That would be a trip worth writing home about. And it surely ought to be worth a few sets of novels!

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