The Colonial Romance of Outer Space
The Mars colony has been forming in our collective imagination since before dial-up and VCR. Sci-fi writer M Eighteen Téllez traces the steps.
It’s spring, 2011. Your friend is at the gentrified anarchist coffee shop highlighting the shit out of a textbook page already crammed with notes in the margins. They look up, anticipating your approach. “What are you reading?” They show you the cover: The Cyborg Handbook from ‘95. Your friend passes it over, it’s opened to an article called “Cyborgs and Space.” It’s a reprint from a 1960-edition of the journal Astronautics and it’s famous for coining the word “cyborg.” 1960 is two years fresh from NASA’s 1958 Space-Race era foundation, your friend says. The article calls for the development of astronauts whose bodies are chemically and bio-mechanically optimized for space travel so that they don’t need sophisticated external equipment. Like a fish that adapts to leave the ocean and breath on land, your friend says. “And all these military and government people fucking loved it until the dudes’ follow-up paper was like, yo, how are these cyborgs gonna be like mentally stable in space though?” The social-sexual needs of a person isolated in outer space seems like a legit concern to you – you’re like, I feel mad isolated right now from my own social-sexual needs – and right there in the handbook’s reprint of the 1970 follow-up article on just that, it says the Astronautics journal refused to publish the jawn, even though they had asked the authors for a new piece in the first place. You suck your tongue loud and look at your friend. They make a side-eyeing face back that completes your shared meme expressing psychic exhaustion with white supremacy. You go order your coffee.
Working Man’s Revolt Fantasy
It is the early 1990s. A kid’s stepdad comes home from the overnight shift one morning with a shrimp platter and a brand new Schwarzenegger VHS trilogy boxset. They’re going to have a great Saturday afternoon in the apartment. Snap the plastic. Handle the cardboard. One movie is called Red Heat (1988), about a Moscow detective and a Chicago cop joining forces. Another movie is called The Running Man (1987), about a live reality deathgame show that threatens to kill its wrongfully imprisoned working class heroes, one of which is a cop who refused to murder people. The third movie is called Total Recall (1990). The kid’s stepdad has a thing for outer space and so does the kid. They’re gonna start with this one. The movie is about a mutant underclass that lives in dust-crusted holdouts on Mars, dependent on breathable air rations that are entirely controlled by a single corporation, which also suppresses the ancient, indigenous technology that can provide planet-wide free-flowing air. It ends with the resistance destroying the corporation, the death of the CEO, and the planet’s pre-colonization technology fired back up. All power to the people.
“I’m not into politics. I’m into survival.”
This is what a rogue cop says when the two guys he broke out of jail with invite him to join their militant resistance group. Before they part ways the rogue cop tells the resistance dudes to “stop trying to teach the Constitution to the street punks” and to “stay out of the national database.” This is The Running Man from thirty years ago:
Plot: “In 2017, after a worldwide economic collapse, American society has become a totalitarian police state, censoring all cultural activity. The US government pacifies the populace by broadcasting game shows where convicted criminals fight for their lives, including the gladiator-style The Running Man, hosted by the ruthless Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), where “runners” attempt to evade “stalkers”, armed mercenaries, around a large arena, and near-certain death for a chance to be pardoned by the state.”
It’s late November, 2016. Your logged-in Google search on Elon Musk returns post-election news that the billionaire with the private company plotting to colonize Mars just won a $112 million NASA contract to launch NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission (SWOT). It’s something that will orbit the planet and be able to survey all of the surface water on Earth. Seems nifty. A phrase in the official release catches your eye: aid in freshwater management around the world. Now how do you get that job – freshwater manager? Your mind recalls that scene in the movie Tank Girl from ’95 where all the water is owned by Water & Power Corporation and they make weapons that produce drinkable water by extracting it from a person’s body, killing them in the process. Your mind brought you this scene last summer, too, when you were visiting LA (a desert) for the first time and a documentary came on called Killing the Colorado. There was a scene featuring three New York City hedge fund managers with a new company, Water Asset Management, “devoted to buying and selling just about anything having to do with water.” WAM, huh. Google provides you with another article on Musk about how the Political Action Committee, led by potential White House Press Secretary under Turnp, Laura Ingraham, recently launched a smear website targeting Musk and his companies. Big money contract wars? It’s like that episode of Ghost in the Shell: ARISE (2013) where the news is livecasting the scene from a foreign water company’s contract signing with a Japanese cybernetic prosthetics manufacturer. There’s a stage. There’s balloons. One CEO waxes poetic while they both hold up champagne glasses of purified drinking water. “We’ve followed the principle of free trade to maintain fair prices that will spur postwar economic recovery,” one says. Outside a Give back our water! chant rises from a mass of heavily surveilled protesters. They brandish signs demanding, “Give water to the war orphans!!” while police helicopters blanket the sky. Water is life rings in your head alongside images of the toxic yellow tap water in Flint. There’s a sickening relationship between this and the purification technologies that will be developed for Martian water reserves.
The Simulation / Assimilation
Commander Helena Braddock (Pam Grier): “Rookie, use your breathers. We’re not gonna have air like Earth for ten more years.”
Bashira Kincaid (Clea DuVall): “God, I hate this thing.”
Lieutenant Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge): “You’ll get used to it. Two years ago we were still wearing full face breathers. Takes about a month to get over the headaches out here. […] You’re always cold. You can’t get a decent shower. And they don’t tell you that a one year contract here equals two years Earth time. Gotta read the fine print.”
That’s how on-the-job banter goes between cops stationed on Mars in the late 22nd century. In John Carpenter’s horror slash sci-fi Western, Ghosts of Mars (2001), ancient Martian spirits possess colonies of human miners, causing people to go berserk and kill each other. Tough job! If big budget sci-fi movies are so predictive of the future, why do they feature cops or soldiers as the heroes so frequently? Totally biased. Unfortunate. Scam!
9 November 2016, 23:00 EST
Everyone is very stressed out. Your housemate shuffles into your room and asks if you want to watch Black Power Mixtape on Netflix. Clues. Lessons. Time to get focused fast. Twenty-nine minutes in you register the stock footage of a space rocket blasting off as significant. You pause the movie, then drag the bar left on its timeline overlay. The film’s narrative unfolds anew: 1968 arrives. Nixon becomes president. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party’s Ministry of Information, says before a cluster of microphones:
“All three of these pigs that we have a choice from, Oink Nixon, Oink Humphrey, and Oink Wallace, they’re not for us. They do not represent us. They do not represent the best interests of this country. They definitely don’t represent the best thinking in this country. In fact, they represent the very worst tradition which was ever to crawl from beneath the rocks in this… whew… this bankrupt country.”
At those words, Cleaver’s face and the microphones fade into slow motion footage of a NASA rocket launching. 1968 becomes 1969. You pause the movie again. The US put the first man on the moon in 1969. You tell your housemate that this overlay of footage has you fucked up, cause not till this very moment did you ever consider that your childhood love of science and space exploration was perhaps a distraction. The film is saying, hey, look now, this is what the President and his business interests and his government were funding while they murdered Black people for defending their dignity – mankind’s noble objective to explore space, “the final frontier” crafted as propaganda by a white supremacist empire warring for Space Race glory.
And you remember the date with your boo to the midnight IMAX showing of Interstellar (2014), where you sat there being disgusted by the protagonist’s most assured rationale that “We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”
The Romance of the Colony
“One thing people don’t realize is that we have been at Mars – humans have been at Mars for over 50 years now. Which is a tremendous track record, and we’re learning a ton about the planet that will enable us to get humans there safely. You know, frontiers – opening ‘em are hard. There is no joke about that, but you know what, that is what frontiers are about and it changes with time. This summer I was taking my two little daughters down to Jamestown in Virginia, and you know what, between 1607 and 1623 approximately 20,000 people went to Jamestown. Does anyone know how many of ‘em were alive at the end of 1623? I’ll tell ya. It’s 2,000. So they had a 90% mortality rate in Virginia. And there were similar challenges going all the way out to the West. People really took a challenge. We don’t do that at NASA, we try to mitigate those risks – but the point I’m trying to make is that frontiers are hard. And you have to kind of put the pieces together to make it happen and that’s what we’re learning in the Mars exploration program, and we’ll learn all across the board. […] You know, we are on the verge of something incredibly cool. You know, when they did Jamestown, they actually became a multi-continent species. With Mars, we’re actually becoming a multi-planetary species, and that is something that a thousand years from now or maybe even ten thousand years from now, they will go wow, they did it. And it’s not easy. The path is not clear. But we can do it. And frankly, you guys have a big part to play in it.”
In the current hottest year on record, a grown up low-income and institutionally ill-prepared but very smart child decides to stop watching the NASA YouTube. NASA Social Goes Behind the Scenes of our Journey to Mars panel. A public relations video, featuring Rick Davis, Assistant Director for Science and Exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He looks like all the astronauts in the movies – straight, masculine, white, and American – as he connects the current state of the Mars journey to the tradition of “people” (meaning European settlers) facing “similar challenges going all the way out to the West” (meaning the task of murdering and displacing the original inhabitants of these now blood-soaked stolen lands). The grown up child wonders if an ancient Mayan or Egyptian space colony mindset would have differed at all from this one.
“If Humans Don’t Want Me, Why Did They Create Me?”
It’s like 1998 and somehow you got yourself invited over to the oldhead punk rocker who works at Zipperhead’s house cause you both like anime and they’re reeling from a breakup. The oldhead is like, “Yeah but have you ever seen the OVA for Armitage? It’s not the same as the movie version on Sci-fi Channel. They cut a whole part out of it that’s fucking crucial.” Punk rocker puts the tape in the VCR and you both settle in. Armitage the Third. A classic from a slept-on wave of 90s and 00s cyberpunk anime, featuring Hollywood stars Elizabeth Berkley and Kiefer Sutherland on the English dub. It’s 2046 and overpopulation on Earth has led to colonization of Mars, reliant on waves of increasingly sophisticated androids to assist in the frontier efforts of men. Someone could write a paper about how these Martian androids are highly sexualized, thin, light-skinned “female” types, filling the background of every scene as they perform service, support, and sex work for presumably human clients. And nobody gives a fuck about their well-being, a brutal fact the cop Armitage has to reckon with upon the revelation that she too is an android. Years later in a college classroom you’ll watch Soylent Green (1973), set in a polluted, overpopulated Earth, 2022, featuring another cop that must reckon with an unbearable revelation. There’s a scene where bulldozers shovel masses of New Yorkers, rioting over food shortages, into the backs of garbage trucks. You’re like, damn 2022 is one year after Turnp’s upcoming term, and how serious do you take the forewarnings of another sci-fi film produced and distributed through for-profit networks?
This Technology Does Not Benefit Nor Concern You / You Must Forge Your Own
On a late winter’s night you, a cyborg, write parts of an incantation.
there are cycles to break
the technologies that bind us rely on the notion that humans are special and different from all other things in the universe
what is considered to be alive
and who is
worthy of living?
You are reassessing your social-sexual needs, your mental health. You deleted your eight-year-old Tumblr because you didn’t like the frequency that it had so well trained you to perform for your followers (their constituents). Facebook locked down your account for its “illegal” name and you said fuck it when they demanded a state-issued ID to get back on. The already chronically inflamed tendons in your arms and hands, which make it so that you can’t hold a pen firm enough to legibly write sometimes, got worse from the constant activity. You turned off Instagram and Twitter notifications and stopped fucking with your Snapchat as much cause you started to ask yourself, what are these relationships really when they’re not mediated by these for-profit networks? You orient yourself with memories of the dial-up days of 1990s internet and what it was like to live adventurously without the trappings of a pre-signified body. You have spent all these years holding on to a mounting dread while the internet’s transformed into a convenient, everywhere, totally identified companion reality that optimizes your behavior for social control. Maybe it was never for your own benefit. You write these words because you wonder what it’s like to be a pre-pubescent person in this era of coercive data-for-service internet. You wonder when it will become criminalized to not maintain an active social media presence. And what will you do then?