space forces

Category: Nonfiction
Reviewed by: Dale Skran
Title: Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space
Author: Fred Scharmen
Format: Hardcover/Kindle
Pages: 272
Publisher: Verso
Date: November 2021
Retail Price: $26.95/$9.99
ISBN: 978-1786637352
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Fred Scharmen, a teacher of architecture and urban design at Morgan State University in Space Forces embarks on an intellectual project to fit advocates of space settlement into either round holes or square holes. That is to say, they are either, like O’Neill and Von Braun, Western Colonialists bent on exporting exploitation and militarism to space, or they are good-hearted socialists in the mold of J. D. Bernal, seeking to impose some alternative to private property and free markets on the solar system. One problem with any thinker who seeks to mold facts to support a thesis arises from an inevitable rise of blindness and confirmation bias. Scharmen’s re-invention of Arthur C. Clarke, one of the best and most level-headed hard science fiction writers of the 20th century as a meandering mystic agog over fake crystal skulls left me shaking my head.

As you may have concluded by now, Space Forces is a poor introduction to the history of different visions of space settlement. This is not to say that Scharmen’s work lacks all merit. If you already have read The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (Bernal), The High Frontier (O’Neill), The Mars Project (Von Braun), and Profiles of the Future (Clarke), you will be equipped to separate the wheat from the chaff left by Scharmen’s “project.”  The chapter on NASA holds special interest for space advocates wondering what kind of forces hold NASA back from building a human future in space. You may or may not agree with everything Scharmen has to say about NASA, but I found much of value here. On the other hand, the chapter on Clarke appears to have been written about a different person named Clarke than the one I am familiar with. Scharmen focuses on a 2nd or 3rd rate TV Show “Mysterious World” that Clarke was involved with, rather than such classic works as The Promise of Space and The Exploration of Space.

Scharmen’s fluid and often entertaining prose spins a variety of anecdotes and historical footnotes that many space advocates will find interesting. Unfortunately, he spends so much time with SF writers that support his thesis such as Le Guin and Strugatsky that there is no room in Space Forces for Robert Goddard or Dandridge M. Cole (Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids).  One of Scharmen’s attempts to stretch things to make his point comes with his quote from Le Guin’s “A Rant about Technology” in which Le Guin says “…we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called ‘technology’ at all.” Later, Scharmen suggests that Newspace advocates in general (pg 251) are overly bound up with visions of complex technology and are somehow limited by their lack of appreciation of simple tech such as pots and pans. To my reading, this analysis over-reaches, but space advocates would do well to remember that just because a solution is complex or “hi tech” does not mean it is a good approach. Certainly, much of Musk’s success can be attributed to a relentless drive to reduce complexity. Additionally, “technologies” such as property law, patent law, and limited liability corporations are just as important as “rocket science” to making space settlement a reality.

Scharmen expounds at length (page 151) that O’Neill’s vision of space settlements creating a profusion of cultural experiments is a kind of colonialism in which the colonies are perpetually under the stress of challenge and change, while valuable innovations are imported back to the Earth. Scharmen’s critique is that O’Neill proposes to export risk to the settlements, allowing “Mother Earth” to profit from those who perhaps died or were injured in space. The defense of O’Neill’s vision is that (1) those who settle space will be knowingly and voluntarily taking on risk, (2) those who live in space will be the first and most direct beneficiaries of cultural and scientific innovation on the frontier, and (3) there is no reason to think that all of the innovations that originate in space settlements, especially cultural ones, can be easily imported back to the Earth. Advocates of space settlement should take note of Scharmen’s attack on O’Neill’s vision and ponder how best to respond.

Another sophisticated anti-space development argument Scharmen advances dismisses lowering the cost of reaching orbit as “induced demand” which can never create real improvement in the long run. Induced demand is usually discussed in the context of widening highways. At first travel is faster and safer, but over time traffic grows to such an extent that congestion returns to the same level as existed before the highway was widened. Since cost rather than congestion in reaching space is the key issue, the salience of “induced demand” seems, like many of Scharmen’s arguments, a stretch. Additionally, induced demand can be restated more accurately that when a good is free (roads, bread), congestion (jammed roads, long lines) will occur since there is no price-based regulation. There are no “free” rockets to orbit, so the concept of induced demand seems irrelevant. Instead, we are seeing the natural growth of a market as technology escapes from government control and is allowed to seek lower cost ways of doing the same thing.

Scharmen excavates another anti-settlement argument, saying “In the same mode, Bezo’s decision to try to create a situation where millions of people are living and working in space almost requires the existence of poverty on the Earth, as something that his scheme can both address indirectly, and offer an alternative to.” (pg. 219). The twisted logic here suggests that we are only motivated to settle space because we lack resources on the Earth. And why is that? Because a large population of poor people exist which want to live like Americans but without despoiling the Earth. The solution of “stasis” seems clear—fewer people with fewer desires, with no need for space resources or settlement. Scharmen may be grasping at straws here, but this line of argument should remind the space settlement advocate of the importance of multiple rationales for space settlement, and in particular that the one goal that can only be met via expansion into space is long-term human survival.

The concluding chapter—“Find the Others”—lays out the future clearly. Scharmen and his allies will seek to prevent capitalism, free markets, and private property from being “allowed” technologies in space. In fact, their project is nothing less than the end of growth and a static society forever confined to the Earth proper. They quite correctly understand that once the ideals of freedom escape the surly bonds of gravity, their growth will be unbounded. So, the NewSpace entrepreneurs, and especially Musk and Bezos, must be stopped now. The Moon Agreement must be firmly established in space, and then the ideals of socialism can be imported back to the Earth, for imposition on everyone (pg. 235). During the 20th century, hundreds of millions of lives were taken in a misguided quest to impose these kinds of values on a global scale. Sadly, the intellectuals of the 21st century appear to have learned nothing from that river of blood.

To be sure, there must be room for a very wide range of space settlement governance approaches. There should be some limits, but those boundaries will encompass market capitalism, “mixed” economies, socialism, communism, communes, libertarianism, and many more economic visions, some yet to be invented. But what must be out of bounds is the imposition of a single economic and political vision in space, with a view toward importing it back to the Earth. Fortunately, the growing success of the Artemis Accords suggests Scharmen is on the losing side of history. But the fight is in the early days, and as H.G. Wells wrote (paraphrased) at the conclusion of Things to Come, it is everything or nothing. Either our future in space will encompass the full range of human visions of happiness, or a single, universal system, well intentioned in theory but totalitarian in fact, will spread over the stars.

© 2023 Dale Skran

NSS index of over 400 book reviews

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1 thought on “Book Review: Space Forces”

  1. Dale has given us a incisive overview of Sharmen’s attempts to define the future in space. In fact, as Dale correctly observes, space will in many respects be a free for all. If we can live and work and be fruitful in space and traveling, then many will reside entirely in space and, thank you mother Earth for raising us to be starkind.

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