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5 Book Plan: Towards New Histories of the Future

A reading list of books that offer critical perspectives on past and present futures chosen by Fred Scharmen, author of Space Forces.

Fred Scharmen 8 November 2021

5 Book Plan: Towards New Histories of the Future

The past holds so many different tomorrows, why do we seem so short of new futures today? These books were all instrumental to me as I was writing Space Forces, because they all contain critical perspectives on past and present futures, in space and on Earth. In order to start the work of making new worlds out of the old, we’ll first need to assemble some shared tools and techniques. This list is a partial start, but there’s a lot more to do. These are not easy futures, they’re weird and sometimes frightening, but they shouldn’t be forgotten. Let’s go.  

Russian Cosmism edited by Boris Groys
Consider deep time and big space. The Russian Cosmists, following on from the work of an obscure 19th century Moscow librarian named Nikolai Fedorov, had big goals. What should be the common aspiration of all human work, they asked themselves. The answer that they arrived at, love it or hate it, was that people should work towards the eventual abolishment of death, for the physical resurrection of every human, and to allow the freedom to go and live in the stars. Groys’ collection includes writings from Fedorov as well as those who complicated and built on his legacy. For some, like revolutionary physician Alexander Bogdanov, this “Common Task” was an opportunity to let a thousand differences blossom, and to renew decay and change through transfer: of ideas, resources, and sometimes even blood. For others, like the “father of rocket science,” Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—the first to derive the mathematics proving that chemical liquid rockets could reach orbit—the conquest of space would be the imposition, by force if necessary, of uniform life throughout the cosmos.  

J.D. Bernal: A Life in Science and Politics edited by Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian
Make new worlds. The career of the chemist and material scientist J.D. Bernal was complicated. A lifelong pacifist, he worked on behalf of the British military during World War II. An aloof scientist who could get lost in his work, he was also a polyamorist and a lover of parties. He was an advocate for nuclear disarmament who knew firsthand the destructive power of technology, and an optimist who wanted to unleash genetic engineering and prosthetics to make a new fusion between human and machine. Bernal was a maker of ground and a would-be constructor of worlds. His speculative work, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, imagined a human future in space that would extend to the post-human, from giant spheres filled with a life of science in zero gravity, to intelligences of pure energy, floating in the void with their fellows, communicating at the speed of thought. A card-carrying member of the Communist party, he also hoped for a future of peace and fellowship on an Earth without war. This book captures his complexities and contradictions in his own words and those of his friends, colleagues, and lovers. It’s a fascinating portrait of a multifaceted and too-little-known figure.  

Planet Dora: A Memoir Of The Holocaust And The Birth Of The Space Age by Yves Béon  
Stay with the troubles. Planet Dora is the story of an insurrectionist who was captured by an army of genocidal maniacs during an apocalyptic war and sent, like tens of thousands of others, to be worked to death in a hollow mountain, building a top secret terror weapon whose direct technological descendants would eventually reach other planets. This sounds like the description of the plot of a novel in the horror or science fiction section of a bookstore, but these things actually happened. This is the memoir of Yves Béon’s experiences at the Dora-Mittlebau Nazi concentration camp. Béon and his compatriots were building a new device, a ballistic missile meant to demolish London bit by bit. The V-2 rockets—that more than 20,000 people died manufacturing—were also the first human-made objects to reach outer space. They were designed by Wernher von Braun, then a member of the Nazi party and the SS, later the lead designer for the American Apollo rocket that took humans to the Moon. This is by no means an easy read, and Béon doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of the horrors that he and his compatriots experienced. He refers to the camp throughout as “Planet Dora,” as if they were all actually already in space (which they were). Béon’s stories here deserve a place among the great absurdist realism of World War II literature, like Heller’s Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and that fantastic and difficult chronicle of life at the other end of the V-2’s trajectory, Gravity’s Rainbow by Pynchon. The horrific surrealism here is not fictional, but too often the standard stories we tell ourselves about science, space, and the future, actually are.  

The Kids Whole Future Catalog  by Paula Taylor  
Even Utopia can be critical. Remember flying cars? How about domed cities on the Moon and Antarctica? Farming the ocean? High speed vacuum trains? Robot butlers and moving sidewalks? Remember ESP, spoon bending, and conversations with dolphins? Millions of people living and working in space? Remember health care and the social safety net? Why do these things all sound so familiar? And why aren’t they here? All of this and more was promised to millions of children in the 1970s and 1980s via books like The Kids Whole Future Catalog. Riffing off of The Whole Earth Catalog from a decade or so earlier, these pop-future books made this new world seem easy and inevitable. It would be simple to dismiss this post-counterculture starry-eyed optimism as naive and laughable, but if we read them now through a more critical lens (as all Utopian proposals should be read) we can see a sharp set of rebukes to the exploitive relationship between over-valued technologies and under-resourced people today. Architect Cedric Price famously asked in a 1966 lecture, “Technology is the answer, but what was the questions?” The lost futures of the 1970s and 80s still ask crucial questions to the realities of the present: “why?” and “why not?”  

Placing Outer Space: An Earthly Ethnography of Other Worlds by Lisa Messeri  
Ask yourself, where are the spaces that make spaces? This is one of the central questions that guides the work of anthropologist Lisa Messeri. In Placing Outer Space, Messeri follows people working in planetary science to the spaces and places where they construct new worlds from scientific data. In conference rooms and labs, in offices at computers and in observatories at workstations, these people are exercising what Messeri calls their “Planetary Imagination.” That is, the ability to use history, culture, intuition, and experience to think about what it might be like to be on other planets. Messeri’s work reminds us that, far from transcendental, the practice of making new worlds happens in real time and space, under conditions that are restrained and provisional, and with people who are human, after all. Messeri’s concept of Planetary Imagination is a necessary corrective to the idea that the future is far away in space and time, out somewhere among the stars. The future is here, and we’re making it now, and hopefully we can invite everyone into the spaces where that happens.

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Space Forces
Many societies have imagined going to live in space. What they want to do once they get up there - whether conquering the unknown, establishing space "colonies," privatising the moon's resources -...

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