SHOULD MAN’S UPGRADE PROCESS FAIL or take too long, however, an alternative counter-Anthropocene plan is currently under development: Man’s planetary relocation. Faced with the prospect of an impending apocalypse on Earth, many scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs are already lining up to embark on a celestial trip. Wheelchair-bound theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has joined the line, announcing recently:
We need a new generation of explorers to venture out into our solar system and beyond. These first private astronauts will be pioneers, and I hope to be among them. . . . I believe in the possibility of commercial space travel—for exploration and for the preservation of humanity. I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.
The supposed inevitability of cross-planetary migration is usually presented via the familiar colonizing rhetoric, with its gendered assumptions about dominion and conquest and its eschatological fantasies of the disembodied mind. It is actually unsurprising that Hawking should adopt this type of logic and argument because he perfectly epitomizes, through the ongoing mediated performance of his scholarly identity, the idea of Man as a singular self-sufficient genius. As argued by Hélène Mialet in her provocative and thought-provoking book Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject, which analyzes the construction of the Hawking persona by the assemblage of human and nonhuman actors—“the computer/the synthesizer/the personal assistant/the graduate assistant/the nurses—that transforms a man deprived of speech and movement into ‘the genius we all know,’” Hawking “has become an emblem for the ideology that dominates our understanding of science, namely, that science is practiced by disinterested scientists who are able to transcend the political, social, and cultural spaces that their bodies inhabit in order to live in the unadulterated world of the pure mind.” It is precisely this pure mind that becomes the driver of the currently awaited civilizational jump: one that is to occur either mentally, as in the singularity theory of Ray Kurzweil, which predicts an explosion of artificial superintelligence that will merge with or even take over the human mind; or literally, in the form of relocation to other planets. What is most interesting about Mialet’s book is that she treats “Hawking” not as unique due to having to rely on an external network of collaborators and instruments because of his disability but rather as just an extreme-case scenario of many great men of science and history who have had to function as part of the intricate network of humans (wives, secretaries, cleaners, research assistants) and nonhumans (technologies of writing, computational machines, as well as lab, office, and home infrastructures) in order to accomplish things. Yet these enmeshed networks have had to remain obscured for the myth of the singular genius to be developed and sustained.
I mention this issue here because the notion of the singular genius returns in current speculations on planetary travel, with attempts to take us there presented precisely as an adventure led by select bold, male pioneers bravely venturing where few would dare to go. The gendered connotations of these ambitions are quite explicit. Indeed, many hopeful space colonizers simply cannot wait to meet their “new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Elon Musk, inventor and founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX—the latter a company whose goal is to enable affordable space travel and the eventual colonization of Mars—is a case in point. Musk’s “spiraling ambitions” are widely praised by Silicon Valley, “with commentators frequently comparing him to eponymous Iron Man superhero Tony Stark.” In the keynote presented in September 2016 at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk explained that humanity faces “two fundamental paths” today: staying on Earth and eventually becoming extinct or developing into “a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”
Dreams of life on Mars have a long history, from the late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century writings of astronomer and businessman Percival Lowell, who (erroneously) postulated the existence of canals, and thus of advanced alien life, on the Red Planet, through to the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s “search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System.” What is new about Musk’s plan is not so much his desire to find life, sophisticated or emerging, on Mars but rather his ambition to take life to Mars in the form of human cargo. Indeed, Musk aims to establish a sustainable colony of one million people within the next forty to one hundred years—although he emphasizes that the first travelers must be “prepared to die.” Planning to start colonization in 2022, he presented “a very aggressive schedule” to the large crowd gathered at the congress in Guadalajara, which went “absolutely wild” on hearing about his plans. The main obstacle at the moment is the high cost of spacecraft construction, something Musk promises to address by developing a so-called “SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System.” Musk’s keynote was richly illustrated with seductive images of pointy and hard bullet-like rockets with rounded heads, steaming, throbbing, and then rising up to pierce the Earth’s pink and soft atmosphere on their journey to Mars. It was CGI space porn of the highest caliber, and it was being lapped up by the wild crowd.