They’ve long been waiting for us those big and distant planets
Those cold and silent planets deep in the universe
But there is no planet wherever we have landed that waits for us like this one our dear planet Earth
My friends, I believe that the fast rocket fleet
Will carry us on From one star to the next.
On those distant planets our trails will remain
And keep dusty prints of our steps.
On those distant planets our trails will remain
And keep dusty prints of our steps.
— “Fourteen Minutes Until Start,” Soviet cosmonaut song, 1960
MILLENNIAL socialists have set their eyes on the stars. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweets about Star Trek forming her political consciousness. DSA members obsessively read the works of Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain Banks, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Young leftists throw space-themed May Day parties and decorate their apartments in Soviet space propaganda. But it’s unclear why they’re so eager to explore the cosmos. We do not live in a golden age of space exploration. In mainstream culture, space itself has become a playground for the billionaire class. We are told that the final frontier is, at best, the final refuge for the rich in the event of Earth’s annihilation.
The sight of Jeff Bezos’s rocket blasting into space hardly encourages today’s space communists. The satellites and space junk orbiting earth don’t exactly inspire poetry. The Mars rover was cool for a minute, but those long pans of red desert eventually started looking like Arizona. Without a bright future for people here on earth to look forward to, the exploration of space seems like sheer decadence.
Apathy and distaste for space exploration are widespread in today’s films set in outer space. Recent films focus on the dull, miserable, and nightmarish aspects of an astronaut’s life. Whole features are devoted to a lone adventurer facing off against the void of open space. In Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015), a full battery of stunning special effects shows us exactly how grim, dull, and dangerous space is.
In Gravity, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, in Manned Maneuvering Units, attempt to rescue themselves from certain death after their shuttle is damaged and their crewmates are killed by flying debris. In The Martian, Matt Damon is abandoned on Mars after a freak accident forces his fellow explorers to leave him stranded on a lifeless planet. In both films, only heavy-duty NASA technology stands between the astronauts’ frail bodies and the ravages of space. The characters make their way home by following strict orders from superiors: Bullock from the older male Clooney, and Damon from the scientists back on Earth. Survival is intrinsically linked to obedience and technocratic perfectionism. In Hollywood’s space, there isn’t room for freedom or independence. You can’t really be a person. You must be more of a robot—or at any rate a dutiful employee.
Consider Matt Damon’s speech from the final scene of The Martian, upon his character’s safe return to Earth after a harrowing two years on Mars.
“It’s space. It’s filled with chance, circumstance, and bad luck. It doesn’t cooperate. At some point, I promise, at some point every single thing is gonna go south on you, and you’ll think: this is it. This is how I end. And you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You simply begin. Solve one problem. Then the next one, then the next. You solve enough problems, and you get to come home.”
Far from a romantic hero, Damon sounds like he’s giving a TED Talk. “You solve enough problems, and you get to come home.” Just another day on the job. The fact that contemporary filmmakers choose to display space travel as a banal fight for survival against an alienating, murderous void is telling. Space exploration, we are told, is a miserable job that someone must do. In the end, our celestial adventurers merely pave the way for billionaires to take to the stars.
Life in space is miserable and it might kill you. In this way, it is not so unlike your job: your survival depends on your ability to rein in your humanity and plod obediently along. When it comes to celestial exploration, our space epics reflect an ethos of capitalist pessimism. Instead of reaching out to the universe from a place of scientific inquiry, the wealthy look to flee a planet they have stripped of resources, leaving the rest of us to scrounge off our scorched, starving world.
LIFE in space was equally dangerous, impractical, and dull in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, in the golden age of Apollo and Sputnik, mainstream science fiction wasn’t interested in these bleak technological realities. Instead of Gravity and The Martian, we got Doctor Who and Barbarella. These are cultural products that deal in fantasy, aspirations, and philosophy—not merely survival. Part of this difference is technological: it is easier now to realistically depict space travel on film than it was a generation ago. We have life-like CGI animation, LED technology that can recreate the light of celestial bodies in orbit, and robots to mimic anti-gravity effects.
But the transformation of space imaginaries also reflects historical shifts in the decades since the first moonwalk. As neoliberalism ascended in the 1970s, wages were depressed while the cost of living soared. The postwar middle class declined and jobs became frequently at-will and precarious. The gig economy has created a lot more fear and anxiety for Hollywood to stoke—or sublimate—in its mass media creations. Under neoliberalism, precarity reigns, and ultra-real contemporary space films feed upon our ubiquitous feelings of instability. They encourage the viewer to feel afraid, isolated, and unmoored, offering little in the way of psychic release.
Many films set in outer space today aren’t interested in dreams or profound moral questions. They don’t philosophize about our purpose in the universe. They deal in hard science and grim physical realities. Space is now depicted as a place best left to the experts and the rich men who fund their exploits. Hollywood encourages the rest of us to remain apathetic. We are asked to turn our backs on the cosmos as a place where our imaginations can run wild.
We live in an era of space pessimism. But our space-obsessed millennial socialists aren’t drawing inspiration from SpaceX or Bezos’s rocket. Instead, they hail from a different tradition of thinking about the cosmos, one that is manifest in “soft” or psychological science fiction that gives freer rein to the imagination. These are works that are as interested in what we do when we arrive on other planets as they are in what technology we use to propel ourselves there.
In Out of the Silent Planet, the first volume of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy published in 1938, the narrator, Elwin Ransom, is abducted and transported to a spaceship. While gazing out at the celestial bodies from the ship, he reflects on the differences between what he had been told of space and the reality he experiences while traversing the stars:
“He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now—now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes—and here, with how many more! No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens—
Lewis’s “empyrean ocean of radiance” is doubtlessly beautiful because it accords with our felt experience of the galaxy. It’s hard to reconcile the sublimity of a starry night with the harsh realities of space. Lewis doesn’t even try to. He had theological reasons for framing the galaxy in the language of poetry. In his Space Trilogy, Lewis attempts to win back the cosmos for Christianity and to win it back from the cold grip of atheistic “hard” science fiction authors. His trilogy reflects theological values instead of scientific facts—an allegorical fantasy that just so happens to take place in the Solar System.
In Lewis’s fantasy, the vastness of space is full. There is no void. God envelopes every star. Elwin Ransom journeys from planet to planet with ease, as though he were traveling from one idea to the next in his mind. Technology doesn’t come into it much; instead, a divine wind is at his sails. This same frictionless space travel can be found in utopian science fiction, the most notable and mainstream of which is the Star Trek franchise. The Starfleet officers aboard the Starship Enterprise travel unimaginable distances in the blink of an eye. They visit planets, deftly picking their way through moral quandaries at which they are mostly at the center.
In Lewis’s books, it is humanity’s fallen state and the impoverished “science” that we use to understand the universe that prevents us from experiencing the “heavens” as Elwin Ransom does on his trips through the “womb of worlds.” In the Star Trek universe, however, humanity has risen above its fallen state. It has solved its earthly problems and given birth to a utopian era of post-scarcity and space exploration. On Star Trek, anyone who wishes to can float through the “womb of worlds” in great comfort, as Elwin Ransom does. Anyone can become an epic hero on a quest across the galaxies.
Whether religious or not, space utopianism looks at space as a human apotheosis: a promised land within reach once we have achieved harmony with one another and with our planet. The billionaire space race creates apathy about space exploration because it sullies the cosmos with the worst of ourselves. The galaxy, the ultimate metaphor for divinity and transcendence, becomes yet another exploitable thing to be fought over by capitalists.
IT is a difficult time to be a space optimist. At the moment, we seem to be sullying our solar system with our small, cruel, pitiable human failings. Space pessimism is ascendant. Our Elon Musks make phony, cynical speeches about colonizing Mars while Earth gets hotter and more inhospitable by the year. In the Star Trek universe, by the twenty-fourth century, human beings have been traversing the stars and meeting alien species for centuries already. But right now, it’s hard to imagine our own species even lasting to the twenty-fourth century. Optimistic alternative narratives are scarce. Dystopian fiction overwhelmingly dominates in novels and films. Black pilled hopelessness on the future of humanity is all the rage.
Having millions of people accept as inevitable this grim view of the future is a boon to the capitalists who wish to continue ravaging the planet until our biosphere is rendered unlivable. Raising expectations and creating hope is among the hardest jobs for organizers and activists trying to win progressive policy changes. Plenty of people liked Bernie Sanders but not enough of them thought that true progressive change was possible to go out and vote for him in the primary. This hopelessness is encouraged by our elected politicians, who falsely claim that programs like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are unaffordable, but have no trouble giving away trillions to bail out failing Wall Street banks.
Meanwhile, as Nancy Pelosi and other conservative Democrats shame younger generations for their “Green dream,” and for demanding anything that the stale neoliberals in power have determined to be an unnecessary extravagance, younger socialists respond by demanding even more. The only half-joking calls for “fully automated luxury gay space communism” are meant as a slap in the face to Third Way Democrats. The phrase lays bare the future we are being denied so that private enterprise, in partnership with imperial forces, can pillage the planet as it drives all species to extinction.
Space utopias are the opposite of the neoliberal austerity economy. The world of Star Trek has overcome scarcity. Work is unnecessary. Money does not exist and no one goes hungry or houseless. It is an ideal world in which, freed from the brute necessities of capitalism, everyone works collectively towards the common good. For some of us, Star Trek is intrinsic to the way we think about building a better world. Many of the socialists who came to the left through Bernie Sanders did not grow up with a lot of left-wing texts on hand, but we did have Star Trek.
That so many of us were brought up thinking of a wildly popular TV show when we think of a socialist society is nothing short of a miracle. While being served anti-communist propaganda in school, we binged at home on a show set in a post-scarcity socialist universe. Like so much of pop culture, its lessons stuck far more than those learned in the classroom. And no wonder. Not only is the Star Trek universe magical and inventive, it is a political utopia to yearn for in the face of devastated futures.
At a DSA Halloween party, I attended in 2018, we were asked to come dressed as our favorite revolutionaries. Many comrades wore Star Trek uniforms. As interstellar therapy, space utopias like Star Trek bring an element of whimsy and lyricism into movement culture. They set our sights on hope in a hopeless time by showing us the story of who we can become. As socialist art, Star Trek is useful. It is one of the myths that help keep the still small, fragile, and often fractious, socialist movement working together.
In 2018, at the citywide convention for the New York City Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accepted DSA’s endorsement for her first congressional primary. She also talked a lot about Star Trek. The show, she said, was one of the most socially revolutionary programs on TV. Of the writers of Star Trek, she said:
“When they think of a society that is intellectually, technologically and ethically advanced—a just society—no one goes hungry in that society, no one goes sick or homeless from lack of resources. And while that world may have been science fiction, the story was real, and the show was real. That value conveyed a powerful message: that ethical advanced societies are not just wealthy, they are good. That is what we are here to establish. That is what brings us here together: the pursuit of a good society, not just a rich society. We come here together to advance the notion that the number one goal of an individual is not how many zeros are in one’s bank account, but how many people are housed, how many people are fed, how much opportunity every American has to pursue what they can do, to pursue self-realization.”
She received a standing ovation. Among her other outstanding qualities as a politician, here was a candidate for congress who talked about Star Trek as though it were the holy text that had set her on the path of righteousness. She was clearly cadre.
This speech was so inspirational in part because it was a speech by a socialist that described how things could be and not just how they are. Leftists too often ignore the psyche’s need to have a vision in mind of something to look forward to. Because of the longstanding Marxist tendency to denounce utopias as counterrevolutionary, we are often spiritually bereft. But to always be fighting against the capitalist forces that want to kill us, to always be considering the struggle and never our collective future, saps our movement of energy. It leaves organizers with too little to look forward to. Ultimately, it surrenders to the void of hopelessness that hegemonic capitalism works so hard to suck us into. In our painfully atomized era, space communism might just be the spiritual touchstone young activists need. It shows us a vision of how we will spend our time when we no longer have to worry about survival.
My friend and fellow DSA member, Alexandra Holmstrom-Smith, was raised by socialists in a secular household and bemoaned the lack of socialist holidays and rituals growing up. As an adult, she decided to invent some rituals of her own. Her group, Society for the Red Cosmos, holds yearly gatherings around Halloween and May Day.
On one holiday, her “May Day Eve Seder,” Society for the Red Cosmos gathers to eat a ritual dinner that tells the story of the struggle of the working classes to achieve socialism. Songs are sung and poetry is read. At the end of the evening, participants gather outside, under the stars, and read the following affirmation,
“Today we suffer under the yoke of capital, alienated from our labor and from each other. We seek freedom, but the path will be painful and hard. We take comfort from one another and from our commitment to a better world, and the many worlds to come. We hope for a long, joyous future for humanity, thriving on Earth and on other worlds far off in space and time. We look to a world where the struggle for liberation may continue, and where people may thrive. Tomorrow we will be in the streets, next year in the stars.”
The abiding philosophy of space communism is optimism: we will build a better world and then head for the stars. Its prefigurative vision allows us to demand more, even as our material conditions worsen. We will go to space; we will terraform planets; we will reach across the stars millennia from now and greet alien species—that’s our future. Medicare for all, housing for all, and an end to imperialist war games—that’s what’s next. We are going to space, but not until we fulfill our destiny right here on Earth.