The Elysium Field of Dreams

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.03.38 PMLast night I saw the new sci-fi film Elysium. I don’t want to get sidetracked from the focus of today’s blog post so I’ll just say it was fair to middling. The visuals were great but the plot and (especially) the character development were weak. I was given no sense of why I should root for either the doomed masses on Earth or the one-percenters living on Elysium. Blomkamp’s earlier film District 9 was much better.

Anyway – in my last Leaping Robot post, I explored a few artistic connections between Elysium and paintings done by artists in the mid-1970s. The goal was to show how the look Elysium‘s makers gave the eponymous space settlement drew from and was influenced by paintings of space colonies done 40 years ago.

After reading my post, my colleague Ray Macauley at the University of Manchester pointed me to another spacey artifact from the same time period. In 1978, World Research (a firm I am not able to locate more information about) released a short film called Libra. (A short clip is here; the entire film can be viewed here.) Directed by Patty Newman, the 38 minute movie both complements and contrasts with Elysium.1

First, let me be clear about the obvious – Libra was a VERY obscure and low-budget film. I doubt ever saw much if any circulation (readers, feel free to correct me here) while Elysium is a Hollywood summer blockbuster with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. So, I’m already mixing the apples and the oranges. Setting aside that difference…both films start in the same place – an overcrowded and resource-depleted Earth (another echo of the sonic boom caused by the 1972 The Limits to Growth report.

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Opening scene of Libra

Energy is at a premium on Earth, a point made when a gutless group of politicians and business leaders meet to consider an investment in the Libra settlement – the lights go out repeatedly forcing them to both curse the darkness and light candles.

Libra‘s plot isn’t very complicated – an investment banker and a “world senator” travel to the Libra colony on a fact-finding mission. One wants to see if its solar power and space manufacturing facilities warrant investment while the other is considering how to constrain the unbridled libertarians & capitalists who populate Libra.

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The banker and the senator confer…

Libra is far less about plot development and entertainment. Instead, its main goal seems to have been instructional. First, a good part of the film is devoted to explaining how a space colony could be built, how it would work, and how bootstrapping one could lead to the eventual manufacture of solar power satellites which would beam energy (in the form of microwaves) back to Earth. In the 1970s, this was pitched as a rationale for building space settlements in the first place. Solar power beamed back to earth would be a valuable commodity that would justify the economic investment in outer space. It eventually underpinned Gerard O’Neill’s concepts for the humanization of space. It provided O’Neill with a rationale for space development and it meshed space exploration with environmental and societal needs.

So, we should not be surprised when we see that O’Neill is listed as a “special consultant” to Libra:

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O’Neill in Libra’s credits. Henry Kolm was a colleague of O’Neill’s at MIT who worked on mass driver and mag-lev technology at the Francis Bitter Magnet Laboratory while O’Leary was another pro-space advocate and O’Neill acolyte.

In fact, Libra appeared – like Elysium does today, to a degree – as a nice advertisement for O’Neill’s for space settlements and space manufacturing. One can even think of it as a tutorial for O’Neill’s ideas. As shown in Libra, the colony looks like:

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Space settlement (yes, it’s a model) from Libra

while Rick Guidice’s 1975 rendering is:
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Inside, the happy space settlers are shown as:

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.05.50 PMwhich is a detail taken from another Guidice painting:

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 1.07.05 PMOK – so far nothing too surprising. The makers of Libra (and Elysium) borrowed from space art. Yup. But where it gets much more interesting is when we start to learn more about life on Libra. In fact, on the space ride to Libra, we learn via an instructional video shown to the ethnically diverse group of passengers that it’s a libertarian-flavored economics experiment.So the film also functions as a tutorial about libertarian economics.

One example – the banker and the senator talk (in a manner that resembles debates about “who built this?” during the 2012 Presidential election):

Senator: You know, it’s their conceit that bothers me. They portray themselves as some sort of rugged individualists. Oh hell, it was government supported schools and programs that led to the technology that put this casino they call a society into space.

Banker: Yes, but it was the market economy that put the technology to work.

The film’s narrator describes Libra’s government as “small, democratically elected, but strictly limited in its areas of responsibility.” The head of the government “Dr. Paul Baker”, a “former professor of market philosophy at Stanford University” (played by James Avery).

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 2.15.44 PMThe message gets even more clear when one passenger asks the senator when they should exchange currency. On Libra, no one uses dollars or pounds or rubles. Instead, transactions are conducted in “Hayeks.” Yes, HAYEKS. As in Friedrich, not Salma.

To hammer the point home, every so often Libra cuts back to Earth’s failing systems and the corrupt and over-regulated world government system leading it. Socialism and an “equal distribution of the planet’s resources” is the only solution they seem to have. One of the reactions to actual reports like The Limits to Growth was the claim that only a strict, perhaps totalitarian, world government could enact the change from a growth-oriented economy to one based on a steady-state equilibrium. (Paul Sabin‘s new book The Bet contrasts the positions of 1970s catastrophists and cornucopians quite nicely.) One of Libra’s characters sums up the result of this confining attitude – “No place for intellectual curiosity…No new horizons.”

More Economics 101 and Space Colonies for Dummies follow as various self-satisfied Librans explaining how it all works. For instance, O’Neill and Kolm’s mass driver is detailed as a tool for getting lunar materials out to the colony where they can be processed into metal and glass. Like Elon Musk’s recent revelation of his Hyperloop, the technologies of Libra are glossed over with the actual engineering details left unexamined. Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 2.34.43 PMThere’s even a computer called ABACUS which provides consumers with information – repeating the word “freecision…freecision” while calculating –  so they can make the best choices in the free market. The message – computers (like those used to crunch the data in the Limits report) can’t make decisions for people. This “freesponsibility” is the secret ingredient that’s been attracting more and more “regulation refugees” from Earth. Libra culminates in a debate between Dr. Baker (Matt Novak calls him an über-Galt) and the “world senator.”

Screen Shot 2013-08-14 at 2.51.27 PM Baker comes out on top…and, back on the Earth, the only solution the regulators and bureaucrats have is to try and tax Libra (as the evil political consultant tells the senator – “We still hold the one important card. The legal force of government”). However, more people will decide to join the homesteaders on the High Frontier. The space colony drifts past the sun, music reminiscent of Daft Punk plays, and the credits roll…

Libra was a very modest film. It doesn’t even exist in the IMDB. So why does it matter? Here are four reasons…

One: Libra illustrates the libertarian-inflected nature of the 1970s-era grassroots pro-space movement.2 Gerard O’Neill would not have been recognizable as a libertarian, certainly not by the standards of, say, Ron or Rand Paul or the Tea Party. I’ve seen no evidence that he read Hayek. But he did believe that space was a place, not a government-run program and he later became more closely aligned with Reagan-era deregulation and privatization. O’Neill was also an avid science fiction fan, especially enjoying works like Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (to which Libra bears more than a passing resemblance).

Two: Libra gives us a window through which we can see how people imagined what living in a space colony might be like. Recall that O’Neill’s ideas were presented to millions of people in the U.S. and overseas via mass market magazines while his appearances with Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson popularized the space colony idea for an even wider audience. While many people dismissed him or were simply entertained by his visioneering, some percentage of this audience actually used them as ingredients for further imagination, speculation, and dreaming. Space colonies à la Libra were clean, environmentally sound habitats – Petri dishes where people could engage in social, political, sexual, and economic experimentation.

Three:  Sci-fi films reflect not just the present but also some sense of what we think the future could or should be like. The stark differences between 2013’s Elysium and a modest film like Libra gives a sobering view of how American politics has drifted rightward while social inequality has grown. Libra’s inhabitants seem a happy (if smug) combination of earnest pioneers. Ayn Randian entrepreneurs, and main street small business owners. The residents of Elysium appear as bloodless technocrats, ineffectual politicians, or the type of folks one might encounter at a prep school reunion mixer.

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Jodie Foster in Elysium (looking a lot like IMF head Christine Lagarde)

Finally: Both films share a common feature – an unrealistic depiction of how regimented and routinized life aboard an ecologically self-enclosed habitat like either Libra or Elysium would have to be. It would be far from the self-governing social experiment of Libra or the lush private venture of Elysium. In 1978, physicist Freeman Dyson, although he supported O’Neill’s goal – “the free expansion of small groups of private citizens” into space – critiqued his colleague’s vision for what this would look like. Forget citizen-astronauts. If such space settlements were ever built, they cannot “be considered as a private adventure.” Instead, it “must inevitably be a government project, with bureaucratic management, with national prestige at stake, and with occupational health and safety regulations rigidly enforced.”3 So forget cruise ships in space…think submarines.

So much for the free-wheeling zero-g sex.

  1. Matt Novak, whose Paleofuture blog has since migrated from the Smithsonian site to Gizmodo had a great piece about Libra which Ray also pointed me too. []
  2. These same attitudes are found today’s AltSpace or Space 2.0 movement. Here the idea is that space exploration is something that doesn’t require a bloated federal agency or clumsy aerospace giant to lead the way. Instead small privately-held technology firms like SpaceX can do it (albeit with NASA contracts to pay the bills). []
  3. Freeman J. Dyson, “Pilgrim Fathers, Mormon Pioneers, and Space Colonists: An Economic Comparison,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1978, 122, 2: 63-68. []

The Art of Elysium

The science-fiction film Elysium opens today in theaters around the country. Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster and written/directed by Neill Blomkamp (who also did the excellent and wrenching District 9), it explores the consequences of future technologies on an Earth  rivened by inequality – perhaps an advert for a high orbit Occupy movement. As the trailer makes clear, this dystopian future has the one-percenters enjoying fine living and good health on the space settlement Elysium while the rest of humanity suffers deprivation, hunger, and pollution of the sort that Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) and the Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth, 1972) warned about.

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Movie poster for the 2013 film Elysium

I haven’t seen the film yet but I’ve watched the trailer several times. I was immediately struck by similarities in the depiction of Elysium – both inside and from the outside – to designs associated with Gerard O’Neill’s concepts for space colonies in the 1970s. In a draft of The Visioneers, I wrote about artists’ conceptualizations of O’Neill’s ideas but I ended up having to cut a lot of this material to meet the word count specified in my book contract. The release of Elysium spurred me to go back to this material and re-think it some. So, let’s take a look…

In the film’s trailer, we see a rocket ship approaching a torus-shaped space settlement:Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 11.56.07 AMThis, of course, resembles wheel-shaped space stations that hark all the way back to Chesley Bonestell, von Braun, and Kubrick’s 2001, if not earlier. This design – known as the Stanford torus – was familiar to O’Neill and his supporters:

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“Stanford torus” as depicted by Don Davis

As we zoom closer, we see Elysium in more detail:

Elysium shot 1Compare this with a painting done by Rick Guidice in 1975 for a summer study of space settlements at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the Bay Area:

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1975 painting by Rick Guidice; original copy in the NASA Ames collection.

Looks similar, right?

So- what was this “summer study?” This was based at the Ames Research Center, NASA’s facility in the Bay Area, and Stanford University. NASA (or, more accurately, that part of the agency which physicist Freeman Dyson has called the “paper NASA” as opposed to that part of NASA which bends metal and actually builds things)  provided funding to help support the study as did the American Society for Engineering Education.

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Cover of the report which came out of the 1975 Stanford/NASA study.

What started in 1975 as pedagogical exercise for students grew into a full-blown ten week design study as an interdisciplinary group of some few dozen engineers, physicists, social scientists, and students started with O’Neill’s basic concepts and improved on them.  Study participants also worked out detailed schedules, budgets, and milestone charts for accomplishing the entire system. Guidice was a freelance illustrator who often did advertising work; his artwork, designed to sell the future of space exploration, was another product from the summer study.1 (More of Guidice’s space art is here. The granddaddy of all space art is, of course, Chesley Bonestell – here is an excellent look at his work.)

Participants in the 1975 Stanford-Ames study were interested in what living on a space settlement might be like (as opposed to just designing one) and considered the sorts of agriculture and animal husbandry that might make the most ecological sense. The curiosity some study participants had for communal living and libertarian-oriented governments blended with questions about the social and psychological effects of long-term space habitation. Would, for example, living in space be akin to shimanagashi – a form of banishment used during feudal Japan?

Moving inside Elysium where an international assemblage of the future’s movers and shakers resides, we see:

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Image from Elysium trailer

and this:

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Image from Elysium trailer

It’s impossible not to see the close resemblance to a 1975 piece by another illustrator, Don Davis:

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Painting by Don Davis showing the interior of an O’Neill style space settlement.

Davis came of age with the Apollo program and worked as a scientific illustrator for the US Geological Survey’s Branch of Astrogeological Studies. Davis also did the black and white artwork that appeared in O’Neill’s award-winning 1977 book The High Frontier. Like O’Neill described in his 1977 book The High Frontier, life in a space colony would be environmentally benign. Farming and manufacturing areas would be separated from residential areas, the result being an idyllic landscape characteristic of some 19th century small town. O’Neill – a high energy physicist and professor at Princeton – spent a good amount of time in the Bay Area working at Stanford’s linear accelerator center. He was an enthusiast for coastal California’s landscape so it’s not surprise that some of this filtered into images for his space settlements:

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1975 image by Don Davis showing space settlement interior. Note the “Golden Gate”-style bridge.

Should we be surprised to see images of space settlements painted four decades ago appearing in big-budget films like Elysium? I don’t think so. Images by artists like Guidice and Davis were widely reproduced in books and magazines from 1975 onwards and were especially visible to sci-fi and space buffs. Moreover, there has been a small flurry of on-line essays (here and here and here) about the “art of space settlements.” It would be more surprising if the artists and designers working on Elysium hadn’t seen them.

What interests me most as a historian is that paintings by people like Guidice and Davis are visualizations of a possible future and therefore have political implications. O’Neill believed not just in the power of these images but in the underlying physics and engineering that made them realistic. In a recent interview, Davis noted that “Gerry O’Neill was very matter-of-fact minded. He was not a far-away dreamer at all. His mathematics and knowledge of processes involved tended to make the idea very convincing as you discussed it in detail with him.”

Elysium’s trailer makes it clear that the film’s protagonist wants to escape a crowded and polluted planet – the very sort of scenario which inspired O’Neill to imagine moving large numbers of people off-world. The mini-Spaceship Earths that O’Neill imagined people might be able to build one day would be able to experiment with all sorts of political and social systems.

Critics of O’Neill’s ideas derided their inherent elitism – a Space Age version of white flight. When underground comic artist R. Crumb accepted an invitation from Stewart Brand to attend California’s first Space Day (“or whatever the hell it was called,” Crumb wrote) in 1977, he described space advocates as just a “smug bunch of hypocrites.” Fifteen years later, critics derided the libertarian-infused ideology of the cohort as selfish, elitist, and childish. Critics have likewise attacked transhumanism. “The Singularity is not the great vision for society,” one observer said, “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”2 Elysium looks like just such a lifeboat, full of rich, healthy, well-fed, and long-lived people.

When director Blomkamp was asked by Entertainment Weekly if the film was about the future, he responded: “This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.” A lesson to take away from O’Neill’s sidetracked visioneering and today’s transhumanism is that we need a more inclusive vision for the future, especially if radical visions for it are going to be anything more than paint on canvas.

[After-the-fact note: Today’s New York Times has a good review of Elysium. At the end, Manohla Dargis comes to somewhat similar conclusions — “…its banality is further evidence of how difficult Utopian visions, even caricatures like this one, have become for filmmakers to imagine.”]

  1. An on-line essay by Veronique Greenwood for discusses this. Greenwood interviewed me at length for her piece and I shared a host of materials with her. []
  2. Andrew Orlowski quoted in Ashlee Vance. “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday.” The New York Times, June 11, 2010, B1. []