Thursday, September 04, 2008

Beyond Galt's Gulch, there's Macrolife

Macrolife, by George Zebrowski, is utterly mind-boggling science fiction. Its scope is certainly epic, spanning one hundred billion years, so I suppose it qualifies as space opera. Maybe Space Opera Plus. And I think it offers exciting ideas for radical libertarians, freedom-seeking secessionists, and anarcho-transhumanists to mull over.

First published thirty years ago, the book is a heady mix. It’s a novel, yes, but it’s also a future history, a polemic, and a call to action. More than anything else, it’s a far-reaching meditation on the ultimate survival of humankind. You don’t dash through this book and then toss it aside. After I finished reading Macrolife, I didn’t slip it back on a shelf. It sits bedside, where I plan to take a sip from time to time.

The novel’s premise is compelling. Its author contends that our species must reach out to the stars in order to endure. Zebrowski writes in an afterword to this latest edition (2006):

“[E]ven in the near term, across the next millennium, our failure to become a space-faring world may well be suicidal when we consider what we can do for our world from the high ground of the solar system: energy and resources, planetary management, and most important the ability to prevent the world-ending catastrophe of an asteroid strike. This last threat will happen; it is not a question of if but when. Today we are utterly helpless before such a danger and would know of it only when it was already happening.”

But Zebrowski argues that merely vacating Earth and populating other planets — or “dirtworlds” — is only a short-term solution. Limited resources, he says, assure the consistent failure of planet-based civilizations. Likewise, the proposed “space cylinder” habitats of Gerard O’Neill, which assume construction from scratch, lack long-term vision. With a nod to futurist Dandridge M. Cole, Zebrowski suggests that hollowed-out asteroids serve us as nomadic “societal containers,” or macrolife, “a mobile … organism comprised of human and human-derived intelligences. It’s an organism because it reproduces, with its human and other elements, moves and reacts on the scale of the Galaxy.” These “mobile utopias” will be larger inside “than the surface of a planet. And larger still within its minds.” In the Big Picture, macrolife is an open-ended, expanding union of organic, cybernetic, and machine intelligences, spreading itself through the galaxies.

Macrolife suggests futures beyond this planet, beyond Old World cultures, beyond governments, beyond authoritarian institutions. It’s utopian but acknowledges the dangers of utopianism. It’s worth reading, worth study, and worth serious discussion.

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At 10:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Have you heard of Olaf Stapledon's two novels Last and First Men and Star Maker? I highly recommend them. Your description of Macrolife immediately reminded me of them. I have a hunch they aren't as good as Macrolife, and I certainly want to read the latter now. You can probably find the Stapledon novels (together in one volume) fairly easily at and other places.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Wally Conger said...

Funny thing, John -- Macrolife led me to Stapledon. I read Last and First Men just a few weeks back and am reading the superior Star Maker right now. Stapledon is fantastic, and I intend to write something about him shortly. By the way, both Last and First Men and Star Maker are readily available online as free downloads.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Wally Conger said...

Another thought about Olaf Stapledon: what makes his two novels so extraordinary is that they were both written more than 70 years ago and are still mind-blowing.


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