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Colonization of Other Worlds

Entry updated 15 April 2016. Tagged: Theme.

The idea of colonizing the other worlds of our solar system has had an uncertain history because the optimism of sf writers has constantly been subverted and contradicted by the discoveries of Astronomy. The attractions of the idea have, however, always overridden cautionary pessimism, and the reluctant acceptance of the inhospitability of local planets has served only to increase interest in colonizing the worlds of other stars (see Galactic Empires).

The example of the British Empire was insufficient to inspire many early UK sf writers to speculate about its extension into space. The most important of those who did was Andrew Blair, whose Annals of the Twenty-Ninth Century (1874) was the most extravagant of early Future Histories. H G Wells used the example of the UK's colonial history as an analogy for the Martians' conduct in The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) but never considered the idea of mankind's colonizing Mars, although Robert W Cole did in The Struggle for Empire (1900). Later writers of Scientific Romance were almost completely uninterested in the conquest of space; both J B S Haldane in "The Last Judgement" (in Possible Worlds, coll 1927) and Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men (1930) imagined mankind migrating to other worlds but only under extreme duress, as Earth became uninhabitable. The avoidance of the notion may be connected with a sense of shame about the methods employed in colonizing terrestrial lands; the parallel which Wells drew between the European invasion of Tasmania and the Martian invasion of Earth is a harsh one, and the brutality of the Politics of colonization has always been a key issue in sf stories, even in the US Pulp-magazine sf that made the conquest of space its central myth. Early cautionary allegories include Edmond Hamilton's "A Conquest of Two Worlds" (February 1932 Wonder Stories) and Robert A Heinlein's grim "Logic of Empire" (March 1941 Astounding), although it was not until the 1950s that such lurid polemics as Avram Davidson's "Now Let Us Sleep" (September 1957 Venture) and Robert Silverberg's Invaders from Earth (1958 dos) could be published, and not until the 1970s that mature and effective moral tales like Silverberg's Downward to the Earth (1970) and Ursula K Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest (in Again, Dangerous Visions, anth 1972, ed Harlan Ellison; 1976) became commonplace. These stories of genocide, Slavery and exploitation are the harshest critiques of human behaviour found in US sf; they often embody a strong sense of guilt regarding the fate of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian North America. Mike Resnick's bitter study of spoliation in Paradise (1989) is an effective transfiguration of the history of Kenya.

Political issues are at the heart of another recurrent colonization theme, which deals with the relationship between colonies and the mother world. Here history provides – at least for US writers – much more attractive parallels, and the War of Independence has frequently been refought, from the early The Birth of a New Republic (Winter 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1981 chap) by Miles J Breuer and Jack Williamson to Isaac Asimov's "The Martian Way" (November 1952 Galaxy), Robert A Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966) and Poul Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains (April 1963-September 1965 Analog as by Winston P Sanders; fixup 1970). UK writers have been less enthusiastic about the notion of colonial defection, and sometimes develop images of a very uneasy relationship between Earth and its colonies; examples include Arthur C Clarke's The Songs of Distant Earth (June 1958 If; much exp 1986) and Paul J McAuley's Of the Fall (1989; vt Secret Harmonies).

The pioneer spirit is something much celebrated in sf at all levels. The mythology of the conquest of the Old West is often transcribed into sf so literally that even the covered wagon is retained. Amazing Stories once published a novel – "Outlaw in the Sky" (February 1953 Amazing) by Guy Archette (Chester S Geier) – in which only half a dozen words had been modified in making the transposition from Western to sf; a more recent example is the "pioneer" sequence of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973). Celebrations of the heroism of colonists fighting tremendous odds to tame hostile environments include Henry Kuttner's Fury (May-July 1947 Astounding as Lawrence O'Donnell; 1950; vt Destination Infinity 1956), Walter M Miller Jr's "Crucifixus Etiam" (February 1953 Astounding), E C Tubb's Alien Dust (1955) and Harry Harrison's Deathworld (1960). It is often difficult to offer a convincing motivation for the colonists, and so various reasons are commonly devised to compel colonization, as in The Survivors (1958; vt Space Prison 1960) by Tom Godwin, Orbit Unlimited (coll 1961) by Poul Anderson, Mutiny in Space (1964) by Avram Davidson, Castaways' World (1963 dos; rev vt Polymath 1974) by John Brunner and Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1966) by D G Compton (see also Prisons). A frequent subtheme deals with native populations that resist colonization, sometimes consciously and sometimes by virtue of the fact that the Ecology of the planet has no suitable niche for the colonists. Many stories by Poul Anderson fall into this category, as do "'You'll Never Go Home Again!'" (July 1951 Fantastic Adventures; vt "Beachhead" in Beachheads in Space, anth 1952, ed August Derleth), "Drop Dead" (July 1956 Galaxy) by Clifford D Simak and "Colony" (June 1953 Galaxy) by Philip K Dick.

One of the most significant uses which sf writers have found for human colonies on alien worlds is in building distorted societies, sometimes for Satire and sometimes for Thought Experiments in Sociology. Notable satirical exercises include Search the Sky (1954) by Frederik Pohl and C M Kornbluth, The Perfect Planet (1962) by Evelyn E Smith, A Planet for Texans (1958) by H Beam Piper and John J McGuire, and many short stories by Eric Frank Russell, including the justly celebrated "... And Then There Were None" (June 1951 Astounding). More straightforward sociological treatments include Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet (1959), John Jakes's Mask of Chaos (1970), Harry Harrison's Planet of the Damned (1962; vt Sense of Obligation 1967) and such remarkable novels as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K Le Guin, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972) by Gene Wolfe and And Chaos Died (1970) by Joanna Russ. In many of these stories the colonies are isolated worlds within a Galactic Empire. The notion of an extended chain of remote colony worlds is used in A Bertram Chandler's Rim Worlds novels and Murray Leinster's Med Ship stories.

Two fundamental classes of colonization story can be easily distinguished: the "romantic" and the "realistic". The first derives from a tradition which makes much of the exotic qualities of alien environments. Here the alien worlds are exotic Earths, little different from the distant lands of travellers' tales. Human and humanoid alien co-exist. The politics of exploitation is not the focal point of the story but may serve to turn the wheels of the plot as the hero, alienated from his or her own kind, champions the downtrodden natives against the horrors of vulgar commercialism. Women writers have been particularly prolific in this vein: Leigh Brackett often used it, as did Marion Zimmer Bradley in her Darkover novels. Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels likewise belong to the romantic school, and Jack Vance has written many novels featuring a less stylized romanticism. Some of the most impressive works in the romantic vein are Cordwainer Smith's stories of Old North Australia and his Quest of the Three Worlds (fixup 1966). Other stories of the romantic persuasion often emphasize quasimystical processes of adaptation to the alien environment: a reharmonization of mankind and nature that often covertly echoes the Eden myth (see Ecology; Life on Other Worlds; Pastoral). A simple example is Outpost Mars (1952; rev vt Sin in Space 1961) by Cyril Judd (C M Kornbluth and Judith Merril); a more complex one is Eight Keys to Eden (1960) by Mark Clifton. The archetype of the species is Ray Bradbury's "The Million Year Picnic" (Summer 1946 Planet Stories). The image of a lost Eden plays an important part in many of the otherwise realistic colonization novels of Michael G Coney, tingeing them with a peculiar nostalgia; examples include Mirror Image (1972), Syzygy (1973) and Brontomek! (1976).

The "realistic" school, whose authors concentrate on blood, sweat and tears rather than glamorous exotica, developed in the post-World War Two era, although Edmond Hamilton's archetypal "What's it Like out There?" (December 1952 Thrilling Wonder) was written in the 1930s. This school won its early successes outside the sf magazines, being extensively developed by Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke in stories published in general-fiction magazines and in (often juvenile) novels. Heinlein's contributions include Red Planet (1949), Farmer in the Sky (August-November 1950 Boys' Life as "Satellite Scout"; exp 1950) and many of the stories in The Green Hills of Earth (coll 1951). Clarke's include the Venture to the Moon series of vignettes in the London Evening Standard and the novels The Sands of Mars (1951) and Earthlight (August 1951 Thrilling Wonder; 1955). Patrick Moore's series of juveniles, including Domes of Mars (1956) and Voices of Mars (1957), also belongs to this tradition. These juvenile novels take great pains to achieve some kind of authenticity, but "realism" in the magazines was much more a matter of literary posturing, consisting mainly of ultra-tough novels with a strong seasoning of cynicism: Police Your Planet (March-September 1953 Science Fiction Adventures as by Erik van Lhin; cut 1956 as by Erik van Lhin; rev 1975) by Lester del Rey is a cardinal example. Realistic treatment of colonization methods remains a common theme in sf; it plays a subsidiary but important role in, for example, Mindbridge (1976) by Joe Haldeman and Gateway (1977) by Frederik Pohl. The realistic school has suffered somewhat where it has conscientiously remained within the boundaries of a solar system whose hostility has become increasingly apparent, but it has been saved from extinction not only by the idea of domed colonies with self-enclosed ecologies but also by the notion of Terraforming, significantly treated in such works as Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (1992), Pamela Sargent's Venus of Dreams (1986) and Venus of Shadows (1988), and Ian McDonald's Desolation Road (1988), which features a remarkable juxtaposition of the ultra-romantic and cynically realistic modes. Other writers have favoured the idea that colonists need not bother with worlds at all; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneer of Rocket research, proposed that we might build artificial satellites to contain orbital colonies, and this notion of Space Habitats has been sophisticated in recent times by such nonfiction writers as Gerard K O'Neill. Sf stories displaying such ideas include a series of novels by Mack Reynolds begun with Lagrange Five (1979; later novels in the series are ed Dean Ing), Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free (December 1987-February 1988 Analog; 1988), and the satellite-tv soap opera Jupiter Moon (1990).

Terraforming adapts worlds to colonists, but one might logically expect it to be much easier to adapt colonists to worlds. Relatively little attention has been given to this approach. Biological-engineering methods were applied to the business of colonization by James Blish in the stories making up The Seedling Stars (fixup 1957) (see Pantropy) and by Poul Anderson in "Call Me Joe" (April 1957 Astounding), and were investigated in more detail by Frederik Pohl in Man Plus (1976), but increasing interest in Genetic Engineering has only lately begun to bring forth prolific speculation in this vein.

Tales centred on interstellar colonies continue to appear in the twenty-first century: examples include Allen Steele's Coyote sequence beginning with Coyote (fixup 2002); J Brian Clarke's Alphanauts (fixup 2006); Patrick Ness's powerful Young Adult trilogy Chaos Walking, opening with The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008); Brian Herbert's and Kevin J Anderson's Hellhole (2010); and Chris Beckett's Dark Eden (2012). The theme is also central to the BBC Television series Outcasts (2010).

Theme anthologies concerning colonization include The Petrified Planet (anth 1952) edited anon by Fletcher Pratt and Medea: Harlan's World (anth 1985) edited by Harlan Ellison. [BS/DRL]

see also: Generation Starships; Living Worlds.

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