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Space Habitats

Entry updated 16 April 2021. Tagged: Theme.

The space habitat is a natural development from the concept of the manned Space Station (which see). Inevitably there is considerable overlap, with a broad and fuzzy dividing line between space stations which are primarily seen as way-stations or scientific observation posts, and space habitats whose occupants have come to regard them as home. J D Bernal's The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929 chap) proposed large-scale space habitats in the form of hollow spheres some ten miles (16 km) in diameter; these are sometimes known as Bernal Spheres, conceptual ancestors of the very much larger Dyson Sphere in its science-fictional form.

Prior to the late-1970s boom in space-habitat stories, habitats of various sizes and shapes are found scattered intermittently throughout sf. Hollowed-Asteroid communities are frequently depicted. Jack Vance anticipated the possibilities for a diverse variety of habitats in "Abercrombie Station" (February 1952 Thrilling Wonder). The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) by Alfred Bester features the dome-studded habitat-cum-amusement park Spaceland, which over the years has proliferated two-dimensionally from an initial "flat plate of asteroid rock half a mile in diameter" (see Flat Earth). Fritz Leiber considered space habitats in such quirky stories as "The Beat Cluster" (October 1961 Galaxy) – focusing not on Scientists and pioneers but beatnik layabouts who simply like living in space – and A Specter Is Haunting Texas (July-September 1968 Galaxy; 1969), whose spectre is in fact the skinny body of a visitor from Circumluna (a space habitat orbiting the Moon) who, unable to move properly in Earth gravity, is supported by an exoskeleton.

The real boom in space-habitat sf was catalysed by a book of popular science, just as space stations had been thrust into the limelight by Willy Ley's The Conquest of Space (1949). This time, in the 1970s, the catalyst was The High Frontier (1977) by Princeton physicist Gerard K O'Neill, which vigorously proselytized for the construction of colonies in space. These might be either in Earth orbit or at one of the Lagrange Points – especially L5, 60° behind the Moon in the Moon's orbit around Earth. The amazing long-range quality of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's prescience in Vne zemli (written 1896-1920; 1920; trans as "Out of the Earth" in The Call of the Cosmos 1963) has never been more evident than in the fact that his predictions – not just of Space Stations, but of huge self-sufficient, heavily populated space colonies – took more than half a century to come to their full flowering in scientific speculation and in sf.

One of the first writers to take Gerard K O'Neill's tip was Mack Reynolds, in Lagrange Five (1979), The Lagrangists (1983) and Chaos in Lagrangia (1984), the latter two edited by Dean Ing from manuscripts found after Reynolds's death. Now that the space station was being re-envisioned as the space colony or space habitat – a home where people might live all their lives – its iconic significance was radically changing. In its speculative heyday the space habitat became the locus of the new, with everything old, washed-up and politically out-of-date being left rotting back on Earth while the real action was in space. The second new thing about space habitats has to do with diversity and cultural evolution: there can be a great many of them, each giving a home to a different political or racial or social group, so that the habitat takes over the function of Islands in earlier sf as an isolated area that can be used as a laboratory in which to conduct Thought Experiments in cultural anthropology. Not all these motifs are post-O'Neill, of course; some – including the idea of diverse habitats each catering for different tastes – were prefigured in Jack Vance's eccentric 1952 "Abercrombie Station", already cited above.

Among the many books of the late twentieth century to make use of space-habitat themes, mostly along the lines suggested above, are Colony (1978) by Ben Bova, Alexis A Gilliland's Rosinante trilogy opening with The Revolution from Rosinante (1981), Joe Haldeman's Worlds series, starting with Worlds (1981), Melinda Snodgrass's Circuit trilogy, beginning with Circuit (1986), Christopher Hinz's Paratwa series, starting with Liege-Killer (1987), Lois McMaster Bujold's Falling Free (December 1987-February 1988 Analog; 1988), Richard Lupoff's The Forever City (1988), and Allen Steele's Clarke County, Space (1990). The idea is taken to its extremes in George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979; rev 1990), in which humanity largely abandons planetary environments in favour of star-travelling habitats, miniature World Ships; a similar scenario appears in Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (2012), whose solar system teems with converted-Asteroid habitats and the first Starships are emerging.

Obviously the iconic significance of the space-habitat story continued to evolve rapidly, a topic first analysed (rather differently) by Gary Westfahl in "Small Worlds and Strange Tomorrows: The Icon of the Space Station in Science Fiction" (Spring 1991 Foundation #51); here and in his later studies – Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (1996; rev 2009) and The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009) – Westfahl designates as space stations many of the artefacts treated in this entry – for pragmatic reasons (see first paragraph above) – as space habitats. Complex use of the motif – the space habitat both as cultural forcing ground and as creator of instability through cultural claustrophobia – appears in some key Cyberpunk works, notably William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy (1984-1988) and Bruce Sterling's vastly inventive Schismatrix (1985), and also – to a degree – Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers (1987). In only a decade, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, the emphasis could be seen to move from the space habitat as a brave new world to the space habitat as a trap that corrupts and is prey to cultural and technological dereliction, a change of viewpoint clearly manifest in Adam Roberts's Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story (2012).

Though space habitats are likely to remain popular in sf because of their peculiar usefulness in creating specific kinds of cultural scenario, in the real world the idea seems – outside a hard core of O'Neill cultists – to be receiving less and less support as something towards which we should currently be working. Although the theoretical advantages of low Gravity and permanent energy supply are real, there are serious hazards such as the long-term effects of hard radiation from the Sun in the absence of Earth's deep atmospheric shield. It is difficult to envisage any remotely plausible circumstances that would make the capital cost of space habitats, at least when considered in isolation, redeemable economically, nor any evolutionary advantages in the small-town-mentality balkanization (and shrinkage of the gene pool) that their building and occupation might come to represent.

More generally we can obviously regard – though perhaps not very usefully – all Spaceships as space habitats, not to mention hollowed-out Asteroids and, of course, Generation Starships and their still larger siblings the World Ships. In sf, of course, Alien space habitats of incredible complexity are very frequently stumbled across by human observers, who have to make sense of their enigmatic qualities and deduce their purpose and the lifeforms for which they were built (see Macrostructures). Three such works are Arthur C Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (1973), John Varley's Gaean trilogy (1979-1984) and Greg Bear's Eon (1985) – whose artefact proves (in an extra twist) to be human-built and from the future. [PN/DRL]

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