Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “With Earth on the brink of inevitable destruction, a band of intrepid colonists sets out to find a new world- one which can sustain life, and keep the human race alive for another million years.” It’s a familiar way out of the overly hopeless and nihilistic apocalypse plots that also happen to saturate SF.
Is it a plausible story line? In the hundred billion galaxies scientists now believe exist in the universe, can humanity really find a planet comparable to the one we’re living on? Maybe, maybe not. I think the more important question is why we keep looking for one in our fiction.
The vastness of space can be terrifying to think about, but it can also ease our fears about the seemingly impending death of our world. Whether it is in ten years, or a hundred thousand years, most of us don’t want to believe that the end of the world will be the end of humanity, and everything it has accomplished.
Most of us shudder at the unrecognizable, inhuman wasteland presented in the far, far future of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. We want an escape clause from the terrors of time. And the only answer seems to be space. We want to believe that there is something familiar out there that we can turn to, should we loose the soil in which we were first planted.
In Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Mars is the answer to the apocalypse. In stories like “The Luggage Store”, and “There Will Come Soft Rains”, Bradbury paints a bleak picture of a nuclear-war-ravaged earth. In the wake of this, comes the story “The Million Year Picnic”, in which a family hijacks a rocket to flee to the terraformed Mars. While they may not be earthlings any longer, the new “Martians” will continue the human spirit and the human race, even if earth and all its systems have imploded.
Isaac Asimov tackles the same sort of issue, but on a societal level, rather than on a racial level. Instead of preserving humanity biologically, the members of the Foundation wish to save human civilization from the collapse of the decaying Galactic Empire by preserving it in a faraway corner of the galaxy, on a planet called Terminus. Their mission to save civilization is akin to the many stories of humanity trying to relocate to another compatible world.
The 2014 film Interstellar is a prime, recent example of this SF trope. When devastating, dust-bowl like conditions spread across the earth, an astronaut sacrifices his ability to watch his children grow up in order to secure a future for them somewhere out in the galaxy. In the end, instead of finding a planet, he helps his scientist daughter discovery the key to building sustainable biomes for humanity to inhabit in space.
The classic SF franchise Battlestar Galactica flips the script when it comes to relocating the human race. When the human colonies are destroyed by rouge artificial intelligence, the remaining humans set out in search of a new beginning on a planet called Earth.
We long to believe that there is something familiar in the darkest and farthest reaches of both space and time- that no matter what happens, we will still go on. Perhaps irrationally, we want to know that the things we love and understand will continue even after the end of the world.