Does Diversity Hold Back Space Exploration?

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DISCLAIMER:  This entry is only a thought exercise!  I am not proposing that one stance is better than the other, nor do I condone extreme positions either for or against the diversification or homogenization of any culture(s). 

Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)

Project Orion: one of the coolest ships that was never built. (Artwork by Adrian Mann)

I recently read an article about NASA testing equipment and programs that will theoretically carry humans to Mars.  Part of me was really happy about it, but at the same time, I was also disappointed because the federal space program is pretty much dead due to lack of funds.  NASA is getting just enough to play around with ideas and reinvent the wheel, but not enough to actually do anything substantial.  The private sector may yet succeed with companies like SpaceX, but the lack of interest in space exploration is so discouraging that I sometimes fear we’ll never reach beyond our planet before the next great extinction.

Later that day, as I was listening to a CD of traditional Native American music, it struck me how diverse humanity is.  There are so many languages, cultures, subcultures, and sects… it makes one’s head spin.  All this variety within one species that has grown and changed over the course of thousands of years, featuring the rise and fall of countless civilizations.

This diversity creates a plethora of interesting history, interactions, and information to study and, in the case of writers, to draw from.  But diversity is as divisive as it is colorful.  Diversity tends to be placed in one of two camps.  Camp A says diversity is sacrosanct and should be preserved at all costs because our differences in perspective and culture are necessary for historical, social, and moral growth.  Camp B states that diversity has created far more pain and conflict that it’s worth and certain cultural practices should not be tolerated, no matter how unique, in order to advance human civilization as a whole.  I can see pros and cons with both positions, and the truth, like most things, probably lies somewhere in between.  (But that’s a political and social can of worms I’d rather not open.)

Regardless of the ramifications of either position on the human experience, as a writer, diversity is an important matter to ponder.  Considering diversity in color, creed, age, body type, gender, and sexual orientation, are generally what we think of when we refer to diversity in writing.  But I wanted to look at a different area: the human species as a whole.

Think about the various alien races that are presented in science fiction.  You’ll notice that most of them are homogeneous to the extreme.  A few traits seem to govern an entire species.  Vulcans are logical.  Klingons are battle-hungry.  Asari are diplomatic.  Centauri are decadent.  Hutts are gangsters.  Gungans are so uncoordinated that you wonder how they managed to construct a wheel, let alone cities.  You may get a few subgroups or subcultures necessary to spice up the plot, but even those tend to be rather cursory.  When one or two “core” values or traits define an entire species or civilization, you have what is called a “monoculture.”

Writers often get bashed for crafting monocultures, especially ones that rely on stereotypes.  I understand why; after all, we want our worlds and stories to be realistic!  But I also understand why we often rely on monocultures; it’s difficult enough crafting even the basics of a non-human culture that is interesting, understandable, and relatable while still following an internal logic.  (If a species were truly alien, we wouldn’t have any idea how to interact with them!)  And dealing with alien ecosystems add a whole new level of complexity.  We writers simply don’t have the time or resources to make worlds as diverse and complex as it is in our own reality.  It’s just too much.  These alien and non-human cultures are simplified and homogeneous because they usually have to be.  There may be variations in individual characters that the story interacts with, but the species or culture as a whole has grand trends that they follow.  Plus, the main (human) characters often only interact with a small sliver of these alien races, so of course they aren’t going to be exposed to all the subtleties of the big picture.

But you’ll also notice that many of these alien races are far more advanced technologically.  Humans are always the belligerent newcomers, lagging behind but throwing our weight around like a child playing with a new toy.  That makes me wonder why.  Is it simply a matter of age?  The longer a sentient species is around, the more time it has to develop and perfect space travel?  Or did they just happen to be on a planet or in a solar system rich in whatever resources are necessary for developing that technology?

Age and resources may be part of it, but I also wonder if their homogeneity plays a role.  Less diversity means fewer divisions, which means resources can be channeled towards a goal common to the species as a whole rather than being split among quarreling interests.  The system isn’t perfect of course, but the lack of major divisions seems to encourage a world government to form and hasten the expansion of the species’ presence throughout neighboring worlds.  And even though humans are still presented as being too divisive for their own good, Earth always somehow manages to have a “World Government” of some kind.  The Federation in Star Trek.  The Earth Alliance in Babylon 5.  The Hegemony in Ender’s Game.  The Systems Alliance in Mass Effect.  The Unified Earth Government in HALO.

So I wonder: is that why we haven’t returned to space?  Is the lack of a common goal the reason we haven’t sent a human to the moon since 1972?  The lack of technology can’t be the reason; the average car has more electronics and computer power than the moon missions.  The guidance computer on Apollo 11 couldn’t run two programs at once without crashing!  Today it should be easier, faster, safer, and more efficient to establish a foothold in space.

But no one seems to be interested.  Our attention is divided.  We spend so much time fighting each other over increasingly scarce resources or because of arbitrary lines of a map.  Most of our leaders are woefully short-sighted, only looking towards getting reelected before the current votes are even counted!  (At least, it’s that way in the Unites States; I can’t speak for the rest of the world.)

What will it take to get the governments of the world, or even the political factions in a single country, to come together and make a concerted effort to return to space?  Will we have to dispense with diversity in the name of progress?  Will one culture rise to dominance and subsume the others, or will there be a melding of cultures taking what is best from each and incorporating it into a whole?  I don’t know if such a thing would be good or bad; probably a mix of both.  I can see a lot of arguments for and against both possibilities, but the factors involved are far too complicated to predict.  No one knows how the world will end up even a year from now, let alone the decades it would take for anything like this to happen.  If it even happens at all.  And if it does happen, would the trade-off worth be it?  What would we be giving up?  And what would we gain?  What problems would arise because of it?  I can’t say, but it’s interesting to think about when creating new fictional cultures… and when we reflect on our own.

I just hope we don’t wait until the world-killing asteroid is on its way before deciding that it might be a good idea to invest in some rocket ships.

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