High Frontier Revisted

I’m currently working on a novel set in an L5 habitat. As part of my research, I reread The High Frontier, a book by Gerard K. O’Neill, promoting and illustrating the plausibility and desirability of large-scale human habitats in space. These are cylindrical habitats up to four miles in diameter, and twenty miles in length, in high orbit above Earth, later out in the asteroid belt. The book was first published back in 1977. A second edition came out in 1989. The third edition, the one I am now reading, came out in 2000.

I’m reading the book for the nuts and bolts aspect…how big should the habitat be? Particularly, how big does it have to be to simulate gravity by spinning? What is the ideal configuration of such a habitat? A cylinder? A ring? I’m getting some answers.

What stands out, though, what really strikes me, is O’Neill’s attempt to flesh out the space habitat for us, to make it human, to help us imagine what it would be like to live in such a place. He does a bit of fictionalizing, inventing a couple, Edward and Jenny, who have emigrated to the high frontier. They write a letter to their friends, Brian and Nancy, who are considering emigration themselves.

They write a letter. As in, correspondence on paper. In the letter, they mention they have “free telephone and videophone time to Earth.” Later in the book, he expresses confidence that “…the earliest space communities will be equipped with electronic mail transmission systems.”

It serves as a reminder of just how much has changed in the last quarter century, changes almost no one saw coming. It’s a tough challenge for any writer who wants to set something in the future to unstick oneself from the “givens” of today–both the technological and the social. From the lofty mountaintop of 2010, I am tempted to giggle, except for the reminder that 1) almost no one anticipated what technological advances would take off, and which would stall, and 2) Dr. O’Neill’s orbital worlds still awe me.

The vistas offered by O’Neill’s magnificent worlds are awesome, even as the ambience he describes feels a bit like a planned, gated community. He seems fascinated by low-gravity ballet, but we don’t see any raves or rock concerts. He imagines a carefully controlled, factory-like agriculture to support the habitat. He also imagines we won’t import pests, plant diseases, or vermin, but that doesn’t seem like a real place to me. What about a bedbug infestation?

There are no laptops, cell phones, electronic games, or any of the basic digitization we take for granted. He does propose some pretty cool recreational stuff, low gravity parasailing, as well as the SF standby of zero-gravity sex. I’m sure that will be quite popular.

He says it is not his intention to build a utopia, but his proposal is utopian in spirit. The problems of Earth are left behind. We start over in a pristine environment built to suit our needs. Much of the book is given over to arguing for the building of these structures now as a safety valve for our overcrowded, polluted Earth.

I can carp at details, at the notion that any colony we build can be any better than what we have built so far, here on Earth, but I respond to this utopian vision, the very human longing to get away from what has kept us down, to strike out into new territory, a new region where we can at last be free. I’m a sucker for a fresh start, for redemption, for a do-over.

We may get there, to that High Frontier, or we may not. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy it for the fiction it remains today.

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