01 April 2024 Reviews

Astrotopia. The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race

Space has always been a niche subject, subsumed beneath the overarching reach of ‘aerospace’, sometimes confused with astronomy and often linked to science fiction. But you know that your subject has become prime-time when a professor of ‘religion and science in society’ takes an interest in the leading entrepreneurs of NewSpace. According to its blurb, this book is “A revealing look at the parallel mythologies behind the colonization of Earth and space - and a bold vision for a more equitable, responsible future both on and beyond our planet”.

At first sight, this seems like an impossibly large remit, but it’s really just a matter of looking at what humanity has done in the past and applying it to the ‘new frontier’ of space. And this is a laudable goal: let’s not take our bad habits with us and make the same mistakes in a new environment. But when reasoned argument becomes argumentative rant, the warning lights should begin to flash.

The stance of this book is clear from the subtitle and confirmed from the first page of the introduction, which characterises the two main protagonists of the story, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, as “NewSpaceniks” in “agonistic partnership” with the national space agencies.

Argumentatively, the author states “there’s not much that’s new about NewSpace” and accuses the movement of “rehashing mythological themes [and] Christian themes”. She places her cards firmly on the table: “So this is why I’m worried about NewSpace. In their promises to get a few humans off this doomed planet, billionaire utopians are selling the same old story of domination hidden under lofty religious language”.

While the acerbic and highly assertive nature of this author may rankle, this is a wildly entertaining read. And just when you think she’s taken a lump out of every space and tech entrepreneur you can think of (while tearing to shreds every hallowed space theme and ‘prime directive’ you hold dear), she pulls you up sharp with a piece of stark realism and insight. Asking whether there are any “grown-ups in the room”, she answers “not really”, because “Space is the most recent arena of massive deregulation and privatization under the reigning economic strategy known as neoliberalism”. From ownership of extraterrestrial minerals to colonising and terraforming Mars, it’s all fair game for this author.

Personally, I find the religious theme of the book unnecessary, but clearly it’s a differentiator for the book and plays to the author’s academic background.

It is in chapters titled “Whose space is it?” and “The rights of rocks” that the author settles into the environmental issues. Although a wider reading of the academic literature in the area is recommended, there are some excellent points here on how we should explore and develop space.

However, there is always a danger in being outspoken that you will be ‘hoist by your own petard’. While rightly lambasting the Mars Society’s Bob Zubrin for his emotional comments about environmentalists, she opines: “It’s always hard to know what someone is talking about when they resort to name calling”. Ooops, reality check: who was it that began their book by slagging off those “dangerous” billionaire utopians?

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