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Space Travel and the Cold War Fantastic

The Case of Robert Sheckley

Isaac Ariail Reed

Robert Sheckley in the 1960s; THR illustration; Alamy Stock Photo.

In 1963, the political thinker Hannah Arendt published “Man’s Conquest of Space,” an essay in The American Scholar that picked up certain themes developed in her magisterial opus of 1958, The Human Condition. In that book, Arendt had asserted that the recent launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, “an earth-born object made by man…launched into the universe,” had been an event “second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the atom.”11xHannah Arendt, The Human Condition 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1. First published 1958.

Considering the figure of the astronaut floating enclosed in his space capsule (which had become a reality two years earlier), Arendt elaborated two themes in her American Scholar essay: the detachment of advanced scientific knowledge from any connection to everyday language understandable by the “layman,” and the way in which, in the technoscientific world of twentieth-century modernity, “man” had in a certain sense turned in on himself. For Arendt, the “fabulous instruments” of our civilization had the effect of making it “more unlikely every day that man will encounter anything in the world around him that is not man-made and hence is not, in the last analysis, he himself in a different disguise.”22xHannah Arendt, “Man’s Conquest of Space,” American Scholar 32, no. 4 (1963), 537.

Those two themes led Arendt to a worrisome set of conclusions about the “Space Age”: first, that thinking about the human would become even more behavioristic; second, that, having left the earth, humankind would cease to recognize its previous accomplishments; third, that the stunning technological successes of the twentieth century would eventually lead to a world in which “speech and everyday language would indeed be no longer a meaningful utterance that transcends behavior even if it only expresses it.”33xIbid., 540. We like to think of the early Space Age as an optimistic time, and perhaps for many it was so. That may explain why Arendt’s Weimar pessimism resonates more powerfully in our own time, as countless anxious meditations on the cultural consequences of enhanced artificial intelligence make clear.

Yet it is worth pausing for a moment—amid the torrent of academic studies of the “sociotechnical imagination”—to recall that, in the period now most associated with the early Cold War in the United States, there were writers who not only asked if the human imagination had been stunted in the age of the thinking machine but also wondered what would happen to human fantasy in the age of space exploration, nuclear fear, and renewed utopian ambitions. As the historian Anders Stephanson once explained, the Cold War was not only a period in US history; it was a concept used during the period itself for thinking, in new and extreme ways, about the role of the United States in the world.44xAnders Stephanson, “Cold War Degree Zero,” in Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War, ed. Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012): 19–50. It is no accident that this period also saw the proliferation of science fiction as both an expression and ever-renewable source of such fantasies—a flowering that historian Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi dubbed the “Cold War Fantastic.”55xSharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 93–95.

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