Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos turn science fiction into serious business
Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are capitalists, but both love the work of Scottish anarcho-communist Iain M. Banks. A sci-fi icon who died in 2013, Banks wrote the Culture series – a dozen novels and stories centered on The Culture, a highly advanced space society living in man-made habitats across the Milky Way.
Culture is a post-scarcity economy, which means that goods are mass-produced with minimal human effort and are available very cheaply or for free. Human beings no longer have to work, because artificial intelligence rules civilization. Culture is the kind of utopia that Karl Marx dreamed of. Freed from work, human beings enjoy unlimited freedoms to realize their potential.
“If you must know, I’m a utopian anarchist of the genre best described by Iain Banks,” Musk tweeted in 2018. In tribute, Musk asked his aerospace company SpaceX to name his three droneships (custom-built ocean platforms where rockets land after they put spaceships into orbit) like “Of course I still love you”, “Just read the instructions” and “A lack of gravity” – all of which refer to sentient spaceships in the Culture series. For his part, Bezos tried to finance the adaptation of the first book in the series…Consider Phlebas (1987), a “great personal favourite” – for Amazon Studios.
The banks, however, would have counted the two bags of cash as bad company. An outspoken socialist who opposed union busting capitalists like Musk and Bezos, Banks once cut up his British passport and sent it to 10 Downing Street after lawmakers failed to remove Prime Minister Tony Blair after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said he had originally thought of ‘crashing my Land Rover through the gates of Fife Dockyard’ but settled on the passport idea because it was less violent.
Certainly, it is not Banks’ ideology that inspires Musk and Bezos; it is perhaps his singular vision of what life would be like after humanity takes to the stars. Both men believe that humanity’s migration to space is only a matter of time. “We’re going to run out of energy [on earth]. It’s just arithmetic. It’s going to happen,” Bezos said in 2019, when he unveiled a lunar lander made by Blue Origin, the spaceflight company he founded in 2000 after consulting with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002. His guiding philosophy? “It’s pretty straightforward and mostly influenced by Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov,” he tweeted in 2018.Foundation series… [is] fundamental to the creation of SpaceX. Adams is the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Asimov wrote the famous Foundation series. In 2018, SpaceX Rockets launched a Tesla Roadster carrying three Foundation books into space. Musk’s idea to do a fun tribute, apparently.
Having the means, Musk and Bezos put science fiction to work. As Musk insists, they are “hoarding resources to help make life interplanetary and extend the light of consciousness to the stars.”
But they have contrasting visions of humanity’s post-Earth future. Musk is focused on colonizing Mars and building a super-efficient transportation system in which colonists travel in giant capsules through underground vacuum tunnels just as Banks envisioned. With Hyperloop, Musk is already on it, and his first human-carrying Mars flight is set to launch in 2026.
“He’s what Asimov would have called a planetary chauvinist,” said aerospace engineer Rand Simberg. “He thinks people have to be on planets. He wants to be a multi-planet species. It’s fine, I guess. But Bezos actually has a bigger picture.
Convinced that it would be nearly impossible to find a planet as hospitable as Earth, Bezos wants to build orbiting space stations the size of any planet in the solar system, with weather like “Maui in its best days.” He will call them O’Neill Stations, after American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who first proposed functional space habitats for humans.
Bezos is not a writer or artist who can clearly illustrate his space dreams, but glimpses of his rather broad vision can be seen in The extent, a sci-fi series that Amazon Prime has been streaming since 2019. The extent is based on the series of nine novels by James SA Corey set 200 years in a future where humanity has colonized much of the solar system, and Mars and Earth have become economic and military rivals who only come together to exploit the “belters” – the working class population driven to survive in the underdeveloped asteroid belt. It is a world that mirrors our own, but with its own futuristic set of geopolitical, social, economic and cultural conflicts.
Even though The Expanse was critically acclaimed as one of the best sci-fi shows ever made, production was halted in 2018 after just three seasons. A crowd-funded revival campaign brought it to the attention of Bezos, who valiantly arranged for Amazon to take over the production duties because he himself was a fan. “Jeff Bezos was getting emails from everyone from George RR Martin (game of thrones) to every captain of industry, like the founder of Craigslist, and they were all writing saying, there’s this show, it’s so awesome, you gotta see it, you gotta buy it and keep it,” said Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios.
The extent is in the sixth and apparently final season now. The finale will be released on January 14. As in the case of Culture series, Bezos can be accused of not grasping the true depth of The extent as well, but no one can blame him for not being inspired by his scale.
“The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” Bezos said in 2019, the year he gave a public speech unveiling Blue Origin’s space vision, and the year Amazon began producing The extent. “If we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and, for all intents and purposes, unlimited resources. This is the world I want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in.