Spaceship Earth and Technological Utopianism: Liu Cixin's Ecological Science Fiction

By Li, Hua | Tamkang Review, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Spaceship Earth and Technological Utopianism: Liu Cixin's Ecological Science Fiction


Li, Hua, Tamkang Review


With the occurrence of energy crises and ecological degradation since the 1960s, many biologists, ecologists, philosophers, economists, and sf writers have begun to compare the Earth with a spaceship in environmental discourse. They have adopted the intergenerational spaceship "as a metaphor and a model of human life in a finite environment" (Hohler 102). In her article "The Real Problem of a Spaceship Is Its People: Spaceship Earth as Ecological Science Fiction," Sabine Hohler has summarized the development of this idea during the past four decades: "The Earth turns into a spaceship, an exceptional site where life is at stake" (104). Garret Hardin explores new ethics for the survival of the human race in a spaceship in his 1972 book Exploring New Ethic for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle. Adlai E. Stevenson refers to the Earth as "a little spaceship" on which humankind travels together as passengers, and depends on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil (qtd. in Hardin 17). Similarly, the American economist Kenneth E. Boulding compares the "closed earth of the future" to a spaceship and advocates a frugal "spaceman economy" (3-14).

In Boulding's theory, the Earth is like "a spaceship without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution" (9). The spaceman economy strongly contrasts with the "cowboy economy" marked by a seemingly illimitable frontier teeming with natural resources on an Earth open for rampant exploitation. Boulding uses the economic terms of input and output to explain the interaction between humanity and the Earth. He envisions the future of the Earth as a closed system, in which "the outputs of all parts of the system are linked to the inputs of other parts. There are no inputs from outside and no outputs to the outside" (4). In terms of human life, humanity receives "inputs of available energy in the form of water power, fossil fuel, or sunlight, which are necessary in order to create the material throughput" to support our lives (5). In return, humanity sends outputs to Earth in the form of wastes and pollutants, which exert considerable impact upon Earth's ecology and environment. The current inputs of available energy are from the sun and Earth itself. Boudling emphasizes that "the large energy inputs which we have obtained from fossil fuels are strictly temporary. Even the most optimistic predictions would expect the easily available supply of fossil fuels to be exhausted in a mere matter of centuries at present rates of use" (7). Therefore, the closed Earth of the future requires very different economic principles with a changing attitude towards consumption. In the spaceman economy, we should minimize production and consumption rather than maximize them. Any technological change should "result in the maintenance of a given total stock" with "less production and consumption" (9). Boulding's theory reveals his serious concern about energy consumption and environmental degradation in the contemporary world. His advocacy of minimal production and consumption points to one possible path for a beneficial co-existence of humankind and nature over the long term.

As early as 2000, Chinese sf writer Liu Cixin (b. 1963) gave a literary depiction of Earth as a drifting spaceship in the universe in his novelette The Wandering Earth (Liulang diqiu). In the narrative, because of the impending helium flash burst of the sun, humans on Earth use powerful engines to push Earth out of its orbit around the sun and even out of the solar system. This spaceship-like Earth travels through the universe in the hope of reaching and orbiting around the star Proxima Centauri. If we say this work depicts a post-apocalyptical scene of spaceship Earth leaving the solar system, then Liu's four other novellas, The Underground Fire (Dihuo, 2000), Earth's Cannon (Diqiu dapao, 2003), Round Soap Bubbles (Yuanyuan de feizaopao, 2004), and The Micro Era (Wei jiyuan, 2001) describe humankind's life inside Spaceship Earth within the solar system. …

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