On the surface, New Horizons is about a generational starship launched in the year 2162 towards a nearby star system. On a deeper level though, it is a series of nested metaphors. The mission is a metaphor for any great project a person or group of people could engage in, and each book explores different phases of such projects, and the challenges which can be confronted in the pursuit of their success.
In the media today, there are a plethora of dystopian visions of the future. There seems to be a mood of reservation in thinking people today that on some level, we as a species, or at least as a society, are doomed but just haven’t realized it yet. Between overpopulation, wealth disparity between and within countries, mass extinction, and climate change, the sense for anyone paying attention is that our fate is already sealed, and that it is only a matter of time before mismanagement of our home catastrophically catches up with us.
So there are movies, television shows, and books about leaving Earth, about abandoning it for an orbiting space station or large rotating cylinders slowly orbiting the sun, or even magically perfect planets just on the other side of a magically manifested wormhole. The message is not hopeful or optimistic at all; it is depressing. The message is one of defeat and inevitability. The message is bleak fatalism.
In the movie ‘Thirteen Days’ about the Cuban Missile Crisis, there’s a part that always stuck with me. The speech writer in the movie is told to write two speeches, one announcing the blockade, and the other effectively announcing nuclear war. While praising the writer for the quality of his blockade speech, another man says something to the effect of how the other speech must have been even more incredible. The speech writer admits that he couldn't bring himself to write the other speech. There was no other speech.
That’s how I feel about the New Horizons series. Given the bleak realities and prospects of the world today, I find it all too easy and indulgent to write about how it’s all going to go badly. I find that to be the low hanging fruit. What is harder, and I dare say more interesting, is how it could all turn out rather well, how we could turn it all around. I find it more provocative to instead portray a future in which we are not running away from a desecrated Earth in search of something better, but instead a future in which we have built a glittering utopia together. I find it more provocative to portray a path towards a future in which noble exploration and visionary ambition is an inevitable spillover effect of the world we have created.
This is the world of Launch. It is not a perfect world by any measure, but it is a far less imperfect world than the one we live in today. It is a world in which all of the problems we currently face have been solved, but in which subtler more existential challenges arise. It is a world of abundance and infinite choice which those of limited resources and choices dream of today, but it also reflects the subtler challenges of those living today in the absence of suffering and want. Launch both suggests solutions to the problems we face today, and asks questions we would then face: what does one do when one can do anything? How does one find purpose in their lives when any kind of life is available to them? How does one find their own star? For some, it is the New Horizon generational starship project. Launch is this future as seen through the eyes of Markus Bowland, who is in some senses the very spirit of his age.
Midway turns this world of infinite choice on its head. The mission founders bestow on the shoulders of their descendants a world effectively absent of any kind of meaningful choice. Midway, in contrast to Launch, is a world of finite dimensions and possibilities. For people who are born on the ship after the launch, the only world they can know is the claustrophobic confines of the New Horizons ship as it drifts silently through the deep void between stars. They can make no meaningful choices in their lives. They are absolute victims of other people’s dreams and ambitions. Though it is essential that they be such towards some greater good, they are nonetheless cruelly instrumentalized as people, and made devices in the plans of now mythic figures. They are the children of the void.
There are a variety of reactions to these living conditions. Like most people in most conditions most of the time, most of the crew adapt quite well. After all, the evolutionary adaptation which has made humanity so uniquely successful over the millennia has been adaptability itself. Some are troubled by their situation in their own ways, but most do adapt. Halfway through the mission things seem to be going quite well until there is a brutal murder onboard. Discovering the motive behind the murder reveals how things on the ship had not been going anywhere near as well as had originally been thought.
Arrival is about the greys of human conflict. Four simulations of the original principle mission founders wake up as the New Horizon finally reaches its destination. They find that the crew has been dangerously factionalized by the events of Midway eighty years earlier. Two bitterly antagonistic camps have emerged but at first they seem to be able to stow their differences, and the initial landing phase of the mission is going as well as any of them could have hoped for. But then, a bold and reckless move by one side of the conflict throws the entire mission into jeopardy, and the artificial life forms must fight to save the humans from a catastrophe of their own creation, while reconciling their own existences as reconstructions of once vital living beings.
The story explores how bitter feuds arise, how entrenched hatreds eventually forget how conflicts ever began in the first place, and the way peace can be at once delicate and inevitable. The irrationality and intractability of violence and hatred is dealt with, and how unacknowledged bitterness can lead to misunderstandings, and to misinterpreted violence, and ultimately to total war. What can and cannot be gained by war? What can and cannot be gained by peace? How can peace break out again, once the first blood has been shed? These are the questions explored in Arrival.