The Rise and Fall of the Spacers

The rise and fall of the Spacer worlds can be traced over a series of stories written by Isaac Asimov and his successors over a period of almost fifty years. Together, they draw the portrait of a culture unique in human history.

In "Mother Earth", written in 1949, we see the Spacers as they exert their newly-won power for the first time. The time is several centuries after the discovery of the hyperspace jump, which permits humanity to travel to the worlds of other stars. When the breakthrough first occurs is uncertain. It could be the twenty-first century, or the thirty-first, or even the forty-first. Whenever it happens, it frees humanity from the confines of the Solar System and permits the establishment of extrasolar colonies. Within a couple of centuries, over thirty worlds have been colonized by Earth. This period in human history is known as the Terrestrian Empire. The colony worlds are dominated, both politically and economically, by Earth. We don't know the details, but Earth's rule is sufficiently harsh that it is still resented by the colony worlds a thousand years after the end of the Empire, permanently poisoning relations between Earth and the younger worlds.

As time passes, the balance of power begins to shift. The Outer Worlds (as they are known) grow in population and industrial might. Unlike Earth, the Outer Worlds embrace automation. Robots are introduced on the Outer Worlds, and a new culture based on a completely roboticized economy takes shape. After Earth ceases to establish new colonies, the Outer Worlds begin to take up the task themselves. Their numbers continue to grow, edging up towards the fifty mark.

In "Mother Earth", it has been fifty years since the Outer Worlds first established immigration quotas. As Earth's population continues to rise, and food shortages grow worse, the people of Earth are becoming frightened. There is growing sentiment on Earth that the Outer Worlds should be forced to accept more immigrants. Meanwhile, sentiment among the Spacers is growing equally belligerent. Now that the Spacers have seen their former subjugation ended, old feelings of inferiority are giving way to a new, aggressive insistence on superiority. It is no longer enough that the shackles of Earth's domination have been broken. Now there is a growing desire among the Spacers to punish the people of Earth for their past wrongs, and to demonstrate to themselves and to the Earthmen just who it is who now holds the upper hand.

The culmination of these trends is the Three Weeks' War, the final chapter in what will eventually become known as the Great Rebellion. The Outer Worlds break off all contact with Earth; they will not permit any Earthman to leave the Solar System, or even communicate outside of it.

The shock of their sudden defeat and imprisonment within the Solar System permanently changes the culture of Earth. The people of Earth adopt a policy of strict birth control, and accept the need for a subsistence diet of hydroponically grown yeast, and for increased industrial roboticization. The communities of Earth begin roofing themselves over, transforming themselves into economically independent, socially parochial, physically isolated units called Cities.

Meanwhile, the Outer Worlds are also changed by the cessation of all contact with Earth. If Earth becomes isolated by force, the Outer Worlds do so voluntarily. Free of the space limitations suffered by the people of Earth, the Spacers have always preferred to live apart from each other. Spacer communities are made up of individual houses, each separated from its neighbors by a hectare or two of land. In the centuries after the War, the individual estates grow larger, the communities more diffuse. Contact between individual Spacers slowly but surely becomes ever more rare.

With the threat from Earth eliminated, contact between different Outer Worlds also becomes less frequent. The Spacer Federation, created after the War to govern relations among the Outer Worlds, becomes an object of suspicion. Many fear that it will gain in power at the expense of the individual Outer Worlds until it becomes a new Empire. A few extremists insist that the Federation has secretly already become a new Empire, and is only waiting for the right moment to seize power on the individual Outer Worlds. Although most Spacers dismiss such wild talk, it nevertheless contributes to the general desire to curtail the power of the Federation. Within a century of its founding, the Spacer Federation is moribund.

After the Three Weeks' War, the settlement of new worlds practically ceases. Although the Spacers are never willing to acknowledge the fact, most of the impetus for the settlement of new Outer Worlds has come from the children and grandchildren of Terran immigrants. With the immigration quotas established fifty years before the War, the Spacer worlds have cut themselves off from the most dynamic segment of their population. It will be seven centuries before a fiftieth Spacer world is settled, under unique circumstances that will never be repeated. Solaria, the fiftieth world, will be the last ever settled by the Spacers.

Slowly, over the course of the millennium following the Three Weeks' War, conditions on Earth and the Outer Worlds grow more extreme. Earth's population falls to five billion in the century after the War, then slowly rises to eight billion in the next nine centuries. In the same period, the population of the Outer Worlds grows from two hundred million to ten billion, then sinks slowly to five and a half billion, despite an average lifespan which now reaches three and a half centuries. Earth's Cities grow more crowded, and resources are stretched to the breaking point. On the Outer Worlds, the communities grow more and more diffuse until, on the planet Solaria, ten thousand people are evenly scattered across an entire world, with interpersonal contact reduced to only a few actual meetings per lifetime.

By the time nine centuries have passed since the Three Weeks' War, Earth and the Outer Worlds have become nothing more than myth to each other. The Spacers have all deliberately eliminated most of their records of the time before hyperspatial travel, when all of humanity had lived on Earth. Apart from some half-mythical, extremely biased stories about the era of the Terrestrian Empire, the typical Spacer knows nothing about Earth.

On Earth, the closing of the galactic frontier has led to a cultural turning inward. With the present bleak, and the future bleaker, the people of Earth retreat into their storied past. A nostalgic veneration of the past, called medievalism, becomes an important component of Earth's culture. Historical recreations, which died out during the Imperial era, experience a revival of interest. Ancient cultural artifacts such as the Iliad, the Bible, the Qoran and the Arthurian cycle become popular. However, the veneration of the past halts abruptly at the birth of the Space Age. If the Spacers deliberately forget about Earth, the people of Earth deliberately ignore outer space.

The turning point finally comes a thousand years after the Three Weeks' War. An Auroran roboticist named Roj Sarton becomes curious about Earth. Initially, all he seeks is information about the origins of robotics. But this leads him back to Earth, and the little he is able to learn about humanity's homeworld sets his imagination ablaze. His curiosity about Earth, combined with the paucity of information available to him, leads him to apply to the Auroran Council for permission to travel there. The Council of course denies his request. Sarton responds by going into politics, and building a following who support his desire to re-establish contact with Earth. Eventually, Sarton wins election to the Council, and once there, is able to build a coalition favoring renewed contact with Earth.

Once contact is re-established with Earth, Sarton is initially content to absorb information. However, the more he learns about Earth, the clearer it is to him that the City society that has developed there is approaching a crisis point. Further reflection leads him to the conclusion that the society of the Outer Worlds is also approaching a crisis point, though not as immediately as that of Earth. He realizes that the two societies are mirror images of each other, moving toward opposite, yet equally destructive, extremes. The solution, he decides, is to create a combination of the two. The extremes will cancel each other out, leaving a vital, viable center to carry on human civilization.

The easiest way to create a fusion of the cultures of Earth and the Spacers will be to settle new worlds with a combination of a roboticized economy and a Civic social structure. Immigrants from Earth's Cities will provide the societal framework, while robots from the Spacer worlds will provide the economic basis. Unfortunately, the more Sarton learns about the people of Earth, the more he realizes that their circumscribed existence in the Cities makes it unlikely they will voluntarily leave Earth. Thus is born Project Spacetown.

The Spacers, led by Sarton himself, will establish a physical presence on Earth. They will prod the government of Earth to promote the use of robots within the Cities themselves. The social disruption thus caused will create a group of disenfranchised Earthmen. With nothing left to lose, these disenfranchised Earthmen will voluntarily leave Earth and populate the new fusion worlds envisioned by Sarton.

Earth's government knows as well as Sarton that the Cities are nearing a crisis in their development. When Sarton contacts Earth's leaders with an offer of Spacer technical assistance, they have little choice but to accept. It is not an easy decision, however. Even after a thousand years, the people of Earth remember the arrogant Spacers who defeated them easily in the Three Weeks' War and removed the universe from their grasp. When Spacetown is built to the west of New York, the people of that City attempt to storm the settlement, only to find the Spacers' force field barrier impervious to their assault. The New Yorkers go on a rampage until finally being put down by the municipal police force.

Under prodding by Sarton, the government of Earth begins introducing robots into the cities, creating the disaffected class of individuals that Sarton anticipates. Unfortunately, these individuals show no desire to emigrate to any new colony worlds; they simply become bitter and antisocial. After twenty-five years, Sarton realizes that he's missing something. In order for his plan to work, he needs a better idea of how Earthmen think. Finding out, however, will necessarily involve going into the Cities and living among the Earthmen, something that no Spacer can do for physical as well as psychological reasons. Sarton's solution is to build a group of positronic androids. They will suffer neither physically nor emotionally from close contact with Earthmen. Sarton, aided by his colleague Han Fastolfe, constructs a prototype android, R. Daneel Olivaw. Before Olivaw can be sent into New York City, though, Sarton is murdered.

The Caves of Steel (1954) opens three days after Sarton's murder. The Spacers are convinced that Sarton was murdered by an Earthman, and they expect the New York City Police Force to find and apprehend the murderer. The task falls upon a police detective named Elijah Baley. The Spacers assign Olivaw to act as Baley's partner, and Baley very reluctantly agrees. In the course of the investigation, Fastolfe reveals to Baley Sarton's plan to create a class of disenfranchised Earthmen to serve as the core of a colonization effort. Baley is struck by the idea, and after successfully solving Sarton's murder, he becomes a leading proponent of the colonization plan. Subsequent visits to Solaria in The Naked Sun (1957) and Aurora in The Robots of Dawn (1983) harden Baley's resolve, and together with Fastolfe, Baley is able to put Sarton's plan into operation.

Following Baley's lead, the people of Earth emerge from their Cities and begin the colonization of new worlds (the first, Baleyworld, is settled by Elijah Baley's son Bentley). However, one important feature of Sarton's plan has been abandoned. The Earthmen's fear and distrust of robots proves too great to overcome. The new worlds will be settled without the use of robots.

As the Earthmen and their colonist descendants, the Settlers, expand into space, their new skills and habits of thought cause a technological renaissance, and they become cutting-edge experts in terraforming, computerization, hyperatomics, and dozens of other fields. In Robots and Empire (1985), two hundred years have passed, and the Settlers are starting to surpass the Spacers. The population of Solaria has dropped to five thousand, and the Solarians have abandoned the surface of their world. The other Spacer worlds find that they cannot compete with the Settlers. At most, they can try to sabotage the Settlers in an attempt to slow their growing power.

In Roger MacBride Allen's Caliban (1993), Inferno (1994) and Utopia (1996), set three centuries after implementation of the Sarton plan, the Spacers of Inferno no longer possess the technological means to maintain their world. They must turn to the Settlers for help in halting and reversing Inferno's ecological deterioration. The Settlers establish their own settlement on Inferno, and by the time the ecological crisis has been averted and the planet reterraformed, the Settler and Spacer communities have merged into a single culture.

By this time, the fate of the Spacer worlds has become clear. They can retreat into isolation like the Solarians, or maintain themselves in unchanging stasis like the Aurorans, or amalgamate with the Settlers like the Infernals. The culture of the Spacers has been transformed from the dominant human civilization to an ever-less-important backwater in the growing Galactic community being formed by the Settlers, the people of Earth.

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Johnny Pez