The European Space Agency successfully deployed a robot lander onto a comet this week, a feat something like spitting a tomato seed into the window of a passing automobile while riding a merry-go-round.
You may wonder what possible connection I’ve found between that epochal event and a classic but now somewhat-obscure science fiction flick about an unhinged forest ranger in space.
Hang on. I’ll get there.
Sometime in the nearish future, Earth is essentially one giant layer of asphalt, and the few remaining forests, along with their furry denizens, have been scooped up into geodesic domes, attached to giant spaceships contracted from American Airlines, and parked in a vacant patch of interplanetary space near Saturn. The automated ships are crewed by a handful of guys who play a lot of poker and otherwise try to avoid going stir-crazy before their tour of duty is over. On the USS Valley Forge, botanist Freeman Lowell, played by skilled portrayer-of-unhinged-characters Bruce Dern, tends the ship’s flora and fauna and takes his responsibilities way more seriously than his peers. He is, it seems, the Last True Environmentalist.
When budget priorities shift and the powers-that-be terminate the space forest project, Lowell doesn’t take it well. At all. Instead of helping to jettison the domes and blast them into atoms, he murders his crewmates and commandeers the ship, steering it and its single intact dome toward the outer reaches of the solar system. He enlists the help of three maintenance robots he dubs Huey, Louie, and Dewey to keep the ship running and the forest alive, but the authorities are in pursuit. A series of mishaps penetrate Lowell’s exhaustion, alienation, and general cray-cray, and he realizes he can’t keep up his desperate flight forever. Even worse, despite his best efforts, the forest is withering as the ship travels further and further away from the sun.
I won’t completely ruin the ending for you, but nobody alive in 1972 will be too surprised that the movie closes with the Last Forest drifting away into an endless ocean of night as Joan Baez croons a Gaian paean to all things sunny and childlike. It’s a sad story. Take special care if you’re susceptible to depression or fuzzy bunnies.
Dern’s haunting portrayal of an idealist in total meltdown is the film’s greatest strength, and it features some truly stunning (for its time) special-effects imagery of the space in and around Saturn, courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey effects guru Douglas Trumbull and a youngster named John Dykstra—who would go on to play a key role in the founding of George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. He created the “Dykstraflex” motion-controlled camera that made some of the most memorable scenes in the original Star Wars possible. The dome-ship exteriors are also very cool, as are the deceptively simple robot drones.
Silent Running came to mind this week as I followed the progress of ESA’s Rosetta mission to Comet . Someone in the Twitter feed grumbled about the way we’ve anthropomorphized these little space-traveling robots and given them their own Twitter accounts manned by dutiful interns who chronicle their missions from the probe’s point-of-view. Rosetta and Philae cheerfully spar with one another, their ground crew, other orbiters and rovers, and generally take on the personae of a couple of junior-high kids on walkabout. ESA even produced a short animated story about the mission, and it’s darling.
So, why do we do it? Why cultivate a fondness for these lifeless boxes of wires and circuitry? Neither of them possess a smidgen of anything approaching artificial intelligence. Similarly, in Silent Running, Lowell develops a relationship with his three maintenance drones, which, as cute as they are, don’t possess any reason or emotion and act only in accordance with programmed instructions. Lowell names them and interacts with them as if they were living beings. He’s isolated from all human contact, and he’s teetering on the brink of insanity, which may explain his reaction, but not ours.
Here’s what I think. Since we’ve abandoned human space exploration in the near term (the International Space Station isn’t exploratory in nature, and manned Mars missions are still conjectural), Rosetta, Philae, Curiosity, Opportunity, and their fellows have become in a very real sense our proxies on the final frontier. We want to explore the universe directly, in-person, but it’s impossible right now.
Instead, we send something of our own creation and treat it like a piece of ourselves we’ve sent on ahead. We cheer the probe’s discovery and are proud of it, even if we weren’t directly involved in its design or mission management. When a photograph arrives from Mars, our imaginations kick into gear and we place ourselves onto that alien landscape. We imagine what it might feel like to be that rover, inching our way across Mars, all alone. That’s not a very comfortable sensation in many ways. Just ask the Sarcastic Rover. So, we provide the rover a make-believe voice of its own, let it chat with us and with other robotic explorers—and hey, all of a sudden it’s not so lonely for us…er…the little bot anymore.
It’s silly, and it’s fun, but it’s also a way of expressing our appreciation and support for the people who build the robots and guide their missions. We don’t simply acknowledge their hard work and genius, we tell them we like what they’re doing. They’re renewing our collective sense of joy and wonder at the magnificent universe we inhabit, and we want to connect with them.
Or maybe we are nuts, a society figuratively stranded on a desert island, painting a face on a volleyball for company. Maybe we’re Freeman Lowell, flinging a bottled forest into the void because we’re dying alone in the dark and have no other hope.
Maybe we’re not.
— ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) November 13, 2014
— Philae Lander (@Philae2014) November 13, 2014