Space Colonization in Silverberg’s The Seed of Earth


SeedofEarthSpace colonization. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit because of my current work-in-progress. And reading some novels that cover the topic.

The back cover of Robert Silverberg‘s The Seed of Earth puts it like this:

“The leaders of Earth intend to spread Mankind throughout the universe, until every habitable planet boasts a human civilization. 60 colony ships leave Earth every day on a one-way trip to the stars. Each ship carries 100 draftees. 6000 a day. 48,000 a week. Two and one half million every year. If your number comes up, one of them is YOU.”

And the story covers the selection of several people to be unwilling colonists, and their adventures on their new world.

Some key concepts from the book that I noticed:

The selection of colonists by means of a military style draft. Since the novel was written in 62, a great many of the male readers had experienced being drafted into military service. But the colonization selection process was quite harsh. Married couples were split, parents were divided from their children forever.

Motivation for the colonization is based on ‘Population Bomb’ fears. [‘The Population Bomb‘ was a 1968 book which claimed that most of those reading the book would soon die due to famines caused by ‘overpopulation’. ]  While the numbers of people sent off Earth was not enough to ease population fears, the fact that those who remained, subject to the draft, delayed childbearing since if a couple were childless, if one were drafted the other could volunteer, and they could go off to the new planet together.

Forced marriage is a part of the colonization scenario. Shortly after landing, the men pick out wives. The chosen women can refuse— until you get down to the last woman and the last man, I presume. No one seems worried about the fact if the whole colony marries on the same day, there might be a large number of pregnancies in the very early phases of colonization. Whereas if they waited for colonists to couple up, some might remain unmarried a few years, and the women of those couples can continue to work while the new mothers will be busy tending their babies.

Colonies are ‘sink or swim’ propositions. They have some modern tools and weapons, but replacing them, or getting more for new generations, is not a given. Mass colonization is an expensive enough proposition. Sending resupply ships to bring new tools, weapons and other items is another vast expense. The book does not state whether the colonists can expect this sort of help. There certainly is no constantly-available authority from Earth to guide the new colony.

The selection of colonists is wholly at random. The colonists drafted may have skills useful for a colony, or may be only useful as unskilled labor. There is no rule that states that each group must have a doctor or a biologist or a carpenter or a gunsmith.

Religious faith doesn’t seem to play a part. If Catholic priests are drafted there is nothing in the book to suggest that they will be permitted to remain unmarried. And there seems to be the expectation that all of the married draftees will abandon their Earthside marriages and take up new marriages on their colony. No provision is made for Catholic draftees to try to get annulments of their marriages. And since the colonists are selected at random there is every chance that there will not be enough religious believers from any one religion or denomination to create a functional congregation and pass down the faith. Now, this is very much in accord with the ideas of many sci-fi writers that religion will fade away just as Marx predicted. But real history shows us that when colonies have been made in the past, a common religion seems to have been useful.

The Seed of Earth is, of course, rather an old book. The short story on which the novel was based came out in 1957, the year before I was born. And the novel came out when I was four. But in a way, that’s what makes the book so educational for science fiction writers today. We don’t live in the world of 1957 or 1962. The presuppositions of that era have been replaced by new ones. And so we notice Silverberg’s presuppositions and can question them.

So— what if you were constructing a novel in which space colonization played a part? Where would your colonists come from? Would they be volunteers, draftees or a mix? How much support from Earth would they expect?

And one question that really intrigues me— what would happen if a colonization program got started in an era when people feared the Earth was facing increasing ‘overpopulation’, and then it was discovered that the reality was that Earth was, if anything, threatened by ‘underpopulation’ and the challenges of an aging population? What might that do to half-started colonies somewhere when the reason for the colonization program went away?

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