Is ‘Elysium’ The Epic Space Colonization Story We’ve Been Waiting For?

I’ve long lamented the fact that we’re probably not ever going to get a movie series or television show based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy because it’s too big, and too deeply rooted in discussions of science, to translate for a mass audience. But it sounds like Neill Blomkamp’s post-District Nine project, Elysium, in addition to boasting a cast that includes Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, and Sharlto Copley, may be exploring some of the same things I’d hoped we’d get out of a Mars project. A viral teaser for the movie comes in the form of an advertisement for a fictional company called Armadyne advertising for folks who work in everything from “zero g welders, mega-structure engineers, quantum networkers” to “zero g coupling and multi-generational planning”.

This seems promising. Mars is a major character in the Mars trilogy, but all of the characters’ engagement with the particular planet they settled are shaped by the equipment they have to work with, the structures they build, and the dramatically longer perspective they have on the impact of their work and the events of their relationships. Those concepts can be usefully applied to places other than Mars and to situations other than colonization. I thought that overall, Alastair Reynolds’ Chasm City was not a particularly successful novel, though I did think that the best parts of the book were the ones about the fleet of ships sent from Earth to start new colonies that showed how extreme longevity could do the opposite of what Robinson suggests in the Mars trilogy, making people increasingly detached from morality, the value of relationships, and the consequences of their actions.

I’m not particularly surprised that Blomkamp, of all directors, would make a movie that’s engaged with structural issues. District 9 is about how humanity fails to understand the structure of an alien society because it doesn’t really see that the structure is there at all. And human governments manage their sense that they’ve got an anarchic — and to them, disgusting — society in their midst try to quarantine it with techniques that haven’t really worked perfectly before. Blomkamp did something astonishing and original when he demonstrated what happens when a society’s sense of what is true and what is possible is profoundly disrupted. I’ll be excited to see him build a new one from scratch.