The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop portrays a future for humanity in space that is little different, and certainly no better, than life on Earth today. (credit:

A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies (enjoy the crime, and the jazz…)

Contrary to popular belief, science fiction rarely tries to predict the future. At best, it tries to project it. Occasionally it seeks to provoke, asking what is possible, or warning of the potential dangers of technological and social progress. However, clearly science fiction influences the way people have envisioned the future, spaceflight, and related subjects such as space exploration and development. Numerous people involved in the space program, such as Wernher von Braun, were inspired or at least affected by science fiction, and many of today’s space activists and advocates have also been affected by fictional visions of humanity’s future in space. But how they have been affected and whether they have taken the right messages from these original works is a difficult question to tackle.

As a subset of science fiction, televised science fiction can fall into two broad categories. One category, the largest, consists of shows where humanity ventures off of Earth and out into the stars and encounters other species, many of them more advanced than ours. We war, we party, but generally it’s an exciting adventure—in this vision of the future, going out into space is a good thing. There are many examples of this kind of show. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is the most obvious example, but there’s also Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, and a long list of others too horrible to mention.

Clearly science fiction influences the way people have envisioned the future, spaceflight, and related subjects such as space exploration and development. But how they have been affected and whether they have taken the right messages from these original works is a difficult question to tackle.

In the other, much smaller, category of shows, humanity ventures out into space and finds… nothing, or at least nothing that the humans did not bring with them, including crime, drugs, social strife, and basically all of our common human foibles. There are no space aliens, no fantastic technology, and generally no universe-threatening dilemma for the heroes to solve. The shows focus more on characters than plot. It is a far less interesting, exciting, and enticing vision of the future of spaceflight and humanity’s existence in space. This vision also tends to be more libertarian, but it appears to have been less influential than the other more positive vision.

There are far fewer TV shows in this latter category, which is relatively new. The most notable is the late, much-lamented 2003 series Firefly, which was set 500 years in the future, when humanity has ventured to a nearby solar system but where life for many is not a Roddenberrian utopia, but often nasty, brutish and short. As one observer noted, the show could be interpreted as an attack on previous grand narratives of progress (see “Space and the end of the future”, The Space Review, March 12, 2007), and indeed, Firefly’s creator Joss Whedon has said that he developed the show as a deliberate response to other science fiction shows he had seen that he considered unrealistic. He wanted his heroes to be struggling, barely surviving out amongst the stars.

Firefly was not the first television show to adopt this far bleaker vision of space travel. In fact, an earlier version of this theme was portrayed in a 1998 Japanese anime series known as Cowboy Bebop. Cowboy Bebop first aired in the United States in September 2001. It proved relatively popular and led to a theatrical movie. Although there are plenty of American animated comedies aimed at adults, the Japanese have long produced animated adult dramas. Cowboy Bebop does not feature profanity or nudity, but was clearly aimed at a more adult audience while still being accessible to younger viewers.

The show focused on the adventures of two bounty hunters, Spike and Jet, who operate a beat-up spaceship known as the Bebop in the year 2071. Humanity has spread out to numerous planets in the solar system, but is pretty clearly confined to this solar system and no others. There is no faster-than-light travel, no aliens, no great stellar civilizations or empires. In fact, government seems to barely exist in the Bebop universe, and where it does exist it is messy, incompetent, and corrupt—hence the need for bounty hunters, who are euphemistically referred to as “cowboys.” In fact, outer space is not so much an exciting, challenging frontier as it is a mashup between Las Vegas and Tijuana with spaceships, where lawlessness and violence are the norm.

Spike is an ex mafia hitman and Jet is an ex-cop. They learn about criminals on the loose (often by watching the bounty hunter version of a cable access TV show), try to capture them with a minimum of mayhem, and use the often-paltry rewards to buy food and keep their ship flying. They are frequently hungry, often nearly out of gas, and always barely eking a living out on the corner of No and Where. They are joined by Faye, a rival bounty hunter with authority issues, and Ed, an oddball orphaned genius computer hacker who, despite her name and appearance, is a girl. There’s also a genetically engineered dog, who none of the crew realizes is probably worth more than any fugitive’s bounty they are likely to get.

There is no overarching story arc for the show’s 26 episodes. The stories are character-driven, focusing on individual characters and their histories. Naturally there’s a woman in Spike’s past, and over the course of the series we get hints of what happened to her and why he’s still haunted by her. But the show is actually brave enough to risk confusing the viewer—if some characters do not quite make sense the reason is not poor writing, it is because they are human, and humans do irrational things. Similarly, the show’s writers were content to leave some plotlines unresolved. The genetically engineered dog Ein (short for “Einstein”) for instance, is stolen from a corporate research lab, and although he sometimes demonstrates unusual intelligence, his story never really goes anywhere—in the end, Ein is just a dog.

Although Cowboy Bebop is frequently visually and intellectually engaging, it is the music that makes it distinctive. The producers of Bebop were hooked on American jazz and found a composer named Yoko Kanno who assembled a band called The Seatbelts to perform the music. Many fans consider the jazz and blues soundtrack to be the show’s best aspect, and the visual action is frequently choreographed with the music in a way that live action never could be.

The Bebop universe is not a classless utopia. Corporate executives and mafia bosses occupy the upper strata of society and poverty, alcoholism, and prostitution still exist, even in outer space. Earth is wrecked. Corporate greed resulted in a massive ecological disaster, cracking the Moon and encircling Earth with debris that regularly rains down and destroys cities. Although humanity has spread to Venus, Mars, and some of the outer planets’ moons, the basic rules of society are unchanged.

Are space activists selectively adopting only the positive visions from science fiction and ignoring the negative ones?

For both the positivist science fiction shows like Star Trek and the more pessimistic ones like Cowboy Bebop, these visions of the future are primarily backdrop, not an ideology. Written science fiction more often has a social message, whereas televised science fiction (with the exception of Battlestar Galactica) usually eschews the message in favor of character and plot-driven stories. Nevertheless, these shows exhibit some ideology. Cowboy Bebop is probably the most vivid depiction of a libertarian vision of space development, where government does not so much enable space development as it proves ineffective or irrelevant. But its lesson, to the extent that it offers one, is likely to not be taken to heart by space activists.

People in the space activist community, like members of The Mars Society and the Space Frontier Foundation, clearly espouse historically shaped ideas that historians refer to as grand narratives—broad, sweeping, deterministic, and usually simplistic explanations of history and societal development. The most common grand narratives are uniquely American beliefs that the frontier is a positive opportunity for humanity.

But in addition to history, these groups have also had their thinking shaped at least in part by science fiction, as demonstrated by the language they use and the imagery that they embrace. But what science fiction—written, filmed, or televised—influenced them the most and how? To what extent have they been captured by a utopian and fantasist vision of the future as typified by works like Star Trek as opposed to more dystopian visions of the future like Blade Runner? Do they think that humanity belongs in outer space because it will be an exciting and ultimately non-hostile, even welcoming environment? Are they selectively adopting only the positive visions from science fiction and ignoring the negative ones?

Many human spaceflight activists have a belief, what is perhaps best described as a faith, that human expansion into the solar system is fundamentally good and worthwhile. Their exact reasons for this vary. Some believe that humans should venture beyond Earth in order to reduce the chances that the human race could be wiped out, either by war, plague, or comet. Others envision space as a new frontier to escape the confines of current society: we need space to get away from our governments, or to further human social and technological progress. Most probably are incapable of articulating why they think space development is so important. This faith is inevitably positivist—they believe that space development and colonization will ultimately be a good thing for humanity in general and individuals in particular, and tend to minimize the potential hardships and denigrate the views of those who warn about the dangers such as radiation or the medical effects of weightlessness.

Many space advocates argue that the United States itself is proof of the value of a frontier. But they tend to have a very limited definition of a frontier that is not shared by other societies and cultures and that ignores the larger reality of what actually occurred. Life in the new frontier of North America was pretty hellish for quite a long time. As the United States gears up to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Jamestown settlement, plenty of historians and anthropologists are stepping forward to remind us that contrary to the popular myth of Pilgrims and Indians feasting in harmony, the early settlements of the new frontier were brutal and failed miserably.

Shows like Cowboy Bebop and their dystopic visions of the future present a dilemma for space enthusiasts, particularly those with libertarian or frontier belief systems—whether they realize it or not.

Similarly, visions of space development that embrace a libertarian ideology tend to be selective as well, minimizing the role of government in providing infrastructure and services like law enforcement, and overstating the benefits of life with minimal government. They also seem to have embraced a vision that has little practical benefit for themselves other than as a faith based belief system. Libertarians who believe that the government is too repressive of individual freedoms don’t need to go to Mars to gain liberty—they can ease the burden of government in their lives simply by moving to Alaska or a cabin in Montana. That would certainly be a much more immediate improvement in their personal lives than waiting decades for Mars development to kick into high gear. Some libertarian groups have attempted to establish their own independent societies on Earth, usually embracing the idea of a “transtopia” based on an abandoned oceanic platform. These terrestrial attempts have always imploded relatively early. But if these visions cannot be made to work on Earth, why are they any more practical in space?

Shows like Cowboy Bebop and their dystopic visions of the future present a dilemma for space enthusiasts, particularly those with libertarian or frontier belief systems—whether they realize it or not. If the future, and spaceflight, are not so much different than the present, then what makes it so compelling to achieve? Is it simply the scenery and the promise of new adventure rather than the reality? Does anybody really want to live in a Las Vegas in space, trying to scrape out a living? In Cowboy Bebop’s future, a life free from government authority essentially means a life dominated by crime and hunger, with no space aliens to transport us to heaven.

But it won’t necessarily be all bad. Maybe there will be some good jazz.