by Jonah Goldberg
In the new sci-fi movie "Oblivion," Earth's most precious resource is
This is old hat, science fiction-wise. In "The War of the Worlds,"
The first problem with this plot device is that it's pretty dumb. Hydrogen and oxygen are two of the most common elements in the universe. An alien race is savvy enough to master interstellar travel but too clueless to combine two Hs with one O to form H2O? C'mon.
At least in "
In "To Serve Man," the famous "Twilight Zone" episode, the motivation was far more plausible: They wanted to eat us ("To Serve Man" -- it's a cookbook!). And who knows -- maybe we're delicious.
One rule of thumb in sci-fi is that the aliens are really us too. They reflect a good trait in humanity -- think E.T., Spock or Mork -- or a bad one. That's why writers recycle ancient human motives -- the desire to plunder, colonize, rape, enslave -- as the motives of futuristic aliens.
That's all fine. But science fiction is also supposed to raise ambitions for what humans can accomplish. And in that,
For a while now, filmmakers have been churning out fare -- like the horrendous remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" -- based on the Malthusian assumption that resources are finite and if we keep going the way we are, the Earth will be "used up" (to borrow a phrase from the opening monologue of the canceled cult sensation "Firefly"). Either that or we'll be invaded by aliens who appreciate our stuff more than we do.
The pessimism is infectious. Physicist and sci-fi nerd
Which gets us back to outer space. In our neighborhood alone, there are thousands of asteroids with enormous riches -- in gold, platinum, rare earth metals, etc.
Thomas Malthus and his intellectual descendants saw humans as voracious consumers of finite resources, like a "virus" devouring its host, as Agent Smith says in "The Matrix." But humans are better understood as creators who've consistently solved the problems of scarcity by inventing or discovering new paths to abundance. As the late anti-Malthusian hero
Unfortunately, that resource is dismayingly scarce these days, in