Monday, 26 August 2013

Libra - a film from 1978 about space colonies

I fully expected to be writing a review this weekend of the new film Elysium starring Matt Damon.  Having seen it, I'm happy to report that it's a great science fiction action film. The special effects are extraordinary, especially the depiction of the droids and the interior of the space colony. It's an exciting film with a strong plot, good characters and stunning visually. But it's not really anything directly to do with the concept of the space colony as put forward by Dr O'Neill, Thomas A. Heppenheimer and others.  Gratifyingly though, the release of Elysium has lead to a number of articles appearing online about space colonisation and given the glorious paintings from the seventies that we are familiar with another airing.

Instead and totally unexpectedly I will be reviewing a different film, one that before this weekend I was unaware even existed.  I've long been a reader of a fascinating blog named Paleofuture which looks at depictions of the future created in the past and noted an interesting film on their related youtube channel about Libra, a film about a space colony.

Libra, an Island One space habitat

To my amazement, the film focusses on an Island One space habitat named Libra.  Released in 1978 yet set 25 years in the future, the theme of the film is the economic case for building space colonies. The future of 2003 is one in which the world's economies, even the American, are planned and regulated yet this has lead to misery for the vast majority.

The Paleofuture blog characterised this as a film about trumpeting libertarian values and its easy to see it in those terms.  I can't speak of the American experience of the late seventies but even as a child I was aware of something of the problems that lead to the power cuts, the strikes, the unemployment and so forth and this all shown in Libra.  In 2003, even New York city is plunged into intermittent darkness due to energy rationing.

A shuttle approaches to dock with Libra

In comparison, the space colony Libra is a haven for free marketers and freedom more generally.  The lights can always be on in Libra.  Libra's main industry is the supply of abundant, low cost solar energy to Earth using solar power satellites. These satellites beam down energy as micro wave radiation which is then converted into electricity.

There is a good description of the space colony and its function starting at around seven minutes into the film. We are told that the creation of solar power on Earth is limited by the atmosphere and cut off every night by the rotation of the Earth.  The satellites are fabricated from materials found in space which leads to a brief description of mass-drivers. Thus the heavy lifting costs involved in obtaining materials from Earth are avoided. This is  a factor in the profitability of Libra's energy creation.

There are some rather lovely special effects sequences showing the space colony and the shuttle that flies some of the characters there.  Whilst they may look slightly primitive compared to the over-saturated computer imagery we are used too now, the Island One model is a thing of beauty.  Even more ambitiously perhaps the interior of the colony is seen and again there is the satisfaction that comes with the craftsmanship of the master model maker.

The interior of the Island One space habitat

The interior of the Island One space habitat
Libra is also of great importance as, at around nine minutes in, it appears to contains some very early computer graphic sequences.

Computer graphics from 1978
All this is the setting for the theme of the clashing philosophies of free marketeers of the colonists set against the planned and regulated economies of the earthly governments.  We are told that by 2003 the first space colonies had already paid for themselves. The original creators of the colonies are referred to as having "guts" and being pioneers of the High Frontier.

On Libra, the free market rules and the currency is even referred to as the "Hayek", seemingly a reference to Friedrich Hayek, the economist and philosopher who greatly influenced the Thatcher/Reagan economic revolution of the early eighties.  New words the colonists use include "freecision" and "freesponsibility", denoting the wielding of freedom in different contexts. Would these arguments be different today after the financial crash of the late 2000s?

Docking port at one end of Libra
The film is very much a creation of the late seventies with its soundtrack and the fashion of the times but at this distance this only helps it to be distinctive and adds interest.

Libra is not only a good outline of the role and need for the colonisation of space but also a well thought out discussion of the roles of the free market and economic planning and, as is interestingly hinted at in the characters' dialogue, the practical power that each side of the argument can wield.

Like Elysium, the colonists have more freedom and a better life than those left behind on Earth but here in Libra this is a sign of hope.  I noted with pleasure that Dr O'Neill is listed as a consultant in the credits and strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the colonization of space.

No comments:

Post a Comment