Sunday, June 26, 2005

Nudists in Space

If you want to write "hard' (i.e., realistic) science fiction, then it's important that you fully explore and understand the science and engineering constraints that are inherent in the level of technology you posit for your story. I have a series of stories that take place in the Solar System of 2063 (this is the "Exodus Project" setting), and I've developed the background for that setting in some depth. Most of the inhabitants of the "Solar Nations" (those that live off of Earth) generally live in closed-ecology habitats that orbit the five inner planets (other than Earth).

I'm an engineer by training, so fortunately I can go to the detailed engineering references on space flight and living in space and actually get something useful out of them. As I was researching the technology for this setting, a thought occurred to me: Clothing in space is a luxury that almost no one will be able to afford. In most spacecraft, the main thermal problem is getting rid of waste heat, since vacuum is an excellent insulator. Without an onboard cooling system for the spacecraft, the inhabitants would be cooked in short order (no pun intended). As such, wearing clothing to stay warm doesn't make much sense. Similiarly, there are no "elements" (wind, water, etc.) to be protected against in a habitat, so that's not a really good reason to wear clothes, either. We're left with two possibilities: adornment/decoration and modesty.

As any tattoo or body paint artist will tell you, the human skin makes an excellent canvas for decoration. While one could argue that clothing decorates the body in a much different way from body painting, that's more of a cultural issue than a practical one. The human need to decorate themselves can easily be met without needing clothing -- primitive societies have been doing it for millenia. So, we are left with the issue of modesty. As any modern-day nudist will tell you, modesty is not at all a natural state. Children have no problem being naked; it's their parents who instill the fear of nudity into them. Still, one could argue that, socially and culturally, the world of 2063 shouldn't differ too much from the world of today, so you might think that clothes are still going to be around in space. I might agree with this notion except for one thing: closed-loop habitats are frightfully easy to throw out of balance. Clothes require more care and resources to clean and mend than the human body does. Even today, most hotels have realized that they can save huge amounts of soap and water by simply not washing one towel in each room every day. And by the way, don't think for a moment that the hotels do this out of a concern for the environment as they claim -- they save literally millions of dollars a year with these programs.

Which, in the end, is why I don't think clothing will make it into space. Humans are pragmatic creatures. They are also creatures of "enlightened self-interest." Some noble people will in fact do things solely to save the environment (for example), but practically everyone will do that same thing if it helps them directly and personally. Not only does it cost millions (or by 2063, thousands) of dollars to boost supplies such as water into space, the very survival of a closed-loop habitat could be threatened by all that wasted water.

So, I predict that clothing will consist only of utilitarian items such as tool belts (where does a nudist keep his keys?) instead of for modesty or adornment. This has some interesting implications for the social structure of these habitats as well. For example, will they value physical fitness more, or will they be more accepting of the variety of humans shapes as they are? Following the implications of technology into sociology is one of the more fascinating reasons why I enjoy writing science fiction!

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