CW: discussions of colonialism
This month, NASA started the assembly of its Europa Clipper spacecraft set to launch in October 2024. With an estimated cost of around $5.7 billion and preliminary development dating back to 2012, the project is a financially-exhaustive and labour-intensive endeavour that aims to uncover more about Europa — a moon of Jupiter.
If the mission is successful, we should be notified of an orbit insertion in April 2030, and start receiving reports on the chemical composition of the Jovian Moon’s surface and subterranean oceans shortly thereafter.
Europa is a particularly interesting celestial body because of the vast ocean hypothesised to lie beneath its icy surface. Due to this, astronomers are hopeful that Europa may harbour microbial life — and sci-fi enthusiasts hold even greater hope that there may be something more.
As an avid fan of space travel and sci-fi, I find discussions of Europan (note: not European) exploration captivating. Among the astrological superstars — Mars, Venus, Mercury — Europa has less prominence in the Western cultural conscience.
While Mars almost inevitably evokes images of the billionaire-fueled space race and the corporate colonisation entwined with it, I refuse to let the same happen to imaginaries of Europa.
Fortunately, the basis for an optimistic exploration of Europa can be found in its hypothesised chemical composition. Unlike Mars, the Asteroid Belt, the Moon, or Venus, the Jovian satellite in question holds little appeal for extraterrestrial mining pursuits. While this does not exempt an Europan expansion motivated by profit, it does prompt us to imagine a future beyond the cliched and exploitative mining colony.
The most prominent depictions of Europa we might view to deduce this future include Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two and the 2013 film Europa Report. The unifying feature across these two depictions is a planet of scientific and (more specifically) xenological intrigue.
My favourite depiction, however, comes from the Finnish game studio Undertow Games. Barotrauma (2019) is set atop a backdrop of scientific inquiry. While the in-game colonies one travels between are cryptic in their motivations, many of the missions give insight into their purpose. As the captain of a submarine, the player shuttles supplies, retrieves artefacts, clears supply routes of aggressive fauna, and forges alliances with the moon’s factions.
Through dialogue, lore snippets, and in-game events, players come to understand that Europa is cut-off from Earth, making the name of the game survival. Whether Europa was settled for scientific purposes or not, the world of Barotrauma forces players to engage in an entirely new question: how should we govern a home beyond Earth? Mechanically speaking, this is achieved by performing different tasks for the various factions, thereby forging alliances.
In the game, the Europa Coalition is the de facto human superpower born out of a trade agreement by the two biggest colonies. They are a bureaucratic organisation with authoritarian tendencies. In stark contrast sits the Jovian Separatists, who fight for democratic control of Europa and the socialisation of its natural resources and human infrastructure. Finally, there’s the Church of the Husk, which fulfils the transhuman criterion of any good sci-fi. More importantly though, it acts as a vessel for questioning the extent to which humans should occupy non-human spaces without reconceptualising our relationship with nature — specifically the anthropogenic ontology that centres humans within the universe.
There is one more faction in Barotrauma: The Children of the Honkmother. Their in-game description characterises them as a “less-than-organized [sic] lot who simply heed the call of the bikehorn [sic].” Due to their silliness, the clown-astronauts play an important role in legitimising the politics of the Church of the Husk, who seek “‘communion’ with the husk parasite in order to usher in a new kind of humanity, one more capable of surviving in [Europa’s] harsh environment, more in tune with the local ecosystem, and devoid of pride, hatred, fear, or complex thought.”
Most stories of human space exploration foster narratives of venturing into a new frontier and surviving a hostile environment. Usually, overcoming these challenges means bending the planet to humanity’s will. Dr Natalie Trevino, who studies anticolonial approaches to space exploration, notes that these narratives reinforce “ways of knowing and being [in space] to colonial and capitalist modes, where all things are reduced to exploitation.” In Barotrauma, The Church offers an alternative conception founded on ecological harmony and the stripping of colonial egoism via bonding with a native parasite. However, if players perform a task for the Church they risk reputational damage with the other factions. Through this context, the game reflects how challenging the status quo, which centres humanity in narratives of space exploration and colonisation, comes at a cost.
Admittedly, I do find the use of the parasite motif disturbing. Of course, it is the extractive, capitalist colony that is parasitic, not the native wildlife — ‘parasite’, sealife, or otherwise. There are myriad examples of Indigenous peoples who traditionally live within planetary and ecological boundaries. Why the developers chose to engage with ecological harmony through the idea of a parasite is perplexing, given such real-world examples that could be drawn on.
Barotrauma is unique because it recognises the contestability of governance frameworks for extraterrestrial colonies. Admittedly, my explanation of Barotrauma’s lore is somewhat generous. The game is actually light with details about its world, but I believe this is also its greatest strength. Like any roleplaying game worth its salt, it encourages you to place yourself in the world and make decisions that reflect your values and those of the character you roleplay as. By constraining the amount of written lore, it’s up to the player to imagine what kind of democracy the Jovian Separatists are fighting for; or why we should oppose the corporate rule of the Europa Coalition. Engagement with the in-game faction system demonstrates how we risk reproducing colonial practices in space, but also the benefits and challenges of contesting them.
In 2024, the Europa Clipper will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy spaceship. For Europa to avoid the same fate of a commodified Mars in the cultural imaginary, we ought to reject the inevitability of a privately-owned interplanetary highway. Instead, we should engage with media (like Barotrauma) that challenge colonial and capitalist conceptions of space travel. Humanity has a place among the stars, but it does not own them – nor the lands orbiting them. Our understanding of that place should be conceived democratically and with the guidance of Indigenous wisdom, not in the interests of capital and its stakeholders.