Sanctuary, Sanctuary

Coping with some unpleasant environments in Bradbury’s classic. This edition published by Corgi Books 1974.

Human survival on other planets will depend on adequate protection from an unwelcoming, or even openly hostile, environment.  Except in the highly unlikely event of the discovery of another planet that is just like Earth in every way, artificial habitats will be needed to provide all, or at least most, of the comforts of home.  That may not be easily done, but there will be a strong drive to make them as acceptable as possible to travellers who may otherwise have much to endure on other worlds.

The importance of such factors when astronauts are away for long periods was touched upon in the extensive review Medical Issues for a Human Mission to Mars and Martian Surface Exploration (JBIS, March 2004) by Jones et al.  Ensuring mental health will be just as vital as overcoming the physical obstacles to interplanetary exploration.  More recently, Sam M Dakka’s Concept Design for Space Habitability for Long Term Missions (JBIS, November 2015) paid particular attention to psychological welfare and crew comfort in designing habitats for an extended stay on another planet.

One can easily envisage situations where an enclosed living area, no matter how small, may become essential to the well-being of such explorers.  It becomes their sole experience of life as it once was, and as they might wish it still to be, especially if the environment outside is particularly nasty.

The concept of an idealised sanctuary which is craved by those who lack any comforts whatsoever on a hostile planetary surface is summed up well in Ray Bradbury’s short story The Long Rain, which featured in his well-known 1951 collection The Illustrated Man.  Astronauts who are trapped in the never-ending rain of a jungle on Venus think of nothing else but reaching one of the ‘sun domes’ established on the planet, where warmth and safety can be found.  Reaching such a location is far from easy, but merely knowing that it exists provides hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

And it may not be only on other planets that such habitats are needed.  Conditions on Earth itself might, in future, dictate some element of protection from what is outside.

The 2013 film Oblivion features an almost surreal habitat for people who need to be protected from the contamination of Earth following a devastating war after an alien invasion.  The tower where the hero and his partner are located is idyllic, including all the luxuries one might wish including an indoor swimming pool, no less.  As he ventures out to repair the combat drones that guard against alien scavengers, the comparison with the harsh surface conditions elsewhere is all too obvious.  But then, as so often in such stories, everything is not quite as it seems.

The threat is somewhat more obvious in the 1971 movie The Omega Man, where the survivor of a plague which has wiped out most of the population lives in a fortified apartment, protecting himself against the mutants who roam Los Angeles by night, and who seem to have a strong motive to ensure that he doesn’t survive much longer.  Based loosely on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, the hero’s situation is clearly far from ideal, but again we have a feeling of the security he has in his protected environment – or, from a different viewpoint, in his prison.  But nowhere else.

Such an enclosure on a future Earth has the added disadvantage that there is no true ‘home’ to which you might still have a hope of escaping.  That doesn’t exist anymore, and this habitat is all you’ve got.  But maybe there’s a metaphor for the way many see life nowadays; don’t we all need some sanctuary from the aggravation that life may throw at us – a hideaway that contrasts with what we might reluctantly accept as the real world outside?  It doesn’t have to be life-threatening out there, just unpleasant.  And nor does it mean that one is indulging in pure escapism.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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