Book Review 

Christopher E. Mason. The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds. The MIT Press, 2021.

Christopher Mason is an accomplished scientist whose unique and interdisciplinary research background makes him well qualified to write on the topics that underpin a book like this. His scope is nothing less than the entire Universe and its fate, his mission a call for humans to become the Guardians of life impelled by the central rationale that this is our duty. 

The general idea that long duration spaceflight will pose biomedical challenges is probably a familiar one, but Dr. Mason’s descriptions of the afflictions suffered by astronaut Scott Kelly following a year-long stint on the International Space Station may shock some readers. The take-away message is sobering; humans are not built for zero-g space travel and a journey even to our neighboring planet Mars would tax, probably exceed, the physical and emotional limits of the toughest astronauts. However, science is poised to provide technological work-arounds to overcome the bodily weaknesses imposed by our evolutionary history. 

Readers are taken on a whirlwind tour of known problems of spaceflight, the new genetic tools and strategies that may mitigate them along with thoughts about the ramifications of human beings engineering and directing our future evolution. Drawing heavily from cutting edge biomedical research, some readers may find the descriptions of genetic technology tough going. However, offering specific details is an important opening approach because it allows Dr. Mason to demonstrate his deep speculations have sprung from solid scientific ground. The book transitions from a lab insider feel to big picture extrapolations spanning centuries of time that, because the essential breakthroughs remain to be achieved, are only describable with minimal technical detail. Notwithstanding his overarching sense of optimism, Dr. Mason does a good job of outlining some amazing possibilities ahead along with their attendant foreseeable complexities as our human destiny unfolds.    

Frankenstein Meets Gilgamesh

Despite the dark fact of impending existential doom driving humankind to seek refuge in the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond, the author’s view of the future is unreservedly optimistic. Like us, Earth itself has an inevitable expiration date, but Dr. Mason has bold proposals to cheat our cosmic death sentence.  Featuring some of the most impressive scientific advances of our day and projecting a high technology-based future in outer space, some readers may discover it inducing recollections of stories created centuries earlier like Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and The Epic of Gilgamesh

Readers of works informally known as classic hard science fiction may also sense traces of familiar tropes embedded within this narrative. Manifest Destiny, technology as savior, the hope for eternal life, subjugation of the natural world(s) and more are the understated unifying principles of the quest. By virtue of our supreme sentience and technical skills, humans are the sole hope to save terrestrial life by transporting it into outer space and the far reaches of the future. Dr. Mason writes –  

“We alone can act as the conscious, careful and thoughtful incarnation of evolution, as Guardians, and direct it to prepare for long-term survival.” 

A breath-takingly bold mission, should humankind choose to accept it. 

To Mars and More

Civilization and life are doomed if they remain confined solely to the Earth making the first steps in their preservation establishing new living quarters elsewhere in our solar system. However, even those efforts are stop-gap because the sun will ultimately exhaust its fuel supply. Fortunately, astronomers inform us that the Cosmos is packed with planets we might find are suitable homes if we can devise ways to get to them and alter their environments as necessary. Dr. Mason is blunt about the challenges ahead and his versions of Noah’s Arc seem as unappealing as they are currently unrealistic. However, this future is still centuries away which allows the abiding faith science will ultimately provide the means to achieve our ends to automatically trump any foreseeable downsides.

Guardians or Centurions?

The solar system can only sustain us for so long and Dr. Mason foresees our descendants will need to push to the stars. At least at the outset of interstellar migrations in search of second suns, it seems probable planets with Earth-like attributes will be prime targets for colonization. But, if life emerged spontaneously on Earth, won’t similar worlds harbor their own biospheres? It is not clear how seeding and modifying other planets fits within our Guardian-of-all-life charge. Maybe we will re-jigger the genetics of astronaut-colonists to match the anticipated challenges of their new homes, but after going to all the time and trouble to reach these new Edens, will we stop and move on if we discover the place already has residents? What will be put forward as fair decision criteria for planetary takeovers or transformations? How many indigenous life forms will be lost when our spacefaring invasive species decides we own the galaxy?     

A Duty to Genetically Edit Life?

A fascinating aspect of this book is the making of the case that humans have an ethical responsibility to genetically edit the creatures around us to make their lives better. In reality, humans assumed dominion over all creatures great and small as well as the entire planet long ago. Our stewardship of our home planet has been self-centered, suggesting any benefits our self-serving attempts at preserving civilization and attaining immortality provide to other voiceless species will be accidental and debatable. As brilliant as we are, acting as Guardians of Life does not seem to be in our nature.