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Life Aboard the Worldship

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is the first person I know of to talk about worldships and their ramifications, which he did in an essay originally published in 1928. “The Future of Earth and Mankind” was the rocket pioneer’s take on the need for enormous ships that could reach the stars in journeys taking thousands of years. The notion percolated quickly through science fiction, and by 1940 we have Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years,” which ran in Amazing Stories. Wilcox, who taught creative writing at Northwestern University, imagined a ship’s captain who, though kept in hibernation, wakes up every 100 years to check on his ship, watching the gradual degeneration of the successive generations of the crew.

It’s a bleak take on worldship travel that has often been echoed in later science fiction. But would a worldship actually be this horrific, a cruise from hell that lasted entire lifetimes? See Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005) for the worldship as a place of unlimited opportunity, and consider reading some of the many worldship stories covering the entire range of possibility that SF has produced, from Lawrence Manning’s “The Living Galaxy” (Wonder Stories, 1934) all the way forward to Gregory Benford and Larry Niven’s Bowl of Heaven (2012), which depicts what might be described as a traveling Dyson Sphere, though one with unusual design parameters.

Population Density Enroute to the Stars

Stephen Ashworth’s papers on worldships, recently published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society contain his speculation that reasons of economic efficiency will produce colony vessels and then worldships with high population densities, supporting thousands of inhabitants per square kilometer. What to do with a human spirit in need of open spaces? One solution is virtual entertainment in which the crew — or colonists, or whatever we choose to call them — could tap into the experience of their choice, perhaps mixing Earth-like desert, jungle and ocean adventures with customized fantasy according to whim.

When Gerard O’Neill wrote about colony worlds in The High Frontier (1976), he imagined a different outcome. Huge communities like his Island Three would not necessarily need to be space-going versions of Manhattan, but might take advantage of the abundant resources of the Solar System to provide living room in a variety of settings:

…as colonists from various countries of Earth arrive to settle the many communities in space, there will be a great variety in the ways in which land area will be used. Some immigrants may choose to arrange their land area in small villages, with single-family homes, the villages being separated by forests. Others may prefer to build small, intimate towns of high population density, to enjoy for example the color and excitement and human interaction that is so much a feature of small villages in Italy. With many new communities to choose from, the emigrants from Earth will settle in those they like best.

Of course, O’Neill was not talking about worldships but what might be their predecessors, the kind of colony worlds that would define a truly system-wide economy. Even so, we can imagine scenarios where the inhabitants of such a colony, having produced several generations of space-adapted descendants, may decide that long journeys are not a problem if their entire world goes with them. Imagine, then, a truly sylvan setting like O’Neill’s:

I would have a preference, I think, for one rather appealing arrangement: to leave the valleys free for small villages, forests and parks, to have lakes in the valley ends, at the foot of the mountains, and to have small cities rising into the foothills from the lakeshores. Even at the high-population density that might characterize an early habitat, that arrangement would seem rather pleasant: a house in a small village where life could be relaxed and children could be raised with room to play; and just five or ten miles away, a small city, with a population somewhat smaller than San Francisco’s, to which one could go for theaters, museums, and concerts.


Image: The vast interior of an O’Neill cylinder presents a more spacious view of what a worldship might become. Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA.

Requirements for the Journey

The idea that we might one day build such artificial worlds, whether or not we translate them into star-voyaging worldships, seems fantastic. And for a bit of sobering up, Ashworth’s papers are just the ticket. In “The Emergence of the Worldship (II): A Development Scenario,” he looks at the requirements for sustaining human life on a vessel whose travel time might be measured in millennia. Space precludes running through all of these, but many are obvious:

  • Closed cycle production and recycling of food, water and oxygen;
  • A source of electrical power independent of Sun or planets and sustainable over the course of the journey;
  • Thermal management through radiation of waste heat to space;
  • Full control over the microbiological environment;
  • Viability of all food and ornamental species in functional reproductive health at stable population sizes over an indefinite number of generations

and so on. The list is understandably extensive, and includes factors like ensuring social and psychological stability, the need for continuing maintenance of all systems, and the long-term stability of the gene pool. None of these are factors that could be resolved in short time frames, and Ashworth believes they may emerge through a series of colonies set up at progressively greater distances from the Earth. Eventually such colonies learn how to operate independent of planetary surfaces and a manned starship — the worldship — may emerge, seen here as the logical endpoint of a lengthy period of technological and social growth. From the paper:

Viewed as a government research programme such a demonstration seems implausible, due to both its complexity and the timescales required to achieve operational maturity. Viewed as a gradual evolution of humanity into space, however, aimed not at starflight as such but at space colonisation within our own Solar System, and motivated by the large energy and material resources available for expansion, it seems likely that after a timescale on the order of centuries the preconditions listed above may be fulfilled in the course of normal economic growth.

We’ve come a long way in our conception of worldships from Robert Heinlein’s “Universe” (Astounding, 1941) and its sequel the following month, “Common Sense.” Published in book form as Orphans of the Sky, the story follows a ship’s crew that has long forgotten the nature of the voyage and no longer realizes that its world is a ship. The result is social deterioration and a rigidly stratified society of the sort Brian Aldiss explored to much greater effect in his 1956 novel Non-Stop. One can only imagine how the inhabitants of a worldship structured more or less along O’Neill lines might fare over the course of a similar journey, and we can assume that science fiction isn’t yet through exploring the ramifications of this intriguing concept.

The citation for Stephen Ashworth’s paper is “The Emergence of the Worldship (II): A Development Scenario,” JBIS Vol. 65, No. 4,5 (2012), pp. 155-175.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Christopher L. Bennett March 13, 2013, 10:15

    Hmm. In your previous post, you quoted Stephen Ashworth’s paper talking about how a space-dwelling civilization would have to be constantly rebuilding and replacing its habitats, scrapping old ones and moving into new ones, etc. I can see combining that with the idea of hopping between interstellar rogue planets or comets or brown dwarfs. Instead of a single worldship that spends millennia migrating to its destination, you have a crew/community that takes its worldship as far as a rogue world that can be mined for resources, uses it to build a new worldship (perhaps incorporating improvements figured out along the way), then uses that ship to cover the next leg of the journey. Or, if the population has grown enough, they could build two or more new ships, and maybe even head off in different directions. And so on.

  • tchernik March 13, 2013, 11:35

    If we are allowed to dream, I am partial towards Kim Stanley Robinson’s Terrariums, as described in his novel “2312”.

    Rotating, hollowed and reinforced asteroids with a roomy internal cylindrical space, containing a ecosystem of their builder’s choice.

    Besides, I doubt any interstellar travelers would be going alone in a single worldship. Most likely the worldships would fly in formation, for giving its inhabitants the opportunity of changing their existential boundaries, and as a backup. So the travelers would have the opportunity of experiencing some variety of habitat types through their lives.

    But I digress. I also share the belief that when this great move into the stars finally happens, human beings won’t be going on cramped small ships or frozen like human popsicles. They will go in the flesh, with the clear idea of spending their lives in a place where they can grow and prosper.

    And this won’t happen until humanity has had a lost of experience living off-Earth, with a seamless transition between living on habitats in the inner solar system, then at the outskirts of it and finally, making the jump towards farther destinations, depending less and less on the Sun’s bountiful energy.

    The solar system would be a bustling hive of human activity before any of this is attempted, though. And they won’t go to the great unknown: they will have very detailed information about their chosen destinations, obtained by the extensive use of advanced telescopes on and off-Earth. For such a civilization, having solar gravity lensing telescopes would be commonplace.

  • Rob Flores March 13, 2013, 12:33

    It seems that if we had to build worldships because of a threat ( a pick solar system castatrophe) hollowing out of existing bodies and spining them up
    maybe more cost effective in the short term. Over the near future, specificaly designed factories for vacuum construction/molecular assembly,
    would make world ships lighter therefore more amenable to being propulsed.

    There is also an IDEOLOGY choice. If humans get very good at creating
    large world ships, the culture of living on ships (which means near total controll of the enviroment) maybe found to be superior to having to trudge
    around on the surface of planets that are somewhat like the Earth.
    I don’t believe there is a close twin ,(mass, gravity,rotation,surface temperature, techtonics,weather, O2-N2 atmosphere, after) within thousands of light years of the Earth. Once acustomed to their world ships maybe humans wont be so keen to settle on some Facsimilie of Earth,
    finding such worlds too much of a gamble to colonize.

    I know that you can terraform a CO2-N2 planet, to bring about an ()2-N2 atmosphere but what will happen to the planet’s temperature when Iron
    has to Oxidizes? how long does it take?

    So what is wrong with living on huge spaceships, a couple of dozen miles large.

  • Horatio March 13, 2013, 13:14

    I would add RAMA II (and its sequels) by Gentry Lee and Arthur C. Clarke, where the authors explore various aspects of life in a world ship, including social unrest, racism and organised crime.
    In a way, this could be considered dystopian, the view of the authors seems to be that human life in a worldship will reproduce the same set of behaviours that made human history on Earth marred with gross mistakes and setbacks.

  • Dmitri March 13, 2013, 14:54

    Always when there is mentioned Colony Ship / World Ship I ponder what is lowest acceptable criterion of enlisting? Would Sarah Palin be allowed? Maybe Gordon Brown? What about JWoww and Snooki? Gondoliza Rice?*

    Right now the bar is set very high – it filters out a lot. When talking selecting habitants for a large space vessel then other cultural /social variables start to matter.

    * The names are not related to real persons, rather used for inciting imagination.

  • Dmitri March 13, 2013, 16:04

    Konstantin Tsiolkovsky mentioning recalled two things:

    1) Владимир Вернадский (Vladimir Vernadsky) was strong proponent of panspermia and urged interdisciplinary study of it. He actually was convincent of origin of Earth’s life been extraplanetary He was the most influencial scientist in 1920’s.

    2) Russians has played with idea that Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first who invisioned and designed the Zeppelin. When he submitted the papers to Russian Academy of Scieneces it was rejected as nonsense and the papers later ended on German’s side.

  • Tarmen March 13, 2013, 19:16

    I look at Earth’s analogies. I see coconuts bobbing nowhere in particular, but some of them luck out to another island in the sea. On another track, same great ocean, I see Polinesian men and women sailing with a purpose to the likely next island and to making their new start. Slow worldship diffusion like floating coconuts vs fast bullet (AI?)ships like polinesian riggers. Which method is better? The two methods both can succeed, and both also will have many lost at sea. We will have many lost at sea also, in this endeaver.

  • Wojciech J March 13, 2013, 19:36

    One problem is motivation. Can a society be motivated to live in effective isolation from the rest of civilization for thousands of years? What economy, interests, goals will they have during the travel? Why won’t their descendants turn around back to main human society?
    I can imagine some very extreme religious groups or ideological movements doing this, and perhaps surviving the journey. But such enterprises would be few. And the prospect of colonization seems to be a small incentive-you no longer need to colonize other planets when you have artificial habitats that can survive in deep space for thousands of years.
    I don’t exclude this possibility as one means of future expansion in some limited form. But far more likely I would see single explorers or small groups, in non-human, post-biological state, traveling in faster ships between the stars, with their goal being pure science or exploration. Or perhaps the Holy Grail-contact with a relic or structure of artificial nature left behind a civilization millions of years ago thousands of light years away. But colonization-that I don’t see in wider perspective, perhaps a couple of stars within some light years. But after that there will be no need nor will to settle other worlds.

  • Geoff March 13, 2013, 19:48

    Worldships are often imagined as supporting large populations, to maintain adequate genetic and ecological diversity. But this need not be so. It is already possible to replace embryonic DNA with an entirely new genome (that’s how cloning works); by the time extrasolar colonization is a serious possibility, this should be routine. The new DNA is effectively just information, which can be transmitted at light speed.

    The implication for worldships is that they needn’t have closed gene pools – gene flow is possible between the worldship and the folks back home for the whole duration of the voyage (and afterwards, too). That suggests to me that a worldship could actually be quite small. (A “village-ship”, maybe?)

  • A. A. Jackson March 13, 2013, 21:19

    Up front I should state that James Blish trumped everybody past , present and future with his mind boggling Cities in Flight. The ‘Okie’ novels didn’t use world ships, but took whole Earth cities as interstellar nomads into the universe using super science technologies, one of which was the Spindizzy (The Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator), lord! There was no suppressing this writer! This started in 1955 after world ship thinkers and some stories, but before Dandridge Cole’s papers “Macro-Life,” Space World, Vol. 1. Nos. 10 & 11, September & October 1961, 44-46. Cole , by the way, had O’Neill beat by 10 years , see a copy of Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, (1964 with Donald W. Cox).
    One of the most impressive World Ship novels (a Nebula winner) was Rite of Passage a science fiction novel by Alexei Panshin. Published in 1968. Here we have hollowed out Cole-ships with FTL. It is a complex story told, well … in the spirit (almost style) of Robert Heinlein. (It always seemed another ‘adult-juvie’ novel Heinlein should have written , like his Star Ship Troopers) It is an unusual setting, about a dozen FTL world ships have taken human civilization (on the verge of mass extinction) to colony worlds , which they … sort of … oversee. The Shipers play the role of sort a sort of technological patricians to the colony world Mud-eaters. The story is quite complex and I won’t go into it. What struck me was that the World Ships of Panshin accepted their life and had forged their own high tech society, not bothering with finding a colony world of their own. Their World-Ship life had become their life, with a full understanding of where they had come from and where they were going.
    I don’t know if anyone ever wrote a non-FTL version of this kind of World Ship society … as for that matter Panshin only explored this story ‘universe’ a few more times. It’s a rich idea that could have led to a vast cycle of narrative

  • Kenneth Harmon March 13, 2013, 21:23

    This all assumes that Humans will still be flesh and blood Humans a hundred years from now, and therefore will have the same needs as “Humans today” as we travel in deep Space. Suppose instead, 100-200 years from now we are Cybernetic Organisms (likely), or the much more radical view where we are primarily AI (Artilects) organisms after some sort of Singularity as Ray Kurzweil and others project. The least probable outcome is that Humans will remain as they are over the next 200 years or so.

  • Zanstel March 14, 2013, 7:06

    The slow migration it could be only an alternative if the intellestelar space is not so “empty” as we believe now.
    A world ship needs maintenance, then raw materials, so it could only survive if is near of this source. If the interstellar medium has sources of raw materials from distances of less that one generation in time travel, then the slow migration is possible, as a colonization of the “dark islands” of the interstellar medium.
    Other alternative is hibernation, or send the world ship empty to the destination, and use a fast ship only for reach the world ship in one generation time.

    On other cases, later generations would be pay for the risk of the decision of travel of their ancestor.

  • Christopher L. Bennett March 14, 2013, 12:56

    @Kenneth Harmon: To me, the least probable outcome is that all of humanity will change in lockstep. It’s never been that way in the past. Whenever a portion of humanity has innovated a new lifestyle, like agriculture or horse nomadism or industrialization, there have been plenty of other humans who’ve gone on living as they did in the past. Humanity is not one culture, but many.

    So even if there is merit to the idea that humans could develop into a posthuman or nonbiological form, there is, in my view, little likelihood that all humans will make that change. Rather, humanity will likely ramify into multiple species, taking numerous evolutionary paths — including biological ones. So even if there are posthuman AIs with their consciousnesses encoded in microsails drifting between star systems, or immortal cyborgs whose brains are encased in durable, self-propelled bodies traveling through the vacuum, there will probably still be good old-fashioned meatbags living out their life cycles in worldships right alongside them.

  • Astronist March 14, 2013, 17:33

    Wojciech J: won’t there already be societies living in physical isolation within the Solar System? Thinking about interstellar travel, it is easy to forget just how vast our own system is relative to the planetary surface we are used to. A colony (more likely a small cluster of colonies) in even the asteroid belt would already be very isolated; a colony in the outer Solar System even more so.

    Surely we won’t jump from life on Earth to life in interstellar space in one go (and anyway my papers give reasons as to why that is physically impossible, unless a major new energy source is discovered)? There will be a gradient of increasing remoteness from Earth and increasing self-sufficiency of relatively small societies; this, at any rate, presents a more plausible picture of progress.


  • GaryChurch March 16, 2013, 12:45

    “-when this great move into the stars finally happens, human beings won’t be going on cramped small ships or frozen like human popsicles. They will go in the flesh, with the clear idea of spending their lives in a place where they can grow and prosper.”

    My belief is that there is not much chance of accomplishing anything in space until we have provided humankind with an indefinite lifespan. We are all too distracted by our momentary lives to spend most of it trying to send other people to another star.

    The intermediate step is cryopreservation- a revivable freezing procedure- to suspend death until a cure for aging and disease is found. Suspended animation also makes star travel (to nearby stars at least) practical using available technology such as beams and bombs.
    A worldship may use both suspended animation and a live crew due to the need to revive the crew and passengers so they can self-repair DNA. Afterward they are refrozen and another group revived. After several centuries even at close to absolute zero there will be DNA damage.

  • Tom Kalbfus June 17, 2013, 14:46

    A world ship with 50 km thick walls and 50 km thich atmosphereric retaining walls 1000 km high if made of iron would have a mass of 4.87589E+18 kg, if it rotates once every 105.729 minutes for 1 g, and uses neptune as a fuel tank, it can accelerate to 98.79% of the speed of light. slowdown would be accomplished via a magnetic sail.