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Envisioning Starflight Failing

Science fiction has always had its share of Earthside dystopias, but starflight’s allure has persisted, despite the dark scrutiny of space travel in the works of writers like J. G. Ballard. But what happens if we develop the technologies to go to the stars and find the journey isn’t worth it? Gregory Benford recently reviewed a novel that asks these questions and more, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (Orbit Books, 2015). A society that reaches the Moon and then turns away from it may well prompt questions on how it would react to the first interstellar expedition. Benford, an award-winning novelist, has explored star travel in works like the six novels of the Galactic Center Saga and, most recently, in the tightly connected Bowl of Heaven and Shipstar. His review is a revised and greatly expanded version of an essay that first ran in Nature.

by Gregory Benford

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Human starflight yawns as a vast prospect, one many think impossible. To arrive in a single lifetime demands high speeds approaching lightspeed, especially for target stars such as Tau Ceti, about twelve light years away.

Generation ships form the only technically plausible alternative method, implying large biospheres stable over centuries. Or else a species with lifetimes of centuries, which for fundamental biological reasons seems doubtful. (Antagonistic plieotropy occurs in evolution, ie, gene selection resulting in competing effects, some beneficial in the short run for reproduction, but others detrimental in the long.) So for at least for a century or two ahead of us, generation ships (“space arks”) may be essential.

Aurora depicts a starship on a long voyage to Tau Ceti four centuries from now. It is shaped like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity. The biomes along their rims support many Earthly lifezones which need constant tending to be stable. They’re voyaging to Tau Ceti, so the ship’s name is a reference to Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn, which takes place on a world orbiting Tau Ceti named Aurora. Arrival at the Earthlike moon of a super-Earth primary brings celebration, exploration, and we see just how complex an interstellar expedition four centuries from now can be, in both technology and society.

In 2012, Robinson declared in a Scientific American interview that “It’s a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It’s a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora spells this out through unlikely plot devices. Robinson loads the dice quite obviously against interstellar exploration. A brooding pessimism dominates the novel.

There are scientific issues that look quite unlikely, but not central to the novel’s theme. A “magnetic scissors” method of launching a starship seems plagued with problems, for example. But the intent is clear through its staging and plot.

I’ll discuss the quality of the argument Aurora attempts, with spoilers.

Plot Fixes

aurora

The earlier nonfiction misgivings of physicist Paul Davies (in Starship Century) and biologist E.O. Wilson (in The Meaning of Human Existence) about living on exoplanets echo profoundly here. As a narrator remarks, “Suspended in their voyage as they had been, there had never been anything to choose, except methods of homeostasis.” Though the voyagers in Aurora include sophisticated biologists, adjusting Earth life to even apparently simple worlds proves hard, maybe impossible.

The moon Aurora is seemingly lifeless. Yet it has Earth-levels of atmospheric oxygen, which somehow the advanced science of four centuries hence thinks could have survived from its birth, a very unlikely idea (no rust?—this is, after all, what happened to Mars). Plot fix #1.

This elementary error, made by Earthside biologists, brings about the demise of their colony plans, in a gripping plot turn that leads to gathering desperation.

The lovingly described moon holds some nanometers-sized mystery organism that is “Maybe some interim step toward life, with some of the functions of life, but not all…in a good matrix they appear to reproduce. Which I guess means they’re a life-form. And we appear to be a good matrix.” So a pathogen evolved on a world without biology? Plot fix #2.

Plans go awry. Backup plans do, too. “Vector, disease, pathogen, invasive species, bug; these were all Earthly terms…various kinds of category error.”

What to do? Factions form amid the formerly placid starship community of about 2000. Until then, the crew had felt themselves to be the managers of biomes, farming and fixing their ship, with a bit of assistance from a web of AIs, humming in the background.

Robinson has always favored collective governance, no markets, not even currencies, none of that ugly capitalism—yet somehow resources get distributed, conflicts get worked out. No more. Not here, under pressure. The storyline primarily shows why ships have captains: stress eventually proves highly lethal. Over half the crew gets murdered by one faction or another. There is no discipline and no authority to stop this.

Most of the novel skimps on characters to focus on illuminating and agonizing detail of ecosphere breakdown, and the human struggle against the iron laws of island biogeography. “The bacteria are evolving faster than the big animals and plants, and it’s making the whole ship sick!” These apply to humans, too. “Shorter lifetimes, smaller bodies, longer disease durations. Even lower IQs, for God’s sake!”

Robinson has always confronted the nasty habit of factions among varying somewhat-utopian societies. His Mars trilogy dealt with an expansive colony, while cramped Aurora slides toward tragedy: “Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped… that the future has only bad options.”

Mob Rules

Should the ship return to Earth?

Many riots and murders finally settle on a bargain: some stay to terraform another, Marslike world, the rest set sail for Earth. The ship has no commander or functional officers, so this bloody result seems inevitable in the collective. Thucydides saw this outcome over 2000 years ago. He warned of the wild and often dangerous swings in public opinion innate to democratic culture. The historian described in detail explosions of Athenian popular passions. The Athenian democracy that gave us Sophocles and Pericles also, in a fit of unhinged outrage, executed Socrates by a majority vote of one of its popular courts. (Lest we think ourselves better, American democracy has become increasingly Athenian, as it periodically whips itself up into outbursts of frantic indignation.)

When discord goes deadly in Aurora, the AIs running the biospheres have had enough. At a crisis, a new character announces itself: “We are the ship’s artificial intelligences, bundled now into a sort of pseudo-consciousness, or something resembling a decision-making function.” This forced evolution of the ship’s computers leads in turn to odd insights into its passengers: “The animal mind never forgets a hurt; and humans were animals.” Plot Fix #3: sudden evolution of high AI function that understands humans and acts like a wise Moses.

This echoes the turn to a Napoleonic figure that chaos often brings. As in Iain Banks’ vague economics of a future Culture, mere humans are incapable of running their economy and then, inevitably, their lives. The narrative line then turns to the ship AI, seeing humans somewhat comically, “…they hugged, at least to the extent this is possible in their spacesuits. It looked as if two gingerbread cookies were trying to merge.”

Governance of future societies is a continuing anxiety in science fiction, especially if demand has to be regulated without markets, as a starship must. (Indeed, as sustainable, static economies must.) As far back as in Asimov’s Foundation, Psychohistory guides, because this theory of future society is superior to mere present human will. (I dealt with this, refining the theory, in Foundation’s Fear. Asimov’s Psychohistory resembled the perfect gas law, which makes no sense, since it’s based on dynamics with no memory; I simply updated it to a modern theory of information.) The fantasy writer China Mieville has similar problems, with his distrust of mere people governing themselves, and their appetites, through markets; he seems to favor some form of Politburo. (So did Lenin, famously saying “A clerk can run the State.”)

Aurora begins with a society without class divisions and exploitation in the Marxist sense, and though some people seem destined to be respected and followed, nothing works well in a crisis but the AIs—i.e., Napoleon. The irony of this doesn’t seem apparent to the author. Similar paths in Asimov, Banks and Mieville make one wonder if similar anxieties lurk. Indeed, Marxism and collectivist ideas resemble the similar mechanistic theory of Freudian psychology (both invented by 19th C. Germans steeped in the Hegelian tradition)—insightful definitions, but no mechanisms that actually work. Hence the angst when things go wrong with a supposedly fundamental theory.

The AIs, as revealed through an evolving and even amusing narrative voice, follow human society with gimlet eyes and melancholy insights. The plot armature turns on a slow revelation of devolution in the ship biosphere, counterpointed with the AI’s upward evolution—ironic rise and fall. “It was an interrelated process of disaggregation…named codevolution.” The AIs get more human, the humans more sick.

Even coming home to an Earth still devastated by climate change inflicts “earthshock” and agoraphobia. Robinson’s steady fiction-as-footnote thoroughness brings us to an ending that questions generational, interstellar human exploration, on biological and humanitarian grounds. “Their kids didn’t volunteer!” Of course, immigrants to far lands seldom solicit the views of their descendants. Should interstellar colonies be different?

Do descendants as yet unborn have rights? Ben Finney made this point long ago in Interstellar Migration, without reaching a clear conclusion. Throughout human history we’ve made choices that commit our unborn children to fates unknown. Many European expeditions set sail for lands unseen, unknown, and quite hostile. Many colonies failed. Interstellar travel seems no different in principle. Indeed, Robinson makes life on the starship seem quite agreeable, though maybe tedious, until their colony goal fails.

The unremitting hardship of the aborted colony and a long voyage home give the novel a dark, grinding tone. We suffer along with the passengers, who manage to survive only because Earthside then develops a cryopreservation method midway through the return voyage. So the deck is stacked against them—a bad colony target, accidents, accelerating gear failures, dismay… until the cryopreservation that would lessen the burden arrives, very late, so our point of view characters do get back to Earth and the novel retains some narrative coherence, with character continuity. Plot Fix #4.

This turn is an authorial choice, not an inevitability. Earthsiders welcome the new cryopreservation technologies as the open door to the stars; expeditions launch as objections to generation ships go away. But the returning crew opposes Earth’s fast-growing expeditions to the stars, because they are just too hard on the generations condemned to live in tight environments—though the biospheres of the Aurora spacecraft seem idyllic, in Robinson’s lengthy descriptions. Plainly, in an idyllic day at the beach, Robinson sides with staying on Earth, despite the freshly opened prospects of humanity.

So in the end, we learn little about how our interstellar future will play out.

The entire drift of the story rejects Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s “The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but humanity cannot live in the cradle forever.” – though we do have an interplanetary civilization. It implicitly undermines the “don’t-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket” philosophy for spreading humanity beyond our solar system. Robinson says in interviews this idea leads belief that if we destroy Earth’s environment, we can just move. (I don’t know anyone who believes this, much less those interested in interstellar exploration.) I think both ideas are too narrow; expansion into new realms is built into our evolution. We’re the apes who left Africa.

Robinson takes on the detail and science of long-lived, closed habitats as the principal concern of the novel. Many starship novels dealt with propulsion; Robinson’s methods—a “magnetic scissors” launch and a mistaken Oberth method of deceleration—are technically wrong, but beside the point. His agenda is biological and social, so his target moon is conveniently hostile. Then the poor crew must decide whether to seek another world nearby (as some do) or undertake the nearly impossible feat of returning to Earth. This deliberately overstresses the ship and people. Such decisions give the novel the feel of a fixed game. Having survived all this torment, the returning crew can’t escape the bias of their agonized experience.

Paul Davies pointed out in Starship Century that integrating humans into an existing alien biosphere (not a semi-magical disaster like his desolate moon with convenient oxygen) is a very hard task indeed, because of the probable many incompatibilities. That’s a good subject for another novel, one I think no one in science fiction has taken up. This novel avoids that challenge with implausible Plot fix #2.

Realistically considered, the huge problems of extending a species to other worlds can teach us about aliens. If interstellar expansion is just too hard biologically (as Paul Davies describes) then the Fermi paradox vanishes (except for von Neumann machines, as Frank Tipler saw in the 1970s). If aliens like us can’t travel, maybe they will expend more in SETI signaling? Or prefer to send machines alone? An even-handed treatment of human interstellar travel could shore up such ideas.

Still, a compelling subject, well done in Robinson’s deft style. My unease with the novel comes from the stacked deck its author deals.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk August 4, 2015, 10:50

    Can humanity explore and live in space (for more than a few days) without some serious modifications or having to send proxies in the end? Perhaps we should just accept that our present state of biological evolution is simply not equipped to handle a microgravity environment and long stays in enclosed artificial structures.

    This is not me trying to be defeatist as KSR seems to be with his novel, but rather saying we need to better adapt humans to space and/or send machines that can handle extremes and who can perhaps better deal with any encounters with alien minds.

    Because I know we love and admire our brave astronauts and cosmonauts, often rightly so, but the current space agencies are still thinking with the old Right Stuff mindset and as any honest polar explorer will tell you, the ones who tried to John Wayne their way through a long stay in a harsh, isolated world often ended up losing their lives, often at their own hands. NASA really needs to get in gear with truly focusing on human needs during long space missions, especially the ones where Earth is but a pale blue dot.

    After that we just need to accept there are better methods of reaching the stars than having to have some kind of Star Trek type mission and crew. That includes missions which may have to go longer than a human lifetime, because trying to make that work is just pushing people to focus on fantasy propulsion drives. We cannot even get controlled fusion to work yet, and we know fusion exists.

    But the human factor is the key, which includes that our species accept the fact that we may need others to reach the stars. Then again, society seems to be moving towards doing things virtually, so future generations may be more than content to explore an alien world from the safety of their terrestrial matrixes while machine do all the real work and take all the real risks.

  • Abelard Lindsey August 4, 2015, 11:46

    Guys,

    The reality of interstellar space is that, unless some kind of breakthrough propulsion is developed (Mach’s principle “wormhole” FTL), the O’neill high frontier concept is our only future in space. That is, large scale space colonies. Its true these could be converted into “generation” ships, say around the 24th century or so. But isn’t it not likely that people born and raised in O’neill style habitats will come to view such as the normal way to live?

  • ole burde August 4, 2015, 17:36

    All the pessimistic ramblings fails to take into account the human dimension to spaceflight .
    Humans are capable of suffering endless hardships whithout loosing hope , whithout surrendering any of their beliefs and without any deterioration of performance .
    Small groups of people have survived total isolation for thousands of years on isolated islands .
    People build Pyramids whith their bare hands , and a lot of motivation .
    Thats why I belive that interstellar spaceflight could be much closer than the pessimists think .
    Gigantic generationships will not be necesary if the strength of human nature is let loose from its present chains of politic correctnes .
    If this should happen , the crew for a starship could be chosen according to rational criteria , it could be geneticly modified to make it radiationresistant , it could clone itself to asure genetic identity to the eceptionaly gifted and psycologicaly stable chosen individuals , and it could chose NOT to perpetuate the cloning of problematic individuals .
    Less than a hundred people could fly a starship for many hundreds of years ,and still be capable of starting a new branch of humanity .
    Most likely , they would have to live in closed habitats on their new world for thousands of years , but after having lived in a tin can for generations , this would be nature at its best .

  • Joe August 4, 2015, 22:33

    “Many starship novels dealt with propulsion; Robinson’s methods—a “magnetic scissors” launch and a mistaken Oberth method of deceleration—are technically wrong.” Well, yeah. All proposed propulsion methods are wrong, or more precisely science fiction. Accelerating to even .1 C and then slowing down to orbital speed is an incredibly difficult task, even for a robot ship. Adding humans to the equation make it even harder.

  • Kenneth Roy August 4, 2015, 23:36

    William f Collins “I thought that the communication gap between even our nearest star systems and our earth could have a gap of years . That is a long time to wait to find out your grades.”

    I know some smart people who think that FTL communication might be possible due to entangled particles. I’m somewhat skeptical of that but one never knows. We know mass can’t travel faster than light, but information?

    But even assuming FTL communication isn’t possible, distance learning is still an option. Several ways to do it, the University could upload an AI to the colony that would administer the curriculum and award degrees based on student performance or, one could wait years to hear ones grade. Assume a 20 year delay (10 light years). A student finishes the course work at age 25, sends it off and doesn’t hear until he is age 45. He then has an Earth college degree and many years to enjoy it.

    The main point being, that the colony will not be isolated from Earth. They will be able to read the latest books, watch the latest movies, and keep tabs on the news — just ten years behind the times relative to Earth.

  • ljk August 5, 2015, 7:46

    ole burde said on August 4, 2015 at 17:36:

    “Less than a hundred people could fly a starship for many hundreds of years, and still be capable of starting a new branch of humanity .

    “Most likely , they would have to live in closed habitats on their new world for thousands of years , but after having lived in a tin can for generations , this would be nature at its best.”

    Have you ever lived in a small town? Now imagine living in a small town that you can never escape from.

    Humans are resilient and resourceful, to a point. It’s relatively easy when you have an entire planet at your disposal. But imagine being in a “tin can” for millennia with no place to go between destinations. I really do not think the engineers and other technical sorts who come up with interstellar journey plans really think out how well people may or may not do on such voyages – especially those who will never see another star system and whose primary purpose is to breed the next generation of ship crew.

    I think there is a better sort for galactic exploration and utilization. They are called Artilects. Current humans are the catalyst for the next level of the evolution of intelligence.

  • Larry Kennedy August 5, 2015, 9:04

    @ ljk
    I personally would be amazed if artilects don’t lead the way, but, time and time again it’s been proven that humans can adjust to almost anything.

  • Alex Tolley August 5, 2015, 11:18

    @ljk Have you ever lived in a small town? Now imagine living in a small town that you can never escape from.

    Yes I have. I’ve met people on small islands like Bermuda who have never left it. Doesn’t work for me, I get “rock fever”.

    A better example is prison. People live locked up in cells, sometimes in solitary confinement and manage to survive for life (although life in solitary may be considered “cruel and unusual punishment”).

    However, I actually agree with you that artilects are the likely denizens of interstellar travel. Even if humans gain the technology for interstellar travel, artilects will have gone long before.

  • Stan Erickson August 5, 2015, 12:46

    What kind of story would it be if everything worked out as planned? The whole purpose of novel writing is to make it interesting, which means tragedy and failure, conflict and emotion. The author did exactly what a good author should, wrote an interesting novel. Thinking through these matters is better done in a blog, such as the present one, or even mine:
    http://stanericksonsblog.blogspot.com

  • david lewis August 5, 2015, 12:50

    A small town that has:
    – good healthcare
    – no transmittable diseases
    – no worries about famine
    – no worries about job security
    – no threat of war
    – few crimes
    – little risk of a natural disaster
    – decent entertainment for small groups
    etc

    There’s only about a few hundred million people who would jump at something like that, and be glad their children, even if clones, would be able to escape the plagues of war.

    People who’re reclusive wouldn’t mind the small space. And as for being there only to breed the next generation – that’s all that any of us are here for, except we got a generation ship that’s a bit larger. At the end of it all, inheriting a whole star system to expand in is a nice reward. Some religious groups have been waiting 2000 years for their messiah to come and create a new world, and are still waiting. At least those on an interstellar ship would know the time of deliverance, and not have to celebrate having the majority of humanity being cast into an eternally burning pit.

    Of course, even one individual who wants to could destroy the ship, and over centuries that could be a big problem.

  • ole burde August 5, 2015, 18:06

    ljk : Yes , I have lived most of my life in a small village , and two of my sons have chosen the same lifestyle .
    That experience is one of the reasons that make me believe it is possible to SELECT a few hundred people out of millions , who will feel mostly happy about life in a small closed community .
    A well -functioning and relatively isolated small community can be designed to prevent the creation of most social problems such as crime , corruption , gangculture and the collapse of family structure , all of which are problems that right now are threatening the macro society around us .
    Such a ”village” must clearly be designed to satisfy all the psycologic and fysical needs of exactly the type of individual which can find happiness in exactly the type of small closely knit community we have designed . If we imagine this problem as funktion of two interdependant variables , it will lead to an almost infinte number of solutions , but human intuition can easily jump straight to a comon sense solution : Family structure in the wider sense of the concept must be the key design priority . If every individual from childhood knows FOR SURE , that he or she will have an attractive sexual partner ,and that they together will build a well-funktioning family for their children , then the remaining sources of social maladjustment will run out of steam .
    After this basic choice of design priority , it will be possible to choose the crew-members accordingly : they must have an oversized need for finding a lifetime partner in a relatively early age , they must be ‘good looking’ , and they must be without the constant need for exchanging sexual partners .
    All this may seem unethical , but how much of this reaction is a result of our own jealousy towards these lucky few people who ”seem to have it all’ ?

  • Brett Bellmore August 6, 2015, 6:37

    Let’s say we go the generation ship route by, as I suggest, colonizing a comet that’s on it’s way out, and firing up an engine.

    An average comet is a dirty snowball about 10km in diameter, about 5e11 cubic meters, density of about 0.6. So, about 3e14 kg.

    Now, 10 km might not seem very big, but there’s plenty of mass there, you could hang a fair number of O-Neil style colonies off that comet. So, don’t think isolated village. Think isolated cluster of villages, surrounding a honking big Orion style fusion rocket, slowly eating away at the comet along the trip, at a rate calculated to get them to the destination with a decent reserve.

    If you don’t like your neighbors, you can move to another of the habitats, instead of seeing them every day.

    If 100 years into the journey somebody back home, or in your colony, invents a complete conversion drive, you just tool up with it, and finish your trip faster. Because you’re big enough to have a complete, self-contained industrial base. Might be too many obscure little specialties to have at least one of every type. So occasionally you might need to phone over to the next comet.

    Honestly, I don’t see this trip being any change at all for Kuiper belt colonists.

  • ljk August 6, 2015, 8:54

    Maybe I was just too influenced by Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky as a youngster along with my own studies of human society (plus growing up in a small rural agricultural community), but all these well laid plans of creating a “perfect” human society always seem to end up going astray – especially the tighter you try to control every aspect of human nature.

    Societies which do not try to account for those “flies in the ointment” end up with the very problems they tried to avoid, or worse. They also strengthen my view that engineers who are great at designing spaceships and space habitats should at the very least do a much better job of consulting with sociologists, psychologists, and other professionals in related fields.

    This is why I say the kind of baseline humanity we are now will ultimately fail in any extended space colonization effort or multigenerational starship (Worldship) plan. Humans will need to either be enhanced via genetic engineering or biotechnology (or a combination of the two) to be properly adjusted for the various space environment, or replaced entirely with Artilects as true expanders of the celestial void.

    I know humans think they are all that and can handle all kinds of situations, but often the result is either failure or the production of a type of person in a community which can only be described as a brainwashed cult. And as has been said elsewhere, if you have spent your entire life in a culture entirely aboard a spaceship, would you want to suddenly be stuck on a planet with all its natural messiness? Just because some remote ancestors thousands of years ago and many light years away thought it would be a really good idea?

  • ole burde August 6, 2015, 9:36

    Davi Lewis : ”Of course, even one individual who wants to could destroy the ship, and over centuries that could be a big problem.” This would be impossible to prevent 100% , but we can get close if we are willing to pay the price .
    The whole starship-design wil have to incorporate security as a major priority , something that must filter down to a million tecnical details , such as the ability to monitor all critical functions and make a harware-lock down in case of unauthorized operation … The price is also of a political nature , it wil be to give up some of the freedoms of privacy and individualism in order to monitor the mental health of individuals.

  • ljk August 6, 2015, 14:05

    ole burde said on August 6, 2015 at 9:36:

    “The whole starship-design wil have to incorporate security as a major priority , something that must filter down to a million tecnical details , such as the ability to monitor all critical functions and make a harware-lock down in case of unauthorized operation … The price is also of a political nature , it wil be to give up some of the freedoms of privacy and individualism in order to monitor the mental health of individuals.

    Easy for those of us who will never have to make such a journey to say.

    I get the feeling that the level of control in order to ensure the human crew all remain in lockstep will once again fall back to we either need to modify those people who will make the journey or once again machines will do a better job. And how do you maintain such a level of control for centuries or longer?

    Ever read the 1923 novel titled We by Yevgeny Zamyatin? It describes a future “utopia” where everyone’s lives are completely regulated to the moment. Guess what happens?

    http://theorwellprize.co.uk/george-orwell/by-orwell/essays-and-other-works/freedom-and-happiness-review-of-we-by-yevgeny-zamyatin/

  • ole burde August 6, 2015, 17:13

    Ljk : ” I get the feeling that the level of control in order to ensure the human crew all remain in lockstep will once again fall back to we either need to modify those people who will make the journey or once again machines will do a better job. And how do you maintain such a level of control for centuries or longer?”
    ”Lockstep” is a very un-clear notion . . … I believe that security related technology is getting to a level where the interference in private lives can be minimal . In London you are under camera observation almost everywhere in public places . In Israel unauthorized weapons will be detected whenever you enter a supermarket , cinema or any other place where people crowd together in big numbers . Nobody seem to care to much about these ”big brother ” interferrences , because it makes them feel more safe
    In a generationship people will also apreciate the safety which comes from being automaticly screened by voice-stress analyzers , infrared cameras sniffer-chips looking for signs of suicidal tendencies . Soon all this screening can be done by computer algoritms , without another person interfering in your life . As anything else , it becomes much easyer for the second generation who grew up with it . They will make it part of their cultural environment .
    In any case people wil have to be modifyed , but not in their psycology , because this is completely outside any present understanding of genetics . The only modification which seems unavoidable is radiation resistance .

  • david lewis August 6, 2015, 20:02

    “Ever read the 1923 novel titled We by Yevgeny Zamyatin? ”

    Is just a book written by a person who created a story that has no more basis in reality than many other sci-fi stories. Personally, if the human race were to become soulless, emotionless machines without even imagination, then there would be no need, or desire, to travel to other star systems; for that matter, there would be no point in living.

    Of course one could monitor someone without restricting their freedom, though there’s no human agency I can think of that I would trust with that sort of power.

  • ole burde August 7, 2015, 9:46

    David Lewis : ”Of course one could monitor someone without restricting their freedom, though there’s no human agency I can think of that I would trust with that sort of power.”… In the small village where I live we mostly trust each other . During their lifetime at last 30% of the population will have tried the experience of wielding SOME kind of official power , sitting in various local council-comitees or being personaly responiple for running a public service function . This may seem like a bloated bussy-work administrative structure from the perspective of a big city , but in a small village it has the advantage that everybody gets to know and trust each other on the personal level , more or less .
    A generationship will have to live with an existential threat much worse than anything a normal village has experienced , but IF there was a red button activating a nuclear bomb under the table of our local council , I am sure we could agree to find a way to prevent an unstable person getting in a position to activate it .

  • RobFlores August 7, 2015, 11:19

    LJK wrote

    “Maybe I was just too influenced by Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky as a youngster along with my own studies of human society (plus growing up in a small rural community”

    I tend to agree that unless the crew are machines there is a limit to
    how many generations a interstellar crew can last as a viable entity between
    the stars. This shelf life I estimate to be about 5-6 generations. Which
    gives a range of about 300 years of endurance. Which means a 30 LY
    at .1 C or better yet .2 C at 60 LY with a more efficient drive.

    Personally I think, we have a better shot with cryo-sleep, with advanced
    molecular machines to monitor and repair cellular damage. One of the
    main doubts I had about this possibility was whether the human brain would loose so much information that you would get a vegetable mind after 50 years. It turns out neurons store information (for lack of better word) via
    chemical potentials which guides the neuron’s activation. So the brain is
    not an electric field that once you bring down it’s gone. This tech would allow a small rotating caretaker crew, to look over 10,000 inactive crew. You also have the luxury of using machines to assemble a surface proto-city (even if it takes a while the crew-colonists can continue to sleep).

    This is one of the few ways IMO you could transfer an intact human culture that resembles the one at the point of origin. There would be the added advantage of extending the range of the mission to find world that is very
    close to a twin of the Earth, (excepting for 02 obcourse.

  • Larry Kennedy August 7, 2015, 11:22

    The people on a generation ship would live far better, and be no worse socially restricted, than billions of people on the planet both past and present. These gloom and doom scenarios might be very intellectually stimulating or entertaining but they have nothing to do with actual exploration.

  • ljk August 7, 2015, 13:08

    ole burde August 6, 2015 at 17:13:

    “Nobody seem to care to much about these ”big brother ” interferrences , because it makes them feel more safe.”

    It is hard not to think of this quote by some guy named Benjamin Franklin from 1755:

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    Perhaps the novel We was the wrong example choice here. Perhaps Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better one: Humans are modified into various classes and levels of intelligence and abilities to perform certain tasks and actually be happy doing them over and over all their lives. In fact almost everyone on Earth is happy with their lot, except for a few, including one poor guy who born and raised on a reservation. Thank Ford this society had a solution, which was to banish the malcontents to an obscure island, except for the reservation guy who couldn’t handle the culture shock.

    http://www.huxley.net/

    I wonder what those in charge of a Worldship well between star systems will do with any malcontents?

    In any event, the dominant theme in this comments thread is clearly that humans on long space journeys will do just fine despite my concerns and some old science fiction stories. And they will be perfectly alright, nay content, with a Big Brother style of social conformity, because they’ll get used to it after a while. Makes me wonder what their descendants will be like when they come out the other end of the trip, assuming they make it.

    I guess we will just have to find out what happens when and if we do send humans on a Worldship to Alpha Centauri, won’t we? Nothing like a real world(ship) example to make the final say on the matter.

  • ole burde August 7, 2015, 17:28

    ljk : The situation aboard a generationship of afordable size will not be anything like it is in a secure and nation in peacetime . It will be more like a prolonged emergency situation , lasting until it becomes possible to go back to normal life , just like it happened in the UK in 1945 . A political constitution could be designed for the generationship that would specify the exact conditions of the emergency powers , and the conditions when theese would end and constitutional democracy be restored .
    Another solution exists , which is to make MUCH bigger and more expensive generationship , which would enable a more liberal form form of government , and give the inhabitants a much better general quality of life . Only problem with this is that it might never happen … are you willing NOT to take the first and most costeffektive opportunity for launching a starship ? The window of opportunity might close ….

  • Larry Kennedy August 7, 2015, 22:57

    @ ole burde
    RE “It will be more like a prolonged emergency situation.”
    You mean like most human beings have lived their lives through most of history?

  • david lewis August 8, 2015, 12:51

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

    People have weird opinions of what liberty and safety are. Being able to walk down the street without worrying about a nutcase shooting you is liberty. For a woman to be able to walk home from work each evening, even through a dark alley, without having to consider some psycho could be lurking somewhere is liberty. Being able to purse a job that interests you is liberty. Being able to go where you want, when you want, and do what you want, is liberty. If I can’t walk down a dark alley, or through certain neighborhoods, then that limits my liberty, and not just my safety. That of course comes at the liberty of those who believe that it’s their divine right to kill at will (and there’s plenty of those types around.)

    I find that most people who like that particular quote are usually more than happy to sacrifice quite a few liberties, along with safety.

    Two extreme cases would be:
    Somalia – liberty rules
    Former USSR – death to liberty.

    Neither one is a good system of government for a worldship.

  • david lewis August 8, 2015, 13:00

    Just to add:

    Liberty is modified by essential; who gets to decide what’s an essential liberty, and what isn’t?

    For that matter, who gets to decide that those who purse safety are less deserving of liberty and safety. If I buy a lock for my door I sacrifice the liberty of just walking into my house (If locked, got to take the time to get out the key and unlock the door.) Does that mean I’m less deserving of safety as well?

    People like making quotes that back up their ideologies, but the validity of those quotes it seems never get questioned. That in itself limits both their liberty and their safety.

  • ole burde August 8, 2015, 13:18

    Larry Kennedy :”You mean like most human beings have lived their lives through most of history?” Exactly ! But most people in the rich countries have been brought up to believe that history is over , that they somehow have been completely isolated from any hard aspecs of reality . This is a nice dream to have , but I dont think its going to get us to the next star .

  • Alex Tolley August 8, 2015, 14:04

    @david lewis “If I buy a lock for my door I sacrifice the liberty of just walking into my house (If locked, got to take the time to get out the key and unlock the door.)”

    Buying a lock for your door is a loss of liberty. Seriously. How about buying a lock but giving the police a copy of the key? Or perhaps not being allowed to lock the door at all?

    Walking the streets safely does increase liberty. But beware of what the trade off might be, and for whom. It was very safe for women to walk the streets when the National Socialist party came to power in Germany. For other people, not so much.

    There are always trade offs in life, what is important is understanding what those trade offs are, and what the consequences may be.

    In a generation ship, or indeed anywhere in space, Heinlein’s approach to criminal action was summary pushing out the airlock without a space suit. One can just imagine the lynch mob justice that might be the result. Funnily enough we are seeing something similar today, where even the slightest infraction as perceived by the authorities results in jail and fines, even when the infraction wasn’t. A world ship might be run on similar hair trigger authoritarian responses as we saw post 9/11. I’ll take cryosleep if it is available.

  • david lewis August 9, 2015, 12:48

    “There are always trade offs in life, what is important is understanding what those trade offs are, and what the consequences may be.”

    Precisely. What gets to me is people leaning towards one extreme or another without considering the consequences. Neither Somalia, nor the former USSR, are countries I would want to live in. As I stated in a previous post, there’s no human agency I know of that I would trust with such extreme power.

    Those who would give up essential “Safety,” to purchase a little temporary “Liberty”, deserve neither “Safety” nor “Liberty.”

  • Rob Henry August 9, 2015, 22:00

    So many here seem overly disappointed by KSR’s taking socialism as an inevitable system (to the extent that it wrecks the story for them), but I think this is the wrong way to think of it. It is hard not to notice that he seems well aware of this systems shortcomings – so this, in no way, detracts from the story. Guessing that socialism will triumph has as many pros as cons. First the cons.

    Our innate human sense of fair play is entirely in the negative, and present from a very young age. It is defined by our willingness to do harm to ourselves and third parties rather than accept a situation in which another gains perceived ‘unfair’ advantage. The aim of socialism is to take fair distribution to the max so we are allowed to obsess over it at the expense of all else – including actually actually producing anything ourselves… Now the cons

    Capitalism has already gone past its moral mandate as defined by Adam Smith with the creation of the corporation (there is a marvelous documentary about this of the same name that I thoroughly recommend). Furthermore the growing accumulation of resources around non-productive devices, such as derivatives, needs addressing. Finally, (a display of) wealth can cut people off from a wider and more interesting circle of people to their mutual detriment.

    Notice that even the cons speak more against the system itself rather than the likelihood of us adopting it. Perhaps KSR’s type of socialistic future is not too far of the mark. To me a worse problem would be if all SF writers assumed the same future political environment. It would be a dereliction of imagination.

  • ljk August 10, 2015, 8:51

    ole burde said on August 7, 2015 at 17:28

    “… are you willing NOT to take the first and most costeffektive opportunity for launching a starship ? The window of opportunity might close ….”

    No I do NOT want a Worldship where the crew are treated like machines or animals or worse just because a bunch of people back on Earth a long time ago wanted to get to Alpha Centauri.

    The only real justification for a Worldship (multigenerational starship for those not up on the lingo yet) will be because something really bad is happening to and/or on Earth and humanity has not developed relativistic interstellar travel, so the only choice to save some of our people is to build a vessel that can sustain them for the long journey (and will we know of any suitable worlds for them to colonize by then? Or will they have to terraform an alien planet, if they can?). Of course if Earth and humanity are in big trouble, will they even be able to build any kind of Worldship at all?

    My concerns about only engineers designing such a project continue to be justified.

  • ljk August 10, 2015, 9:13

    Edward S. Gilfillan, Jr. had a similar idea of getting humans to another star system at cost in his 1975 book Migration to the Stars: Never Again Enough People.

    The scary part is that his crew of 12 were expected to breed and have their descendants endure the journey, but if it turned out the star system had no suitable planets (somehow Gilfillan could not envision the folks running this project at least trying to see if their target system might be friendly to Earth life first), then that was just too bad for the future generation and their fate would be their own issue. The presumption was that the project organizers would try again and again until they got it right.

    I do not know what is worse: Gilfillan’s cold as ice attitude, the space advocates who think sending a bunch of humans in a tin can for millennia across deep space will be just hunky dory, or that the people – especially the ones who did not volunteer to go – can and will be controlled by draconian methods to fulfill the dreams of people far away and long dead to them.

    Again, Worldships should only be built if there is no other choice to reach the stars. Otherwise machines will do the job far better. If a group of humans do want to go in person to Alpha Centauri and beyond, hey, I never said I could stop them, but let us recognize that unless an FTL drive is developed, the journey will be very long and potentially fatal to such a crew. Anybody here want to be a Gilfillan about this?

  • ljk August 10, 2015, 13:08
  • david lewis August 10, 2015, 22:41

    “Capitalism has already gone past its moral mandate as defined by Adam Smith with the creation of the corporation…”

    That’s a laugh. The guy was for taxation, and warned us about enacting new laws or regulations of commerce that came from businessmen. In the modern world he wouldn’t be a capitalist, he’d be vehemently called a rabid socialist.

    ——————

    If a worldship is impossible, then we can forget about exploring the stars with robots. After all, if we can’t create a stable and happy society of a few hundred people who have no worries about famine, disease, war, natural disaster, … then there’s no hope of creating a world stable enough to last the centuries it would take robots to reach even the nearest stars; we’ll destroy ourselves long before that.

    With so many sides, each not willing to give an inch, just how long will it be before we take a step too far?

  • ljk August 11, 2015, 9:38

    david lewis said on August 10, 2015 at 22:41:

    “If a worldship is impossible, then we can forget about exploring the stars with robots. After all, if we can’t create a stable and happy society of a few hundred people who have no worries about famine, disease, war, natural disaster, … then there’s no hope of creating a world stable enough to last the centuries it would take robots to reach even the nearest stars; we’ll destroy ourselves long before that.”

    You are assuming that the robots will be returning that precious data back to Earth for our benefit. As for a stable, “happy” human world, so long as humans remain human will probably remain an ideal. Perhaps a Worldship with a happy stable crew will work, at least through the first few generations. But if we wait for our species to be perfect, we might as well not attempt anything.

    Then david lewis said:

    “With so many sides, each not willing to give an inch, just how long will it be before we take a step too far?”

    It is not that I am merely unwilling to “give an inch”, it is that I am not for putting humans and their children on a one-way interstellar mission which requires their being controlled to rather extreme measures as some others have been advocated, essentially insisting, on this thread.

  • Larry Kennedy August 11, 2015, 14:21

    @ ljk
    re:” not for putting humans and their children on a one-way interstellar mission”
    There are millions of people who would risk death to place themselves and their children in such a more prosperous , safe and free place than than they live in now. As a matter of fact, they do so for much less every day.

  • david lewis August 11, 2015, 15:51

    Why bother launching the robots if they aren’t going to be returning the data to earth for our benefit? If we humans are extinct, or reduce back to the stone age, then what’s the use of the robots? I suppose some civilization thousands of years from now might make use of it, or some other species millions of years from now. (By our I meant human, not the current generation.)

    I didn’t mean “you,” but the various groups on earth. We’ve only managed to barely escape nuclear war already a few time; eventually, that luck will run out. We have idiots who think a coup in a nation bordering Russia was smart. What is Russia supposed to do, ignore it? Or perhaps, do the same with Mexico, and arm anti-US groups with military weapons? Well, why not? it’s what we did to them.

    The earth is a pretty durable worldship, and will survive whatever we do, but we might not. If we can’t create a stable society of a few hundred people, then we can forget about doing so here on earth; eventually that means extinction.

    Personally, I do not agree with controlling people. Watching them in public spaces is another thing entirely. But then I guess people shouldn’t have the “liberty” to decide for themselves if they want to board a worldship.

  • Larry Kennedy August 11, 2015, 17:09

    @ ljk
    Finally got around to finishing the science2.0 blog. It covers a lot of ground but I believe the most important thing is reminding us once again that unlimited growth simply won’t work. A lot of people just don’t get the simple mathematics.
    We can’t just keep on growing in the universe we find ourselves in.

  • ole burde August 12, 2015, 17:15

    ljk said :
    ” I am not for putting humans and their children on a one-way interstellar mission which requires their being controlled to rather extreme measures as some others have been advocated, ”
    People managed to reach the moon as soon as it became tecnologicaly possible , you might even argue they did it many years before !
    Why didn’t they just lean back and wait till it could be done fast and safe , perhaps around 2080 ?
    People sailed around the globe in small wooden ships , enduring impossible hard conditions and dying in big numbers while inventing world trade and making maps of the world , why didn’t they just wait for the age of jetplanes ?
    Here is how it works : If those people of past generations had not been willing to risk everything , if they had HESITATED , we would NEVER have reached anywhere , just like the chineese empires never managed to make the brake-through into industrial civilisation even as they for long periods were thousands of years ahead of western civilisation … What were they waiting for ?
    Some of us will be willing to risk 20 generations of ”hard conditions” , if nescesary , in order to make the next giant leap for mankind . For a sailor from the 17’th century these conditions would be utopian luxury .
    Some of us will feel an obligation to prove , that deep down we are made of the same stuff those sailors were made of , no more and no less .
    I guess ljk doesn’t feel that way , but perhabs one of his descendants might feel it anyway .

  • ljk August 13, 2015, 13:20

    To ole burde:

    Hard conditions are one thing. Forcing harsh controls on people for generations is quite another.

    You act as if I do not know the difference between “roughing it” for brief periods and whole groups under long dystopian style control. The Apollo lunar missions were flown by three highly-trained men for just two weeks to the Moon and back. Even nautical voyages back in the day were months long at best. They are NOT the same as sending humans and their children on a “mission” to another entire star system and demanding continual control of their actions.

    You said:

    “Some of us will be willing to risk 20 generations of ”hard conditions” , if nescesary , in order to make the next giant leap for mankind . For a sailor from the 17’th century these conditions would be utopian luxury.”

    Yes, apparently some folks are quite willing to risk the lives of others to fulfill their dreams. There are better ways to reach the stars than pushing outmoded attitudes of manliness and family tradition on future generations. I have stated them before and will do so again if necessary.

    Making a swipe at me about not wanting to get humanity to that next leap because I am not interested in imposing my will upon others if it means generations of repression and worse for our descendants isn’t going to deter me.

  • Wojciech J August 16, 2015, 8:12

    ”Hard conditions are one thing. Forcing harsh controls on people for generations is quite another.”
    By this logic, we should stop procreating all together, since life always brings harsh conditions to the one born.
    Such argument was already thrown away by Aristotle as far as I remember.

  • Larry Kennedy August 16, 2015, 12:53

    It sounds to me a lot more like you want your values forced on everyone else.
    By the time any generation ships are launched, if even necessary, stable proven societies will already exist in space.

  • ljk August 17, 2015, 8:58

    Wojciech J August 16, 2015 at 8:12:

    ”Hard conditions are one thing. Forcing harsh controls on people for generations is quite another.”

    “By this logic, we should stop procreating all together, since life always brings harsh conditions to the one born.”

    Reread what I wrote. I did not say life would not be difficult or that we should not procreate. What I am arguing against are those who want to impose draconian measures of control on those who inhabit a Worldship to maintain order and the mission goals across generations. And this is being wished upon by a bunch of technonerds who of course won’t have to endure such torture so it is easy for them to say. Is that what you want?

    And then space advocates wonder why the general populace are not into space.

    “Such argument was already thrown away by Aristotle as far as I remember.”

    Ah yes, Aristotle, the Greek natural philosopher who lived over two thousand years ago and who insisted that Earth was the only place with life, that Sol and everything else goes around it, and that the liver is the seat of human intelligence.

  • ljk August 17, 2015, 9:10

    Larry Kennedy said on August 16, 2015 at 12:53:

    “It sounds to me a lot more like you want your values forced on everyone else.”

    If by that accusation you mean I do not want to see a bunch of male technonerds making plans for unborn generations to endure their ideas of how they should live aboard an interstellar tin can for ages when the fact of the matter is these technonerds are far more interested and concerned about the mechanics of the multigenerational ship than the humans it will carry as I have seen time and time again since before the dawn of the actual Space Age, then… yeah.

    “By the time any generation ships are launched, if even necessary, stable proven societies will already exist in space.”

    Define a “stable proven” society in space. Realistically, not Star Trek or Space: 1999.

  • Larry Kennedy August 17, 2015, 14:31

    If we do not have technically savvy, and socially stable habitats in space then we simply won’t be building any generation ships.
    I don’t see anyone advocating a space version of the press gang.
    If you’re talking about descendants, we’re making decisions about life, death, and freedom for our descendants on a regular basis.

  • ljk August 17, 2015, 17:17

    Larry Kennedy said on August 17, 2015 at 14:31:

    “I don’t see anyone advocating a space version of the press gang.
    If you’re talking about descendants, we’re making decisions about life, death, and freedom for our descendants on a regular basis.”

    Please reread the comments in this thread. There were more than a few instances by several commentators that if serious restrictions needed to be imposed up the members of a Worldship and their descendants to stay focused on the mission, then so be it.

    In the process my balking at such measures were repeatedly mistaken for not being bold and daring enough to want to reach the stars, which really missed my point. The point I was trying to make was that we don’t need to go to such literally inhuman lengths when there are numerous better ways to spread out into the galaxy.

    The only real reason we would need a Worldship is if Earth and humanity were in the kind of trouble where escaping the Sol system with as many members of our species as possible was our only hope. If we are talking about primarily scientific exploration, machines will do a far better and more efficient job.

    Note that my protestations certainly will not stop any group of humans who still want to go to Alpha Centauri and beyond in person. They will likely be part of some cult. All I was trying to do was say if we were going to send a manned mission to the stars on behalf of all humanity, then let us find a way to do so without becoming excessively restrictive.

    Hopefully by the time a Worldship is a viable option that we will indeed know how to live and work in space indefinitely and those lessons will be carried along with the crew of such a vessel and mission.

  • Wojciech J August 19, 2015, 3:36

    “Ah yes, Aristotle, the Greek natural philosopher who lived over two thousand years ago and who insisted that Earth was the only place with life, that Sol and everything else goes around it, and that the liver is the seat of human intelligence.”
    You used an ethical argument against space travel, which was debunked by philosophers thousands of years ago.You can’t counter this by pointing out they were wrong in completely different field of science.

    “And this is being wished upon by a bunch of technonerds who of course won’t have to endure such torture ” First of all conditions in space are hardly torture, second of all you are becoming quite insultive if not ignorant. The lives and experiences of people supporting space exploration are unknown to you. I for example lived for significant part of my life with my family under communist dictatorship compared to which living conditions described by Robinson are like promised land.

  • ljk August 19, 2015, 11:29

    Not trying to insult, just trying to make sure the people destined to spend many lives on a Worldship are actually being considered. The fact that you had to endure a communist dictatorship should make you of all people even more sensitive to ensuring those who will not have the luxury of escaping their home in case something goes very wrong can actually live and thrive without being treated like cogs in a machine or worse.

    You may think otherwise but the human factor is often not as well considered when it comes to manned space exploration. I have already provided several examples earlier in this thread where past technical experts discussing a Worldship just assume that the crew will either be just fine or learn to adapt because the alternative is degeneration and death.

  • ljk August 19, 2015, 11:43

    See this official NASA book on space psychology which I wrote a review on here:

    https://centauri-dreams.org/?p=24523

    As the book clearly shows, even over half a century later, NASA and other space agencies are way behind when it comes to knowing if humans can survive in space or on other worlds for long periods of time. And I mean long. At their core they are still operating under the Right Stuff attitude from the early days of the Space Age when a few select men endured a few hours to a few months in a tin can.

    It is one thing when trouble happens and you are circling Earth, where rescue or a trip home can be a matter of minutes to hours away. What happens when you are halfway to Mars and your home planet is just a blue star in the sky? Or Alpha Centauri?

  • Stan Erickson August 19, 2015, 14:18

    Pardon me, but I think the commenters here are making too much of the details of the novel. It was not written to be self-consistent. Four hundred years from now people will be very different, just as they were four hundred years ago. Four hundred years of development in neurology, psychology, political science and so on should amount to something. The author wanted to make a story that present day readers could relate to, so he invented a stage setting, the ship, and transposed current personalities and interests into it. He did exactly what an author should do, and his work should be appreciated for what it is: Current day people interacting in a novel setting. Trying to make more of it that it is reminds me of extrapolating a curve ten times the length of the data.

  • david lewis August 19, 2015, 22:59

    “Pardon me, but I think the commenters here are making too much of the details of the novel. ”

    Agreed. Typically it wouldn’t be a good read unless it had some sort of hardship. With the way technology is changi9ng, we can’t even guess what will be possible in 400 years time, or what the people will be like. However, if there’s still a technological civilization on this planet at that time, I’m “guessing” they will be nothing like the people of today.

    To make a good plot the author obviously skipped out on a lot of points. For one, if you can get a ship of that mass up to that speed, then it would be child’s play to send a few probes to the sun’s foci point in the opposite direction. That planet would’ve been studied in depth decades in advanced of the launching, and would’ve been compared to the thousands of other planets that would’ve also been studied at that point.

    A civilization that more advanced than us would’ve also had the know-how to cure almost any disease. No, make that the know-how to cure “any” disease. At least unless we were to stop all research for some reason.

    While a piece of writing, including science-fiction, might be designed to create certain opinions/emotions within people, science-fiction is still just that, fiction.