What Will Sink Our Generation Ships? The Death of Wonder

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/02/11/what-will-sink-our-generation.html


Assuming Christopher reads this comment section, please consider: I don’t think we’ll be building generation ships until long after the technology exists to make them work. Long afterward. We simply have no need to leave for millions of years, no matter how bad things got on Earth.

On every other world but Earth, we’d have to live in tunnels or protective buildings at best. The environments outside will remain lethal, and the native gravity will be wrong for our biology. Some planets and moons will have bases on them sure, but these will probably be otherwise uninhabited because they cannot offer earth-like conditions. Nor is it safe and economical to land and take off from planets and moons. So, their resources are quite out of reach. Humans are wholly incapable of sustaining a long and expensive project such as terraforming.

Instead of leaping from Earth to other stars, we’ll be filling the solar system with orbital colonies. Millions of them, each miles long, the living space of whole counties, and practically self-sufficient. Orbital colonies can have appropriate simulated gravity, temperature, pressure, air composition, etc.

Construction of colonies will be mostly out of powdered rock that has been sintered into O’Neil style cylinders using solar mirrors. A concrete-like substance built up like in a gigantic 3D printer. Closer to home, we’ll use lunar material kicked up with mass drivers. Mars’s moons will be useful, and then it’s on to the asteroids. Mining efforts will leave vast heaps of rock, and the process will likely be highly automated.

Like the settling of the old west, future generations may sit and wait for word that a colony has been finished, and then travel a few days or weeks to homestead it. Before long, the bulk of humanity will live in space, having been born and raised there.

Once we do build colony ships, we will not be searching for habitable planets and moons. That’s just silly. All we need is material to build more orbital colonies out of, and a power source. We could colonize virtually any type of star system, as long as it has material and isn’t too hostile for our concrete shells. We’ll end up colonizing more red dwarfs than any other type, since there are far more of them, and they live far longer than the other categories.


It’s simple. We simply declare human-made robots to be human. Then all the space-colonization fantasies people have can be fulfilled without any of the pesky biology that makes human spaceflight useless for anything other than Cold War posturing. We’ve already colonized Mars by robots after all.


I’m a little confused. Is Christopher Mari actually Kameron Hurley, the author of The Stars are Legion, or was that a slip up?

Well, it’s more exploration by robot than colonization by robot isn’t it ?


The first rule of Pseudonym Club is…


Well, they aren’t coming home, are they? Sounds like colonists to me.


A lot of explorers die in foreign places.
Colonizing (to me) implies you settle, you build, you grow, you change and exploit the place to live, expand and prosper (at best).
Exploring is studying a place, those robots doesn’t exploit natural resources or building camps or making baby robots. They learn and they try to change has little has possible the Mars environment.
Don’t think I’m for the colonization of Mars because I’m not. We have a lot to learn before trashing the place.


There are other ways to “colonize” space.

Sending a big ship full of biological humans to another habitable world seems kind of old fashioned.

Even if we stick with the biology paradigm, there’s the prospect of settling on comets and asteroids, ala Dyson’s “Greening of the Galaxy.”

The key paragraphs of which I transcribed, because they’re full of wonder and majesty:

"The question that will decide our destiny is not whether we shall expand into space. It is: shall we be one species or a million? A million species will not exhaust the ecological niches that are awaiting the arrival of intelligence.

It may or may not be true that other stars have as many comets as the sun. We
have no evidence one way or the other. If the sun is not exceptional in this
regard, then comets pervade our entire galaxy, and the galaxy is a much
friendlier place for interstellar travels than most people imagine. The
average distance between habitable islands in the ocean of space will then not
be measured in light-years but will be of the order of a light-day or less.

Whether or not the comets provide the convenient way stations for the migration
of life all over the galaxy, the interstellar distances cannot be a permanent
barrier to life’s expansion.] <Once life has learned to encapsulate itself
against the cold and the vacuum of space, it can survive interstellar voyages
and can seed itself whereever starlight and water and essential nutrients are
to be found. Wherever life goes, our descendants will go with it, helping and
guiding and adapting. There will be problems for life to solve in adapting
itself to planets of various sizes or to interstellar dust clouds. Our
descendants will perhaps learn to grow gardens in stellar winds and in
supernova remnants. The one thing that our descendants will not be able to do
is to stop the expansion of life once it is started. The power to control the
expansion will be for a short time in hour hands, but ultimately life will find
its own ways to expand with or without our help. The greening of the galaxy
will be an irreversible process.

When we are a million species spreading through the galaxy, the question “Can
man play God and still stay sane?” will lose some of its terrors. We shall be
playing God, but only as local deities and not as lords of the universe. There
is safety in numbers. Some of us will become insane, and rule over empires as
crazy as Doctor Moreau’s island. Some of us will shit on the morning star.
There will be conflicts and tragedies. But in the long run, the sane will
adapt and survive better than the insane. Nature’s pruning of the unfit will
limit the spread of insanity among species in the galaxy, as it does among
individuals on earth. Sanity is, in its essence, nothing more than the ability
to live in harmony with nature’s laws.

The expansion of life over the universe is a beginning, not an end. At the same
time as life is extending its habitat quantitatively, it will also be changing
and evolving qualitatively into new dimensions of mind and spirit that we
cannot imagine. The acquistion of new territory is important, not as an end in
itself, but as a means to enable life to experiment with intelligence in a
million forms."

– Freeman Dyson, “The Greening of the Galaxy.”


Once again: space is not an appropriate environment in which to rely upon the power of positive thinking.

Space is cool. Space exploration is awesome. Space science is existentially important to humanity.

But none of that means that your Star Wars Mars colony dreams are going to come true. Space demands competence, space demands knowledge, space demands a realistic understanding of the challenges. Space is very unforgiving of wishful thinking.

Yes, get the climate satellites up there. Yes, keep pushing the robotic explorers. But stop wasting lives and resources on pointless flags and footprints missions with insanely expensive canned monkeys,


While it’s clearly a political thought experiment, this is something that made the harsh anarchy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress pretty believable.

Frederick Pohl for the win.


Yes, I was also thinking of Man Plus at that bit. (I still need to read the sequel written with Thomas T. Thomas, but my expectations are low.)

I also find myself thinking of The Whims of Creation by Simon Hawke, the tale of a generation ship whose inhabitants are very quietly succumbing to depression and suicide. Their solution is best summed up as an exceptionally elaborate LARP. (It’s readable, but not particularly good.)

1 Like

I think Robinson’s central premise was sound, in that we could not create a completely self-sufficient biome capable of supporting a human population for many centuries with any technology grounded in our current understanding of physics and biology.

We might yet make our mark on other solar systems, but whatever ends up living there probably isn’t going to look much like us.


I am a nearly 63 year old lifelong science fiction/fantasy reader and lover, discovering stories and zines from the Golden Era that ignited my passion for these genres. One of the reason so much modern SF/F isn’t that interesting is it has fallen into a chronic dystopian darkness, offering little in imaginative speculation - and often translated into destruction porn in video, if made into TV/movie, at all.

I find Kim Stanley Robinson’s writings and ideas compelling, in that they are grounded in known science and are more accessible, which is attractive.


When the author here talks about interrogating our human condition, I think back on the '90s renaissance in virtual reality and telepresence. The more saturated we become in imagery taken in by other eyes, the more plausible it seems that robots could be our children and they could be the colonists on Mars and other bodies.

The push for NASA to be putting humans into space seems rooted in a mistrust of machinery, as if only human senses can really matter on these new rocks. But I feel it should be the other way around.Robot senses are the more reliable. And when they inevitably flicker out, we can send in another, without all the moral handwriting and soul-searching and budget peril that happens whenever an astronaut dies on duty.


There is no need to wait until we depart for a new planet to re-design humans as new and varied species. Most people still seem to think that creating new humans by accident is somehow more virtuous than doing so deliberately. But I doubt if that will always be the case. Our future is in becoming countless of other species.


I’m no biologist but there are huge problems with Robinson’s arguments. The notion that we need a complex range of bacteria that can’t be carried with us is quite an assumption. I’m not aware of much experimental support beyond that mammals don’t thrive as well in really sterile environments and seem to require some immune challenges to develop a healthy immune system. Just don’t sterilize the ship or passengers. Bring a few plants and animals. Beyond that, bacteria and viruses are small and freeze well. The suggestion that some sort of harmful rapid genetic shift in symbiotic bacteria could happen runs contrary to the observation that this doesn’t happen in isolated populations on Earth and the principle that symbiotic organisms are under constant selection to maintain symbiosis. New virulent strains are usually the result of a pathogen moving to a new species ie bird flu, swine flu, HIV, the plague, etc. Over time, virulence tends to decline because non-virulent strains are able to spread more widely ie feline immunodeficiency virus in lions, the feline version of HIV, which is ancient, widespread (100% in some populations) and has no obvious symptoms.


The assumption is that humans exist as one part of an incredibly complex ecosystem that would be difficult to transport and maintain indefinitely in the much-miniaturized closed system of a spaceship. That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me based on our current understanding of biology.


That’s the thing that bugs me about KSR’s “Here Be Dragons!” view of the rest of the universe: he assumes that we know what we’re going to know w/r/t to making this happen and expending effort to make it happen is some sort of moral failing.

We can’t get to the stars right now, with what we know now. But 250 years ago, we were huffing too much phlogiston to make much sense of, say, antibiotics or quantum mechanics. There’s plenty of time to get to the stars. I trust we will get there.


It’s going to take me a bit to digest all of what was written in the article, but anyone who namechecks Tom Swift gets mad props from me! Three cheers for all who wrote under the Victor Appleton moniker; they gave us all so much with which to dream.

1 Like