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New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora

by C. W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter, The Game of Thrones, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Interstellar, and the works of Hanya Yanagihara, Ken Liu and Liu Cixin.

2-torus starshipScience fiction is full of ideas. But the ideas in science fiction seldom have the depth and rigor of ideas in science, or in philosophy, or politics and ethics. The reason I say this is: in fiction, the game is rigged. The debates are one-sided. The author gets the first, middle, and last word.

This is not to say that the ideas in science fiction cannot capture the imagination. Indeed many classic SF stories that have inspired careers or even presaged the future. But not all have. The ideas in SF are not fully developed theories or philosophies, but more like Edison’s famous ten thousand attempts at making electric light: we remember the one that worked and forget, mostly, the ten thousand that didn’t.

But the ones that work, either through vivid imagery or asking difficult questions or getting lucky and “predicting” the future, stay with us. Once in a great while, there is even a story that causes me to rethink my opposition to describing science fiction as a “literature of ideas.”

Such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, Aurora.


Let me explore the concept of fiction as being rigged. Science fiction typically assumes some future technology, whether it be interstellar travel or time travel or life extension, is possible. It is only after such an assumption that we arrive at the “idea” in science fiction: a fable about unintended consequences–step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous, change all of history–or to ask, a la James Blish, Who does this hurt?

But these moral fables–for that is what they really are–gloss over the assumption of a technology. Many enthusiasts believe in a kind of technological manifest destiny: we can achieve any technology, if only we are smart enough, or put enough effort into it, or let market forces achieve it.

In support of such a view the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Project, and Moore’s Law are often cited. Such citations often ignore the fact that those successes were a matter of scaling known engineering. The basic physics of fission reactions, of space flight, and of transistors were known long before those projects and observations began.

Here’s the problem: one should not conclude, by way of analogy, that any technological goal can be achieved by sheer perspiration. The easiest and most obvious example is in human health. By a wide margin, the most crucial leaps to better health have been good sewage management and vaccines, followed by antibiotics. But after that it becomes much harder. If market forces alone were enough, we would have conquered cancer long ago, but while some cancers are curable, many others we can at best slow down. (This, of course, is because “cancer” does not have a single etiology.) There are start-up firms devoted to engineered immortality, but none have added a single day to human life spans.

In short, just because you can imagine it doesn’t mean it is actually possible. I’m still surprised how resistant people are to this basic principle.


Of course, interstellar flight might seem like a straightforward if ambitious scaling-up of the Apollo program. But Tau Ceti, one of the closest singlet G-class stars (i.e., like our sun), known to have at least five planets, is almost 100 billion times farther away than our moon. That’s a lot of scaling; by comparison, Moore’s law from 1971 to today has seen a mere one million times increase in the number of transistors on a chip.

And Moore’s law has a cost. As transistors shrink, the chip foundries become increasingly complex, costing over US$1 billion to build, and using prodigious amounts of caustic chemicals. The market pressures so far have masked these costs, but even so the market for personal computers has saturated and it is the market for phones which has largely driven further developments. But now with billions of phones across the globe that market too is becoming saturated. We’ll see replacements, of course, but that is linear; the pressure for geometric growth described for Moore’s law is diminishing.

And in a way, this is the story that Robinson tells in Aurora.


[Click twice to see full-size image]

Some minor spoilers ahead; I’ll keep them to a minimum, but I will outline some key plot points. If you want me to cut to the chase, it’s this: in my opinion, Aurora is the best hard science fiction novel since Benford’s Timescape, and Robinson achieves this by blowing up the usual assumptions, and jumping up and down on them until they are ground into tiny bits.

Aurora is about interstellar travel. A ship, one of many, is sent at one-tenth of the speed of light to Tau Ceti. This journey takes almost two centuries, and so generations are born, live, and die aboard the ship.

In Robinson’s novel, interstellar travel is possible, but costly. First and foremost, keeping a closed ecosystem running is not easy. Robinson has hinted at these concerns in previous novels, in Icehenge and his Mars trilogy, and here he spells them out in detail, thinking out how a generation ship would work (and not work) to a degree not achieved before. The specific biochemistry is a little beyond me, but he is married to an environmental chemist and, most importantly, the principle is sound. Managing trace elements such as bromine isn’t easy: too little can have dire consequences, but too much and you have toxic effects. The designers of the starship had to try to predict how the ecosystem would behave over centuries. Robinson assumes the designers did a pretty good job, but even in a pretty good job a few miscalculations or oversights can grow over time.

Just as big a source of problems as technology is politics. Robinson’s politics lean to the communitarian and the ship’s governance reflects this, but he recognizes that every polity can fracture and every system of governances privileges some over others. In this he echoes LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, a novel I first read many years ago in a class Robinson taught at UC Davis, and which is also set in the Tau Ceti system. And as in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, when society is stressed, some people respond badly, even violently.

The politics back home, i.e., on Earth, also shifts. People lose interest in interstellar travel, which soaks up enormous resources, leaving the crew of the ship to their own devices when things go awry.

Most SF novels assume that Things Work Out in the end. A crisis convenient for a thrilling plot pops up, but Our Heroes/ines figure out it in the nick of time, and humans triumph over the odds. This future version of Manifest Destiny has been here since the pulps and never really gone away.

Robinson attacks this idea, in detail and in depth. The technology goes wrong, and there is no magical fix, and people die. (Not always; there are some spectacular saves.) The politics goes really wrong, and more people die.

Moreover, Robinson suggests that Manifest Destiny breaks apart upon the rocks of the Fermi paradox, i.e., if there is intelligent life out there, why haven’t we heard from it? Recently I wrote of the Chinese author Cixin Liu’s solution to the Fermi paradox, a dark and paranoid vision.

Robinson’s solution to the Fermi paradox is more measured and frankly more believeable than Liu’s. In most science fiction novels people on alien worlds can easily breathe the air and eat the native organisms with no ill effect. This has always bothered me, because, for example, humans actually can only tolerate a fairly narrow range of atmospheric mixtures; and as for food, we’ve had to co-evolve to digest plant and animal tissues.

Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. The latter is of course speculative, but speculation is the game in science fiction.

The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.


Aurora is not a perfect novel. Like most hard SF novels, it is plot and exposition heavy. Only three characters are fully realized, and one of those is the ship’s artificial intelligence. The bulk of the prose is plain and to-the-point, which Robinson cleverly covers by having the ship itself be the narrator. Only in the opening and closing sections, not narrated by the ship, does the prose sing and does Robinson use his literary skills fully.

But few novels in my reading have examined the technology and the difficulties therein in as much detail, acknowledging that science and people are always flawed and limited. I seldom say this, but Robinson’s novel is truly an “instant classic” of SF, and the hardest of hard SF at that. The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.


Related Articles:

Making Aliens (six part series, starts here)

Once Again with Feeling: The Planets of Gliese 581

The Death Rattle of the Space Shuttle

If They Come, It Might Get Built

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Damp Squibs: Non-news in Space Exploration

Images: 1st, a two-torus starship like Aurora; 2nd, the Tau Ceti system; 3rd, Kim Stanley Robinson

24 Responses to “Destination, not Destiny: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora”

  1. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I have not read Aurora, I gave it a try but did not find myself being hooked right away… and I have, as usual, too many books to read so I shelved it for the moment. Perhaps I should give it a go again.

    I’m still not quite entirely sure about the “Fermi Paradox”. People seem to have broken it down into “ETI” or “starships”- you can have one, or the other ,but not both because no flying saucers are on the White House Lawn.

    But aren’t there some possibilities in between? Not all starship colonies will succeed, and not all successful colonies will send out further colonizing expeditions. I could imagine large gaps in the area of “colonized space”, lots of stars where no sign of aliens are present. Particularly if all travel is of the slow kind.

    Secondly, would we recognize signs of ETI if we saw them? People tend to see what they want in things (thus, Venus becomes UFO!), but in science, we don’t accept anything other than a natural explanation without a good burden of proof. Consider the hubbub over KIC 8462852. Like many, I think this will turn out to have a natural explanation. But, just suppose we are seeing signs of alien megastructures. Most of us aren’t willing accept that explanation without further proof. What if it isn’t forthcoming?

    Or suppose we found what looked like an alien artifact in our solar system. I would not be surprised if more controversy raged over it than has over ALH84001.

    Also, human civilization hasn’t been around that terribly long, only about 5000 years. Through most of that, we would not have recognized aliens unless they landed and made overt contact. Can we entirely rule out the possibility that Earth was visited deep in prehistory? Most traces would be gone by now.

    Finally, it looks like we have to make some possibly unwarranted assumptions about ETI behavior to draw such sweeping conclusions.

    Sorry for the long comment, but your blog always inspires thinking!!

  2. Athena says:

    Christopher, I think that all the explanations put forward for the Fermi Paradox share the problem of being unverifiable (so far). In many cases, including strange KIC, we can only exclude possibilities at best. The verdict is far more definitive on long-term crewed space travel with current engineering and self-sustaining methodologies: failure is guaranteed (see the MIT analysis of the Mars One nonsense).

  3. CWJ says:

    Fermi’s Paradox arose because Enrico Fermi thought like, well, a physicist. He started from the basic assumption that intelligent life would diffuse throughout the available space–and he knew how diffusion works, even if some starship colonies failed, over time another would succeed. Even if most societies did not invest in interstellar colonies, you only need a few to get diffusion.

    Obviously there is something wrong with the basic assumption, and even Fermi recognized that. The real question is, what is wrong with that basic assumption?

    Liu Cixin in “The Dark Forest” and Robinson in “Aurora” both postulate hostile barriers to that diffusion: Liu at the political and social level, and Robinson at the fundamental biochemical level. Athena is correct in that they are, as yet, unverifiable. And so the mystery of Fermi’s question (“where are they?”) remains…

  4. Alex Tolley says:

    While we cannot predict or will certain technologies, IMO it is also a mistake to assume that technology will not continue to evolve, probably in unexpected directions. Almost any SF novel or film is embedded in very primitive technology for its projected future date. Just look at that favorite, Blade Runner – not a cellphone in sight, just payphones in 2019.

    Aurora is set half a millennium in the future. Just looking at the advances in biology we are making this century, I would surprised if humans 1.0 are engaged in star flight, or that biology will be such a problem in that period. Even the book allows cold sleep for the trip home, a technology that pretty much obsoletes much of the thinking about the outbound journey.

    Whether humans will be interested in star flight in 500 years is unknown, but I would guess such “world ships” will seem as a quaint an idea for such travel as Verne’s canon in “From the Earth to the Moon”.

  5. Athena says:

    Much of our technology may be evolved and evolving, but many core concepts remain unchanged. There will be no FTL travel or stable wormhole to shorten such journeys. Nor will there be uploading or cryonics (cold sleep is likelier). And world ships may look different if we undertake such outings, but they will still belong to that broad category, with all its logistical problems.

  6. CWJ says:

    Alas, Alex, I’ve failed to get across to you my point (and what I believe to be the point of the novel). The point is not to assume that technologies will not evolve, but to challenge the assumption–which is basically the trap you are falling headfirst into–that science and technology will inexorably and fully solve all problems. Basically your statements such as “I would surprised if humans 1.0 are engaged in star flight, or that biology will be such a problem in that period” suggest you take for granted the kind of technological manifest destiny Robinson is arguing against.

    It’s exactly as Athena says: yes, interstellar ships will likely look very different from Robinson’s specific description, but–and this IS the key point–there will still be huge logistical problems and technological challenges.

    PS — the cannon in “From the Earth to the Moon” was unrealistic, and Verne got zero gee wrong, but he actually anticipated many things correctly: that one would want to launch from as near to the equator as possible, that American industrial prowess would be extremely important in such a venture, that one has to worry about providing oxygen and scrubbing CO2, that returning space craft might splash down in the ocean, and so on. So I wouldn’t sneer at him….

  7. Alex Tolley says:

    @CWJ. I am certainly not saying that technology will solve all problems. What I am saying is that the ones KSR has identified may not be operative, invalidating his particular argument and view of space colonization. As I pointed out, the novel does end up allowing cold sleep, which pretty much solves many of the world ship problems.

    In 500 years, technologies will solve some problems, some problems will remain intractable, closing off certain developments, and there will be new problems to solve. History is replete with “problems” that supposedly prevented all sorts of developments – from passenger steam trains, heavier than air flight, even rocket spacecraft. Living in space may prove too hard, or it may not. Star flight may be forever unsolved due to lack of FTL, or at least light speed travel, although I would be careful about making definitive statements like “There will be no FTL travel”, because it is based on physics we know today and its ramifications, which is not complete.

    While investment prospectuses say, “the past is no guarantee of future performance”, “techno optimists” do have 250 years of industrial revolution history to bolster their argument that technology may solve a lot of problems we think are impossible today, although they will generate new ones as a result. There are no magic bullets.

    My point of noting that star flight may not involve humans 1.0 was an oblique way of saying – why assume biological beings will be engaged in star flight? In 500 years, if we have human level synthetics (let’s not call then robots with all the baggage that term comes with), then Robinson’s arguments just disappear. His argument then becomes akin to Devonian era fish arguing over whether they can colonize the land. Can they build mobile mechanical water tanks to move about in, when reptiles that evolved later solved that problem in an entirely different way. The point is that KSR would say humans (and with them, mind) will not colonize the galaxy, while I would say that he might be right about us, but mind embodied in other platforms has that potential by avoiding the biological problems humanity faces for such an endeavor. KSR is basically saying mudskippers cannot colonize the land, so game over. I don’t think one needs to have such a narrow view of the future.

    500 years is a long time. Our powers might be god-like, or we might rubbing sticks together to make fire.

  8. Athena says:

    Alex, I think you may be moving the goalposts a notch.

    I agree that robotic expeditions to far stars may well happen (regardless of the intelligence/sentience level of the AIs in the ships) because they already have. I also agree that any intelligence we encounter — or create, for that matter — will be radically different from ours. KSR did not preclude those possibilities. What he stated and elaborated in Aurora was that with the premises of “humans 1.0” and worldships, the bleak outcome is far likelier than a triumphant planetfall.

    Incidentally, the steam train problems were largely folkloric, and humans always knew in principle that heavier-than-air flight was feasible (birds and bats prove it).

  9. CWJ says:

    Alex, you are missing the point so badly we must be orbiting different suns.

  10. Christopher Phoenix says:

    The verdict is far more definitive on long-term crewed space travel with current engineering and self-sustaining methodologies: failure is guaranteed (see the MIT analysis of the Mars One nonsense).

    I had not seen that analysis, thank you! I never took Mars One very seriously- a one way colonizing mission anywhere with current technology never sounded feasible, either technologically or politically.

    The MIT analysis is specifically about Mars, but it gives one a good idea of where we stand with long-generation starships or indeed any kind of permanent space habitat. We still don’t know how to design a closed-loop life support system that keep astronauts alive and healthy for very long term missions. Our current life support systems seem about as capable of interstellar missions as our current chemical propulsion systems.

    There was one fellow involved in the ISS life support system who argued that a starship would be better off using an ISS-derived system with most of the food being brought dehydrated from home. Apparently, the numbers he ran said that it weighed more to bring along the equipment to convert electricity from the nuclear reactor into light and then into chemical energy stored in plant tissue than it would to bring consumables.

    If we accept his numbers, all seems well and good until the Q&A period. Then a lady who was a nutritionist spoke up to point out that after a few years, the vitamin content of dehydrated food diminishes to the point of uselessness. The stores of food would not last more than a decade or so.

    To me, this perfectly underscored the issues that the engineering people have when encroaching on the territory of the biological sciences. Biology is complex, dependent on many variables. Engineers like to think of astronauts as another widget in the system. But you can’t ignore all the factors that go into human health, from essentials like oxygen, nutrition, and gut microbes to *gasp* psychological health- even the human need to cuddle.

    Then again, when someone refuses to even consider the need for genetic variability in his analysis of crew size, he probably won’t end up with a very feasible mission plan…

  11. Athena says:

    Speaking of the need to cuddle, people in the first Starship Symposium were seriously discussing proposals in which only frozen embryos would be sent on such journeys, to be thawed and robot-raised on arrival. I will leave the list of problems with that as an exercise!

  12. Alex Tolley says:

    @CWJ We may well be living on different planets, but I am going by your agreement with Robinson’s arguments. You conclude the argument with 2 points:

    1. “Robinson suggests that most planets are either sterile, and would require centuries or millenia of terraforming–in stark contrast to the decades he unrealistically postulated in his Mars trilogy– or the established life would be so biochemically hostile at a fundamental level that humans could not survive. “

    Sending machines ahead of humans solves this problem. Target stars with sterile planets [don’t modify living worlds for moral reasons] are seeded with machines to do the terraforming. Take tens of thousands of years if necessary, and recreate livable conditions. These worlds may be impoverished from a biodiversity standpoint, being little more than global green houses for plants with supporting micro organisms and insects, but humans 1.0 could walk about on their surfaces and breathe air. Ther idea that humans have to do all the heavy lifting like the pioneers of history is unnecessary, except for a plot in a novel.

    Which leads to your concluding point:
    2. “The universe is full of life in Robinson’s vision, only that life is each trapped on its planet of origin. We can’t conquer distant stars; the costs are too great.”

    If argument 1 is fixable, argument 2 collapses. Species could colonize the galaxy slowly using machines as an advancing wave of terraforming agents, paving the way for human colonization. As Robinison allows cold sleep to solve the main problems of giant world ships, this would be the preferred mode of travel for the following humans.

    Robinson has backed away from his earlier optimism, and like aging musicians who transition to sad ballads, is writing more pessimistic fiction. This is probably more about him than reality.

    “The year 2015 isn’t over, but Aurora should be a shoo-in for major award nominations. Not only that, it should win.”

    263 reader reviews on give it 3.7/5. It may well be nominated, but I don’t think it “should win” the Hugo based on this data. Hopefully we’ll see next year.

  13. Alex Tolley says:

    @Athena. Charlie Stross, whose writing you don’t care for, would agree with you. However we do know that monkeys can be raised with artificial surrogate mothers, and human orphans are raised with little real “mothering”. We also have teh The resulting humans might well be “broken” or psychopathic, but they probably would survive to reproduce. Some of the documented cases of feral children are likely true ( ) so we may have proof of principle that babies raised without human carers are possible, even if the results are not as we would want for our colonizers. We should consider a longer time frame and speculate how such artificially seeded humans might develop technological cultures among the stars with some help from machines.

  14. steven johnson says:

    It may be an eccentric reading, but I have always interpreted the Biosphere 3 project as demonstrating that we have no idea how to establish a stable self-contained ecology. For me, Aurora was in many respects preaching to the choir.

    That said, Robinson to me appeared to be reaching for an impossibility proof; trying to suggest that even a relatively stable self-contained ecology will fail, due to the inevitable consequences of island evolution. In regards to the diminution of humans (inspired by the famous “hobbits” of Flores?) I rather strongly suspect that such a process would require much more stress on the human population than he portrays. In this situation the stress is the natural selection.

    But it is in his notion that microbial evolution on islands must inevitably be faster than human evolution that stands out. First, I’m not sure how this wouldn’t be the case on every island on Earth throughout geological history, yet it doesn’t seem to have quite the inevitability that Robinson asserts. Second, I’m not sure that natural selection will inevitably mold bacteria to approach multicellular life in a starship in the same fashion the US government approaches the rest of the world. Nor am I convinced that panselectionist perfection is so inevitable even if that were the predestined goal of microbes. Even more oddly, Robinson offhandedly assumes genetic engineering of fabulous ease and precision when desired.

    Further, even as Robinson imagines natural selection to be powerful enough to change the human population (save for the atavistic lead human character,) he imagines this small population can sustain an advanced technology/economy. Partly this is finessed by allowing old knowledge to be electronically and new knowledge sent from Earth (at a lag to the limits of speed of light, but still.) Yet I don’t think that applying textbooks is quite so easy. Nor am I sure that the tech they have is used in reasonable ways. For instance, eggs and sperm are not harvested, and the donors then sterilized. Control over the means of reproduction would make enforcement of population limits vastly more effective.

    As to the novel’s literary merits…In studying real world societies it is unclear how much individual character in the literary sense is useful, if not downright misleading, for understanding the larger course of events.

  15. Athena says:

    Alex, I’m near-certain that humans raised without socializing will not survive past a few days on such a journey. The only reason badly socialized humans sometimes live long enough to reproduce is that there are all kinds of safety nets and failsafes in regular contexts (in the days when humans lived in groups and technology was not what it is now, exile was a death sentence).

    ETA: KSR is aging, as are we all, and he may be over-pessimistic but that doesn’t invalidate his POV. We’re neither Luddites nor fundamentalists here, but scientists in relevant domains. And the bitter truth (certainly bitter for me, I would have loved to walk under strange skies) is that crewed space travel is as far from reality as it can get right now. We can’t even send people to Mars.

  16. CWJ says:

    Athena, why is it that so many who visit your blog think that liking or endorsing a novel as well written implies the reviewer agrees at the superficial level with every statement in the novel?

    Alex, please read sentences carefully. I said I liked and admired Robinson’s novel. I think he poses deep, well-thought questions and doesn’t give in to handwaving solutions.

    That doesn’t mean I endorse Robinson’s novel as an absolute blueprint for the future. (Even in the sentences I quote I say, specifically, “Robinson’s vision…”) I doubt if even Stan thinks he is Prophet of the Future.

    But in Aurora he has written classic hard SF, with careful, narrow extrapolation from today. He’s clearly throught this through much more carefully than most. Certainly it’s more careful thinking than “Hey! Robots can terraform! Problem solved!” That’s lazy thinking at its worst. I think terraforming robots would be cool. I do not assume that just because something is cool it is inevitable.

    By the way, you keep harping on the “cold sleep” in the novel as a “solution.” I thought that was the weakest and frankly unlikeliest bit. It was clearly a device to have a single character line through the end of the novel. I found cold sleep for 150 years the most difficult thing to swallow, given the rigor of the rest of the book.

    This is not to say we cannot have a vigorous debate about the novel. It’s one of the few that I think deserves deep discussion. I will say, however, para-religious arguments like “oh! robots can do it! snap! told you!!” and historically inaccurate metaphors (for instance: by the Devonian the land was already colonized) only support my general conclusion that SF wouldn’t know a deep idea if it bit them. With little tiny prions.

  17. Athena says:

    Steven, a relevant point is that harvesting and storing gametes won’t spare them from radiation. If anything, it makes them more vulnerable. Also, islands are still open ecosystems, which means that their evolution may go in odd directions but it’s still under a similar clock as the rest of the planet (barring specific pressures). A closed ecosystem may be different — the International Space Station demonstrates how fast biota imbalances can build up.

  18. Alex Tolley says:

    @Athena – isn’t the point of embryo travel that rearing only needs to be at journey’s end? The ship lands and deems it safe to start up the tank born. The ship raises them in a compound. No feral children in a ship environment that could be fatally compromised. I’m also skeptical of this approach. However, since this approach could be done on Earth, there will be plenty of data on how well it can be done and what the limitations are. I imagine that artificial raising will be slowly introduced in stages with all the attendant medical and psychological testing to determine its effects and boundaries, just as changes in child rearing are examined today.

  19. Athena says:

    Alex, I guarantee you that such a type of rearing will never gain permission to be tested on earth, for one. For another, human socializing by adults is not optional. It’s a vital part of brain wiring. There is no shortcut possible here, even if details of rearing have differed across the spacetime of human existence.

  20. Alex Tolley says:

    @CWJ – No, I get that you are reviewing the book, but you are endorsing his hard SF approach. Isn’t your point to express a objection to naive techno optimism? Whatever you think of cold sleep, its introduction in the novel does partially invalidate his worldship concerns. I therefore cannot conclude that it is well thought out hard SF, because a technological development seems to invalidate the argument you say KSR is making.

    “But in Aurora he has written classic hard SF, with careful, narrow extrapolation from today. “

    But that is the point. If you use contemporary knowledge to write about the far future, while it sounds plausible, it really isn’t. In this case KSR has written about a worldship, and the attendant problems with it and colonizing. That’s fine. But by ignoring other approaches, the claim cannot be that this explains the Fermi paradox. It is in effect a straw man argument. An analogy might be writing hard sf in the 19th century where airships are the only means of air travel. One could write about all sorts of problems – gas supplies, the dangerous substitution of hydrogen for scarce helium, the problems of weather, collisions at airports from such poorly controllable vessels, etc, etc. All fine, but then to conclude that this would prevent a huge global travel industry would be false. It might be a conclusion based on airships, but the reader would be skeptical of this conclusion, even though it is based on the soundest of knowledge at the time. It would be made worse, to continue the analogy, that someone invents an airplane that will avoid most of the problems (or even a ballistic suborbital rocket!).

    “Certainly it’s more careful thinking than “Hey! Robots can terraform! Problem solved!” “
    Is it really? In a decade we have gone from vehicles that couldn’t even navigate open desert terrain to cars driving themselves fairly well in urban environments. The military is rather scarily working of battlefield robots that you can get an inkling of by looking at publicly accessible work today. The recent DARPA test for robots to do simple tasks like getting out of cars and opening doors showed they are still extremely clumsy, but what might they be like in another decade? As for terraforming sterile worlds, either we will have some grasp of what is required by experimenting on hollow asteroids, or we will know that it is too difficult to be attempted, so closing off that approach and trying another avenue if desired. If someone writes an equally well thought our hard SF novel on terraforming with robots, will that invalidate your statement that people claim that some technology will magically solve a problem?

    One can write hard SF as a proof of principle. Tourism can use airships rather than airliners. Spaceflight can be done with chemical rockets, etc. But when it is written to imply that not only does that particular principle fail (in this case worldships and terraforming), but that this means that all such experiments will fail (Fermi paradox explained), then that to me is lazy thinking.

    That doesn’t mean that a novel isn’t good. SF writers are often quite good at thinking through world building issues. Well written stories can be quite enjoyable whether one agrees with that particular vision or not. But such stories are entertainment and not to be taken seriously. They are artifacts of their time, and increasingly the knowledge they assume will become outdated very quickly. This is so problematic that even near term SF can become outdated by the time the work is published. In some respects, an almost fantastical story like Pohl’s “Day Million” might be closer to reality that a story narrowly extrapolating from today’s knowledge.

    People think in linear terms, when technology change tends to be exponential, so we overestimate near term changes, but underestimate long term developments. Obviously nothing stays on an exponential path forever, so it is hard to predict far in the future, but the flowering of new technologies continues redirecting the future. So we don’t have flying cars, but we do have instant audio visual communication. We don’t have crewed spacecraft in Jupiter space, but we do have increasingly capable robotic probes, as well as autonomous ground vehicles and semi autonomous drones.

  21. Athena says:

    I believe we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns in our exchanges, Alex, so I think we’d best stop here. Bottom line: many of the extrapolated items in any “hard” SF gendanken experiment will never happen. That is not narrow thinking, it’s a matter of intrinsic limitations.

  22. CWJ says:

    I agree with Athena that we should close this discussion, but one last comment:

    “If you use contemporary knowledge to write about the far future, while it sounds plausible, it really isn’t.”

    I agree with this statement, with the addendum that it applies to ALL science fiction, even and especially “hard” SF. All SF has plausibility issues. (You give me _any_ hard SF novel, and I could tear it to shreds.) But that doesn’t matter. SF isn’t about the future. SF is about our relation to technology, to change, and to history; the reason those are conflated is that we see technology as often driving change. I think Robinson has written a wonderfully thought-out novel, far better than most so-called hard SF novels, but in the end to focus on how well you think its “predictions” will hold up will ENTIRELY MISS THE POINT. Ultimately, Aurora is not _really_ about whether or not interstellar colonization is practical. It can and should be read as commentary on humanity’s supreme belief in its technical prowess (a belief alive and well as demonstrated by the comments above) and how that technical prowess trips up on our human falibility, and may well be a distraction from what it means to be truly human.

    The novel begins and ends not with scenes of technological success, but the interplay between people and their environment, in particular their joy with each other and playing on and in the water. Those individual moments, those little poems of happiness, are what define us as human–not our conquering the universe. And those readers who can’t see that (or who won’t or can’t see that a novel can be both about interstellar travel and something else) won’t understand and appreciate the novel.

  23. Christopher Phoenix says:

    @Athena For the sake of cuddles, I’ll take a quick stab at the problems with embryo space colonization!

    Any craft that will survive an interstellar journey, locate a landing site, and build a colony without human oversight will need a high level AI and self-repair capability to deal with unexpected problems. Additionally, it needs to be a self-replicating machine to construct a colony from local resources. We don’t have this technology yet. I mention this only because I have seen a detailed “analysis” of the concept that claims we could do embryo space colonization with current or near-future technology.

    We do not yet know how to make artificial uteri. Maybe we will eventually. Personally I find it hard to imagine this technology operating all by itself, with no human supervision- this is another area in where a high level AI and self-repair capability is indicated. (Robot as pilot, robot as explorer, robot as builder, and now robot as expecting mother AND doctor all in one… HAL missed his purpose in life!)

    Frozen eggs are susceptible to space radiation, just like any other living thing. Over centuries of travel, radiation damage could very well spoil the cargo. I would not be surprised if frozen eggs are actually more vulnerable than living astronauts- repair mechanisms cannot be operating in a vitrified egg, surely? At any rate good shielding is required.

    But finally the deal-breaker. Children cannot be raised by “mommy” robots. No automaton operating on stored instructions and canned responses could socialize a child. Robotic manipulators could not provide physical affection and warmth when the computer controlling them is not even aware of itself, let alone aware of why humans cuddle.

    It isn’t enough to provide for our physical needs. Humans cannot survive- let alone thrive- without relying on and building relationships with other humans. And yes, that includes cuddling. You can see how badly children who weren’t nurtured and socialized well on Earth fare, with all the safety nets operating in our societies. How well will they fare trying to BUILD a society on a newly settled planet?

    Any AI that could raise a child would effectively qualify as a “non-human person”, and I imagine it/he/she (however it would prefer to be called) would have to know us very well. That doesn’t exist outside of SF yet, and the embryo space colonization plans specifically call for going without hard AI.

    Finally, as you noted, you could never test this rearing on Earth. Nobody would allow you too, and I agree with them. Probably you would not be allowed to launch such a craft, either. The ethics are pretty clear cut on this.

    The multi-generation ship, on the other hand, will have a familiar society based on families- perhaps resembling the tribal units that first began our migration from the African steppes. People can debate the ethics of “depriving” future generations of opportunities to go white-water rafting or mountain climbing, but there is little doubt that we can live in small, enclosed societies. We’ve done it before.

  24. Athena says:

    Christopher, agreed. Eggs and sperm are indeed more vulnerable to radiation-induced genomic damage because they’re haploid (no paired DNA strand for repair by comparison).

    Overall, the logistics of such a journey are dizzying. That doesn’t make it de facto impossible — but we should send humans next door to Mars first before handwaving about magical solutions dressed up in techno garments.