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Yes, Mr. Robinson, We Can Go To The Stars

Yes, Mr. Robinson, We Can Go To The Stars

by Giulio PriscoJuly 20, 2015

Aurora, the new science fiction novel of Kim Stanley Robinson, is a totally awesome masterpiece that will keep you glued to the book until you finish reading. Yet, Robinson’s grim views on the possibility of interstellar colonization seem overly pessimistic.

In the 2012 Nebula Award Winner 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson portrays a future solar system teeming with human life on the planets, terraformed asteroids and space habitats. In Aurora, Robinson goes to the stars. The story starts in a large multi-generation starship with more than two thousand colonists en route to Tau Ceti at one tenth of the speed of light, then moves to Aurora, an Earth-like moon in the Tau Ceti system.

Aurora is a fascinating story of interstellar colonization, with touching stories of real people in a centuries-long space adventure, dazzling portraits of interstellar propulsion and orbital dynamics, and a quantum computer slowly waking up to sentience. The only alien life form is a nasty micro-organism.

The Hard Problem Is Biology

Aurora, by KIm Stanley Robinson“There are a lot of people, even powerful, influential people, who seem to think that the goal of humanity is to spread itself,” said Robinson in an interview with “I want this book to make people think really hard about – maybe there’s only one planet where humanity can do well, and we’re already on it.”

The problem isn’t interstellar propulsion – that can be solved. The hard problem is biology. Robinson argues that a multi-generation starship, small and light enough to be accelerated at a significant fraction of the speed of light, would be too small to include a viable ecosystem able to support the astronauts for hundreds of years, and would inevitably fail.

“The bottom line is the biomes you can propel at the speeds needed to cross such great distances are too small to hold viable ecologies,” explains one of the main characters.

OK, that problem can be solved with hibernation or faster propulsion. But another problem will emerge at destination.

“What’s funny is anyone thinking it would work in the first place. I mean it’s obvious any new place is going to be either alive or dead,” complains another character.

If it’s alive it’s going to be poisonous.

Dead planets could be terraformed, but not quickly enough for the colonists to survive hundreds of years in small ecosystems (back to square one) waiting for the planet to be fully terraformed.

Only a true Earth twin not yet occupied by life would allow this plan to work, and these may exist somewhere, the galaxy after all is big, but they are too far away from us.

The novel gives some space to the point of view of the enthusiasts of interstellar colonization. “It’s an evolutionary urge, a biological imperative, something like reproduction itself,” they say. “Possibly it may resemble something like a dandelion or a thistle releasing its seeds to the winds, so that most of the seeds will float away and die. But a certain percentage will take hold and grow.”

But, of course, the colonists don’t want to be expendable dandelion seeds, and the writer gives much more space to their point of view.

Aurora will force all “space cadets” who think colonizing the stars is our destiny (I am one of them) to think hard and face some unpleasant facts. Robinson will also annoy some “Singularity” enthusiasts, because he expects only mildly futurist scenarios for the next centuries, with better technology but no Singularity.

I am ready to concede that future technologies might arrive much slower than today’s radical futurists predict. I am also ready to concede that biology is very powerful, much more powerful than our current technology, and a fight against biology would be a fight that we would lose, today and in the foreseeable future.

Solutions – Nanotechnology, Uploaded Space Colonists

But I still find the Aurora scenario too grim and excessively pessimistic to the point of inconsistency. For example, the colonists have powerful nanotechnology that can print nearly everything from atoms and molecules found in the environment. That presupposes the ability to analyze and manipulate matter at molecular scales, and I find it strange that the colonists are unable to use their nanotechnology to fight the alien pathogen on Aurora.

The semi-sentient quantum computer that calls itself just “ship,” perhaps fully sentient at the end of the book, represents another possibility to solve the problems raised by Robinson. Combined advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and neurotechnology might someday permit “mind uploading” – the transfer of a human personality to a robotic body or computer system. Then, future interstellar missions could be crewed by uploads – software minds. A crew of human uploads implemented in solid-state electronic circuitry would not require air, water, food, medical care, or radiation shielding, and would resist alien pathogens.

Images from Orbit Books and Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Keith Wiley

    I published an article on this very same point just today in fact:

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Keith, good article! I disagree with “The most likely solution to the Fermi Paradox is that technological species are extremely rare – We are all but alone in the galaxy,” there are many other “solutions” based on ultra-advanced aliens that only communicate with their peers using means that we don’t understand yet, and have a small footprint on the observable universe – like a civilization of uploads that travel by radiation beams instead of spaceships.

      • Keith Wiley

        Like I said at the bottom of the article, that is a much shorter version of a longer version of the same paper, one whose length much more thoroughly defends the various claims. In addition, that particular claim claim is defended at great length in my other writings, especially my 2011 paper, which are cited from the article above.

        One of the best responses to practically all ETI-optimistic solutions to the Fermi Paradox is the “problem of exclusivity”, i.e., that in order to resolve the paradox they must apply to essentially all intelligent species, no exceptions allowed. But again, this is jus a one sentence explanation. My other papers give the same topic tens of pages of treatment.

        Thanks anyway though. I’m glad you liked the overall article. With the recent boost in SETI funding, maybe we’ll find something after all.


  • I think this article misses the novel’s point to some degree. Despite all the hard SF trappings I don’t think think SKR’s argument is ultimately a technical but an ethical (or political) one: That we have to take care of Earth because it cannot be replaced. Space has no solution for our problems. Even if a generation starship would succeed, it still wouldn’t help us here on Earth because we couldn’t just move the whole of mankind to another planet.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Hi Simon. I disagree, because if Robinson only wanted to say that we have to take good care of the Earth, he wouldn’t have needed to portray interstellar colonization as basically infeasible. I read the novel as a cultural missile launched by a great writer and targeted at the enthusiatic “space cadets.” Therefore, though I enjoyed Aurora a lot and appreciate some of the author’s arguments, I think it’s important to note that other arguments are not very consistent.

      • I didn’t say that this what the only thing KSR wanted to say, but I think it is an important aspect, and one which is more important to him than speculating on the possibilities of uploading people. But ultimately, I just find your “solutions” on how we can get to other stars not very convincing. I’m not saying that uploading personalities will never be possible, but it would need a much bigger technological jump in technology than anything else in the novel (and it would, ultimately made the whole concept of a generation starship moot). That said, I agree that there is a certain inconsistency in the novel in terms of technological development. For a society several hundred years in the future, it feels very contemporary, the only two big advances are the AI and the printers. Most other stuff doesn’t feel sf-like at all (which is actually a good thing).

        • Giulio Prisco

          I also appreciate Robinson’s sober view of the rate of technology advancement in the next few centuries, and I think his conservative scenario might be closer to future reality than the over-optimistic predictions of some Singularity enthusiasts.

          But I think it’s important to bear in mind that what is very difficult today may become much easier tomorrow. We shouldn’t mistake what is very difficult to achieve today and in the foreseeable future for what is impossible in-principle, because that would be a logical mistake.

          • I completely agree that we cannot predict the future. But this doesn’t mean that any kind of non-existing fantasy technology becomes a viable option. At the moment, the uploading of minds is about as plausible as the possibility of traveling faster than light. It’s currently completely out of our reach and therefore not something we can speculate about in a meaningful way.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Not so. Traveling faster light is impossible in-principle because it’s against physical law as we understand it today. Mind uploading is a very hard engineering challenge, but not impossible in-principle. So at this moment both traveling faster than light and mind uploading are out of our reach and likely to remain so in the foreseeable future, but they belong to two very different categories – impossible and difficult.

            Perhaps someday new physics will bring FTL back into the realm of difficult but not impossible.

          • I think you still miss the point – arguing that the colonization is a viable option by referring to a technology which is not even on the horizon just isn’t very convincing. And whether something is impossible by principle or just practical means isn’t really that important in this case; I can just argue that it might be possible that we one day discover new principles. It remains the same: We talk about things we have no firm knowledge about, so any guess is as good as the other.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Exactly! Positive guesses are just as good as negative guesses. So let’s just go out there and find out.

          • No, they’re actually not. Saying that something is not possible at the moment, has much more weight in a discussion like this than saying it might be possible one day. The latter is a non-falsifiable statement and as such pretty worthless.

          • Giulio Prisco

            OK. Then any project to create radical positive change in technology, politics, culture, and society, is worthless because it’s impossible to realize at the moment. Is that what you are saying? If so, I disagree.

            Note that only a few decades ago a majority of people and “experts” would have dismissed things like self-driving cars, social acceptance of gay marriage, and basic income, as “evidently” impossible.

          • I guess that depends on what you mean by project. If you mean anything related to decisions which have impact on the present or the very near future – for example political decisions –, I would indeed say that it’s not wise to take things into account which are currently out of reach. If a city planner twenty years ago had decided to design cities based on the premise that people would soon use self-driving cars that would have been pretty dumb. It would have been equally pointless to start a business specialized on gay marriages twenty years ago. But this all really beside the point you originally made. What you’re doing in the case of AURORA is weighing non-existent sf technology against science which is more or less established. That’s just a pointless exercise. I can postulate any kind of technological miracle, this doesn’t refute what we know today. If you want really want to prove KSR wrong, you cannot just change the game.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Simon, I agree with the first part of your comment, but we aren’t planning a project here, let alone a project related to urgent decisions. We are discussing fine literature and the long term prospect of interstellar colonization.

          • You were mentioning projects … But anyway, the problem is there is little to discuss since nothing tangible exists. So you believe that we will one day be able to upload our minds and that this would be a way around all the problems AURORA deals with. Ok, that’s what you believe, fine. And now what? There’s simply not enough substance to actually have a meaningful discussion.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Re “not enough substance to actually have a meaningful discussion” – man, I would agree if we were preparing NASA’s budget request for next year, but we are discussing science fiction! Speculation is what science fiction is all about.

          • Ok, do speculate. I still don’t know what there is more to say than that you believe that uploading minds will one day make interstellar travel possible.

          • Giulio Prisco

            Not much more to say than that indeed. We will have to agree to disagree until the operational feasibility (or infeasibility) of human mind uploading to computers is demonstrated. Some promising baby steps are ongoing, but the road ahead is long.

          • I’m not even disagreeing on the possibility of uploading minds. Maybe we will one day be able to do it, who knows? I’m only disagreeing that your believe is in an adequate response to the argument developed in AURORA and that it can lead to a productive discussion on the feasibility of interstellar travel.

      • David MW

        Simon is correct and this review / response is missing the point. It is an allegory. It’s not primarily a novel about interstellar colonization, just as the Mars Trilogy isn’t primarily about the colonization of Mars. KSR’s work tends to use such stories to reflect on current social and environmental dilemmas.

    • AlanHK

      Of course colonising another planet won’t save earth. But it might save the human race if we nuke ourselves, which is always going to be the biggest threat to our survival.

      You heard the same argument in the 60s: why go to the Moon when we have so many poor/hungry/etc. here?
      Ignoring the fact that 100 times as much was spent on a futile war in Vietnam than NASA cost. There are plenty of stupid and destructive things we waste resources on we should economise on first.

      If we sent out 100 ships and only two resulted in a viable colony, that would almost guarantee our survival

      So in the novel Aurora, I was rooting for the “stayers”. The “backers” who ran back to earth betrayed humanity and threw away the huge investment the race made to send them there. They won’t live to see earth anyway. If they don’t want their descendants to die in a failed colony, they can choose not to have children.

  • kurt9

    I read “2312”. Unlike some of his previous stuff that I thought was tediously boring, “2312” was actually quite good. However, there were totalitarian overtones in the novel I found to be quite creepy. Robinson clearly does not like the pioneering ” let’s go out on our own” mentality that is the cultural backbone of, at least, the western part of the U.S. In the novel, some of the characters talked about how if was a bod thing that the space colonies (these are hollowed out asteroids that are very common in the novel) became politically independent of Earth. It was this totalitarian mentality as expressed in the novel that I found quite creepy and repellent. Otherwise, it was a good novel.

    I usually do not like Robinson’s novels. Not because of the politics but because they tend to be tediously boring (“Antarctica” is a good example of this) and I am not able to finish the novel.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Try Galileo’s Dream, and also The Years of Rice and Salt.

      • kurt9

        I read “Years of Rice and Salt”. It is an intriguing idea. But i still thought the story was boring.

  • kurt9

    The biomeme issue is real. Our bodies are comprised as much of independent bacteria, networking with each other, as human cells. However, creating a sustainable biomeme is not insurmountable. Submariners on the “trident boats” stay under for up to 6 months at a time with no deleterious effects. A submerged submarine is essentially cut off from the outside ecology in terms of the biomeme. Probably the same is true for the Antarctic research stations as well. Biomeme engineering is necessary for space colonization.

    Unless we have breakthrough propulsion (Mach effect wormholes, etc.) we will not be going to the stars for several centuries to come and the solar system wide industrial infrastructure is developed. As such time, the O’niell style space colonies would slowly migrate outwards to the stars. By then, the biomeme technology will be long-established technology.

    I do think KSR is correct, that if we find life on another planet, particularly complex life, that it will likely be poisonous to us. We will have to bio-engineer ourselves to live in such an alien environment (which should be relatively easy with 24th century medicine). Indeed, the biomemes that comprise the space colonies in our solar system are likely to be completely synthetic, based on synthetic biology.

  • Seems like a silly premise to me… If you know your ship will not be big enough to sustain an eco system indefinitely… then don’t build it and don’t go, until you can build a big enough ship…. then you go. You’d probably also have your bio in a bottle (Genesis device) figured out before you even leave, (tested on Mars, Venus or Europa or wherever) otherwise what is the point?