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

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.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.