At the recent Eastercon I had the pleasure of listening to Kim Stanley Robinson speak at a few sessions. While I don’t agree with all his ideas, he is clearly someone who bases his views on well thought-through concepts. I found one of the ideas he discussed particularly interesting, namely, he’s of the view that the technical and social challenges of interstellar colonization are too great for humans to reasonably overcome.
Robinson is an author who’s works acutely detail the human condition under future challenges. For example, he’s best know for his Red Mars trilogy detailing the technical and social challenges of humans terraforming Mars.
He’s also recently been nominated for a HUGO award for his novel New York 2140, in which he describes life in a New York city flooded due to extreme global warming.
In Aurora, Robinson once again presents many of the technical and social challenges to great human endeavours. In this case, the generation ship used to colonize worlds around other stars.
For those unfamiliar, a generation ship is a city-sized space ship that carries a living (as opposed to cryogenically frozen, genetic, or embryonic) population. The idea is that, since the distance to even the nearest stars are so great, it would take generations for humans to travel there. Hence those arriving would be the ancestors, several times removed, of those who started the journey. Immediately several issues become obvious with such a situation and Kim Stanley Robinson deals with the majority of them in Aurora.
Ignoring the technical challenges of protection from the extreme conditions outside the heliosphere, the social challenges that arise on such a vessel come from the differing experiences of each generation and how people are generally adverse to change (at least, once they’re over 30). So, while the initiators of the journey are set on their goal of settling a new planet, their descendants, who have lived their entire life in space, may not be — especially if not educated to the reasons for their journey or their need to land.
Imagine a town the size of where I live now. That’s about 80,000 people. Now imagine that everyone living there has the same viewpoint, the same goals for society, and the same idealistic values. You’re right, it doesn’t happen, as every election in history demonstrates. So it’s naive to think that a population hurtling through space, changing generation after generation, would continue to have the same values as its founders.
At the panel discussions during Eastercon, Robinson stated a few times that he doesn’t’ believe extra-solar colonization is even possible for humans, although it was unclear whether he was speaking from the viewpoint of human social issues, or technical challenges, although definitely there will be many of both.
My own view is that, like most amazing human endeavours, it will depend on the will of the people. If it’s possible to overcome those challenges, then we will. Or we’ll muddle through enough to succeed eventually. Even in Aurora, one segment of the population accepted the mission and stayed to colonize the world, while the remainder returned to Earth. Humans tend to be a remarkable and adaptive species and, if we find the will, we will find a way. The only question will be whether the AIs beat us there first!