That’s the story here, two science-fiction authors disagreed with each other about colonizing the galaxy, and you can stop reading now, because it’s all fuss and bother about a fantasy. Except, I would argue, that the disagreements and advocacy of their respective positions have consequences, and I agree far more with one than the other.
Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a novel called Aurora about a failed effort to colonize Tau Ceti with a generation ship. It’s pessimistic: complex engineering projects fail if you try to keep them running for centuries, the biology of small populations fail predictably if you have limited genetic diversity and limited environmental information, human societies are messy and fragile and tend to fall apart over time, and biology is complex and unpredictable and your destination is either going to be dead (which isn’t good) or teeming with independently evolved organisms (which is worse). He wrote the novel in response to a weird-ass initiative from NASA called The Hundred Year Starship.
In 2011, NASA and DARPA (the Pentagon agency that gave birth to the internet) lent their names to a project called The Hundred-Year Starship. Its aim was to coalesce the space community behind a goal of launching an interstellar mission by your time: 2112. For generation ship dreamers, it was like Christmas had come.
And then along came Kim Stanley Robinson to stomp over all our dreams and tell us that Santa Claus didn’t exist.
Robinson is best known in our time as the author of the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, all written in the 1990s, the latter two set in your century). He’s what they call a hard sci-fi guy — he talks to the experts in the field, reads the latest research, does his level best to get the science exactly right. For example, all of his novels set in the 22nd century feature a flooded, post-climate change Earth. (Again, we’re really sorry about that.)
Watching a Hundred-Year Starship conference incensed Robinson. “It was a combination of a scam and a religious meeting,” he says, “presented with such an authoritative sheen, such pseudo-science.” So he went to NASA Ames, discovered a lot of internal consternation about the agency’s involvement with the project, talked actual planetary science with actual planetary scientists, and published Aurora in 2015.
I sympathize. It is a scam. There is a range of such ridiculous projects that are cheerfully supported by people who should be much more responsible. It ranges from the starry-eyed optimism of people like Seth Shostak, who want to pump money into SETI with exactly the same mindset as people who buy lottery tickets every week, to malignant rich assholes like Elon Musk who think the Earth is doomed to become an ecological hell-hole, so they are eager to get off this planet to one that is already dead. He sees trouble coming, and his response is to invest in the most expensive, futile tomb he can imagine. And unfortunately, that imagination is fed by overly optimistic science-fiction writers.
I like science fiction, myself. I also think it can be valuable in inspiring people to think about the future. But I would like people to be inspired about ways to solve real problems — we have lots of them crashing over us right now — rather than imaginary bullshit, like how we’re going to get to and colonize a planet we haven’t even seen. There is a place for that, but it’s called escapist fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with it, unless you lose track of reality and muddle it up with real-world issues.
I will remind you that what inspired Robinson’s novel was NASA and DARPA supporting the idea of building a generation ship to carry humans to another star system 10 or more light years away, to be built and launched in the next century. Elon Musk isn’t going to build a viable colony on Mars, yet we’ve already got people day-dreaming about voyages that could last centuries, launched to destinations unknown, as if that has a chance in hell of happening. At the rate we’re going, the starship collapse Kim Stanley Robinson imagines in his novel is more likely to occur on a grander scale right here on Starship Earth, and we aren’t going to rocket away from it, no matter how many physicists and fantasy authors close their eyes and wish real hard.
That pessimism about space colonies annoys Gregory Benford, who wrote a negative review of the novel. It’s not a rebuttal of the ideas that Robinson advance, but really is just a review of where he thinks the story fails.
In 2012, Robinson declared in a Scientific American interview that “It’s a joke and a waste of time to think about starships or inhabiting the galaxy. It’s a systemic lie that science fiction tells the world that the galaxy is within our reach.” Aurora spells this out through unlikely plot devices. Robinson loads the dice quite obviously against interstellar exploration. A brooding pessimism dominates the novel.
Yeah, the review consists almost entirely of picking at plot holes in the book — which may be entirely valid flaws in the novel. He thinks, for instance, that Robinson “stacked the deck” by making the planet the starship arrives at implacably hostile to human habitation, which is the most likely outcome. The universe is not designed for us, so the majority of destinations are going to be uninhabitable! I think Robinson stacked the deck by making the imaginary starship actually succeed in arriving with a live crew at a distant star, which is already incredibly unlikely, and then being able to turn around and fly back to Earth. Unlike real life, I guess we can fix a plot hole in a book by just rewriting the planet so it’s a paradise.
Then I notice why Benford is disagreeing with Robinson — he’s the editor of an anthology of stories based on that silly conference!
Now I have a dilemma. I’d kind of half like to read that book, but only because it would probably make me really angry at the “scam and a religious meeting” and pseudo-science aspects of it all. Do I really need that kind of negativity in my life? Maybe. It does keep the bile flowing.