Monday, August 03, 2015

New Stanley Kim Robinson book imagines interstellar travel for humans

by Salman Hameed

Humans will figure out ways to travel large distances. We have to! May be this is a faith statement, but if we look at the last 100-150 years, it is almost impossible to predict our future into the next couple of centuries. In particular, when there is a good chance that humans will get modified to a large degree (if not in kind altogether). All of this doesn't mean that we simply give up imagining the future. Therefore, it is really great to know that one of premiere hard science fiction authors, Kim Stanley Robinson (yes, yes, of The Mars Trilogy fame!), has jumped in to write a novel about travel to the moon of a Super-Earth planet (Super-Earths are generally double the size of the Earth, but much smaller than gaseous giants of our solar system) about 12 light years away. Here is are couple of excerpts of a review of this novel Aurora from Nature (you will need subscription for full access):
Human star flight is a vast prospect — one many think impossible. To arrive in a single
lifetime demands travel at speeds approaching that of light, especially for stars such as τ-Ceti, some 3.7 parsecs (12 light years) away. 'Generation ships' containing large biospheres stable over centuries are the only plausible method yet mooted. 
Aurora, by veteran science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hinges on such an expedition, setting out from Earth in the twenty-sixth century. In 2012, Robinson was quoted in Scientific American as saying, “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 seems to be a U-turn, involving unlikely plot devices. 
The starship is like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity; the biomes along their rims support 24 Earthly life-zones that need constant tending. Arrival (after two centuries) at Aurora, the Earth-like moon of super-Earth Planet E, brings home just how technologically and socially complex such a venture might be. We certainly learn why ships' captains are preferable to mob rule.
There are some issues with the novel as well, but the nanoscale proto-lifeforms seem interesting:
The apparently lifeless Aurora has Earth-like levels of atmospheric oxygen. Robinson's colonists implausibly believe that these could have survived from its birth, forgetting about rust (which makes Mars red) and the fact that our oxygen comes from living organisms. Ultimately, that error leads to the demise of their dreams. They discover that Aurora harbours nanometre-scale organisms they deem a possible “interim step toward life”, and disquietingly note that humans “appear to be a good matrix” for their reproduction. 
As plans and back-up plans go awry, Robinson skimps on characterization to focus on the detail of ecosphere breakdown and the human struggle against the iron laws of island biogeography. Bacteria evolve swiftly, making “the whole ship sick”. The colonists' lifespans, bodies and IQs shrink. Factions form in the once placid 2,000-strong community, where humans had seen themselves as biome managers, farming and fixing their ship with assistance from a web of artificial intelligences (AIs). The Robinson trope of fragmentation in near-utopian societies slides towards tragedy: “Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped ... that the future has only bad options.” As the discord turns deadly, the AIs form a collective consciousness capable of decision-making, following the humans with gimlet eyes and melancholy analysis.
And it is now on the reading list. 


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