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Sunday, November 25, 2018

OP-ED: “A Generation Ship The Size of a Small Planet,” by Bruce Bethke

Nota Bene: You can blame Guy Stewart for this. A few days ago he sent me off on a quest into the RLP archives to find some things relating to his short story, “Oath,” and along the way I found this one again. I had a vague recollection of having written it, and had always meant to revisit the core idea for a new feature to be called either Tropisms or Books I’ll Never Finish, but after re-reading it now—and especially after seeing the conclusions I reached then—I present it to you now much as it first appeared in 2008, save for some typographical corrections and added illustrations. All attendant ironies remain intact.

The Multi-Generational Con (Part I)

In the course of a discussion of Social Security, a reader named Athor Pel asked a few of my favorite questions.
I’ve been pondering some questions lately.

Why are we willing to pay taxes?

1) that we didn’t vote into existence

2) to a government that we didn’t have any say in creating originally

It was all in place before we were born.

Why should we play the game? 
These are some of my favorite questions, and not because I’m advocating a tax revolt—although I do believe that if we did not have automatic income tax withholding, and if all gainfully employed Americans therefore had to write a check to the government every three months just as we gainfully self-employed people do, then we would have one very angry tax revolt in very hot progress in very short order—

No, these questions fascinate me because of one of the hoary old mainstays of hard science fiction: the generation ship.

The idea, if you’re not familiar with it, goes like this. Since we know that the speed of light in a vacuum, c, is not just the law, it’s the absolute limit, and we know that hyperdrive, warp drive, jump drive, and all the other variously named ways of getting beyond c are merely convenient fictional gimmicks with no basis in reality, the other obvious way for humans to cross vast interstellar distances is by building ships so big they’re self-contained ecologies, and then launching them out with the assumption that the crew will breed, and it will be their many-generations-removed descendants who will actually arrive at wherever it is the ship is going.

Heinlein got a lot of mileage out of this idea. I grew up on his Starship Magellan juveniles and loved ‘em. The problem came when I, as an adult writer, started looking at the idea afresh with the intention of using it in a novel, and I started running into the same sorts of questions that Athor Pel posed.

What exactly is a generation ship? Pared down to its nub, it’s a closed, utopian society, on a mission to some goal that was defined long before the current occupants were born. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that in all my readings of history, I have been unable to find a single example of a closed, utopian society that lasted more than five generations—and that’s using a very lax definition of “utopian.” The Soviet Union, for example, was supposed to be a utopian society, and yet even the Soviet Union, with all its formidable power, did not last five generations.

Five generations seems to be the outside limit. Three generations is when things start to fall apart. The first-generation founders of the utopia usually manage okay, if they’re not complete blithering idiots (see “The Great Hippie Commune Disaster,” 1968), and the founders can usually do a decent job of indoctrinating most of their children and controlling the few nonconformists. But by the time the grandchildren of the founders come along, a lot more people are asking Athor’s questions, and by the time the great-grandchildren reach adulthood, the pressure to either radically change the terms of the mission or else to just tear the whole damned thing down and start over become nearly irresistible.

This does not bode well for the prospects of a successful generation ship on its way to Proximi Centauri.

Which leads to a different line of thought: if you have a ship so large it’s a self-contained ecology, why bother leaving Sol system at all? It’s not as if there’s a shortage of room here. Why not just park the thing, say, three months ahead or behind of Earth’s position in solar orbit, and con the poor buggers on-board into thinking they’re on a centuries-long multi-generational voyage to Farfnargle IV? Or, if you want to get really tricky, just shoot it into a long orbit out to the Kuiper Belt and back, so that the “colonists” think they’re arriving on Epison Whachamacallit when all they’re really doing is finally returning to Earth?

So that’s the root idea. Now where’s the story in this?


Part II: Maintaining Social Cohesion and the Problem of Mission’s End

Once we establish base camp at this premise, there are plenty of directions in which we can start prospecting for a story idea. How do we create a closed, stable, hermetically sealed society that will survive a generations-long voyage aboard a starship? In his juvenile novels Heinlein tended to favor organizing microcosmic societies along paramilitary lines, which is a great idea if you’re also planning to sell your novels as serials in Boy’s Life. (A market that, sadly, vanished about fifty years ago.) Most people of socialistic bent eventually hit on the idea of using paramilitary organizations as an effective way to indoctrinate and discipline their young. Sometimes it even works—for a while.

Alternatively, you can consider using religion as your general-purpose societal adhesive. Sadly, these sorts of stories tend to be written mostly by lazy writers with poor research skills and only a dim understanding of the workings of actual religions, who focus on the suffocating, oppressive, punitive, and claustrophobic aspects and tend to cast their heroes/heroines as the lone iconoclasts who discover that The Priests Are Lying And They Alone Know The Truth; e.g., “For The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”. But even the Amish, who most people accept as having about as religiously closed a community as can be, do not have a truly closed society, as five minutes of cursory research will suffice to prove.

Then there’s the problem of over-adaptation. Once they’ve spent a few generations adapting to life on-board the ship, how do you get ‘em off the bluddy thing at the end of the journey? A sufficiently clever, evil, and cynical mission designer might specify that the ship essentially self-destructs at the end of the journey, thus forcing the passengers to disembark. But given enough time, any such destruction mechanism can be disarmed, or more interestingly, diverted to other purposes. So maybe there’s a story in that:
“Five centuries ago their ancestors embarked on a journey to Proximi Centauri. Now they’re back—with a big effing bomb—and boy, are they pissed!” 
Next, what about reaction mass? Assuming the ship was accelerated up to some worthwhile fraction of c as it left Earth, you’d need nearly as much fuel to decelerate it at the end of the trip. Phil Jennings and I played intellectual hacky sack with this one for a while but never came up with a answer we agreed on. Maybe the ship doesn’t slow and the crew never disembarks? Maybe it just keeps on going, seeding every potentially habitable planet it comes across with human-like colonists sufficiently genetically modified to survive under local conditions? James Blish used this idea nearly seventy years ago in “Surface Tension,” and Ursula Le Guin more than forty years ago in her Hainish Cycle, but it strikes me that from the viewpoint of another species, this might constitute an act of war.
“AIIEEE! There’s a terrible giant mystery ship passing through our solar system and it’s seeding our planet with hideous alien monsters!”

Maybe there’s a story in that. Or at least a script treatment... 

Hmm. Hideous monsters. At any significant fraction of c, hitting pretty much any dust mote or stray sub-atomic particle would trigger a spatter of ionizing radiation. Assuming your ship has something resembling a front end, it would need some awesome shielding there to protect the inhabitants, but even so the accumulated exposure to heavy radiation over the course of several generations would produce—well, most likely a plague of cancers that exterminates the crew, but let’s be kinder and imagine mutations instead. For a while I toyed with that idea: what if the multi-generation crew is expendable, and the real colonists are all in some sort of cryostasis in a heavily shielded cargo hold?

There are many stories that could spring from this. What if the colonists are recognizably human children, shipped as frozen embryos and being raised on the colony world by loving but hideously deformed monsters? What if two competing colonies and cultures get established: the planned colony of “perfect” humans and the unplanned colony created by the surviving mutated descendants of the ship’s crew? What if the crew stumbles onto the fact that they are considered expendable, and start to view the frozen colonists as a source of transplantable body parts to maintain their cancerous, malformed, and increasingly cybernetically augmented bodies?

Or better yet, what if they start to view the colonists as just so much frozen food?

Yeah, there are some great stories that could be spun out of those ideas.

But ultimately, the idea for the novel I got closest to starting to write was remarkably similar to the one that, quite independently, Henry Vogel came up with. What if someone invents a religion, for the sole purpose of getting control over lots of very affluent but otherwise very stupid people? What if someone is so convinced of the rightness of his apocalyptic vision that he uses the wealth of his followers to build an Ark in Space, to send the descendants of the Chosen Ones to another world? But the gimmick is, it’s all a con, as the inner circle knows the technology to send a ship across interstellar distances doesn’t really exist, and so the real plan is that the ship will just take a leisurely one- or two-century-long excursion around the solar system and then return to Earth, where it is expected that things will have settled down again and the Earthbound survivors, if any, will treat the returning ship’s passengers as gods.

Except, of course, that when they return to Earth (truly believing that they are in fact arriving at an alien but strangely parallel planet in another star system—they’re otnay ootay rightbay, after all), they discover a world on which their revered founder’s predicted apocalypse never happened. And so, earnestly believing themselves to be enlightened star voyagers, they plunge headlong into this “new” society, sanctimoniously determined to keep it from repeating the same mistakes that destroyed Old Earth!
[nb: all the while utterly clueless to the fact that the doomsday prophecy they’d based their entire religion, lives, and mission on was just plain flat-out wrong. I thought this was the funniest thing about the concept and a great potential springboard for satire. Apparently I was wrong; people like to take their apocalyptic beliefs very seriously. But...]
There. That is the story that I liked.

The place where I got bogged down was in the matter of the religion. I didn’t want to use a real religion: I have no desire to draw the attention of either litigious and affluent a-holes or the sort of people who slit the throats of infidels. So I figured this would have to be a nonsense religion, of the sort that could only possibly appeal to people with great gobs of money, enormous egos, and very tiny brains. I figured I’d make this religion one started as a joke by some 1940s musician of modest talent, in which followers gathered in “listening rooms,” put on headphones, listened to recordings of Big Bill Broonzy and Bessie Smith, and meditated (at affordable hourly rates) on the profound spiritual implications of the color blue. I was thinking of calling this religion, “Cyantodigy.”

And that’s when the whole thing fell apart...


Part III: “Four score and seven years ago...”

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It’s early morning, on the last day of 2008. But it is not merely morning; it’s one of those wonderfully clear, cold, and crisp winter mornings we get up here in the north country. The sun is still well below the horizon: at this time of year it doesn’t rise until nearly 8 a.m. The sky is one flawless and unbroken wash of color, cross-fading from rosy false dawn in the southeast to deep blue and starry in the northwest. The plume of steam from my neighbor’s chimney is rising nearly straight up, slowly and gently, meaning there’s little or no wind—which is good, because at -5° F it’s already cold enough out there. Down in the garden a cottontail is gnawing on a piece of bark in the firewood pile. With six inches of fresh global warming on the ground since yesterday, there’s nothing else left for it to eat except buckthorn, and even starving rabbits won’t touch buckthorn.

It is said that Nature abhors a vacuum. Looking out my backyard window, day after day, month after month, year after year, it seems clear to me that the one thing Nature really abhors is stasis.

And yet that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it, when we talk about building a generation ship: about building a giant, perfect, static, Habitat for Humanity; a veritable terrarium in space? The sort of hubris required to believe that you can build a perfect world in a bottle is, on the face of it, staggering.

But then the literature of science fiction, the world of political science, and the realms of the social engineers have never lacked for microcosmic gods.

I’ve been asked how I define a closed society. I would have to define it as one with no pressure-relief valve; no mechanism to disrupt the stasis; no opportunity to rebel without courting utter disaster. A perfectly closed society is one from which there is no escape, except by dying.

We Americans have always had a strangely romantic view of rebellion, and especially failed rebellions. Perhaps it’s because for most of the past 500 years this entire continent has been nothing but one giant pressure-relief valve. I don’t know about you, but at least one set of my ancestors came to America after ending up on the wrong side of a failed revolution in Europe.

Everywhere else on Earth and in history, rebellions, successful or otherwise, have always been followed by the traditional Mass Slaughter of the Losers. For a terribly brief period—a mere five centuries—this pattern was changed by the existence of a giant, continent-sized pressure relief valve called the New World. These Americas were settled largely by the losers of Europe, who emigrated, fled, or otherwise escaped here. (And also by the losers of Africa, who were shipped over and sold as chattel here, but that is a different story.) Two hundred and forty years ago the losers in the American Revolution—in our history books we call them “Tories” and never mention them again — fled either north to Canada, south to the Bahamas, or deeper into the continent. One hundred and sixty years ago the losers in the Civil War fled again, some to South America, but most even deeper into the West. (For an excellent explication of this latter theme, I recommend reading, And Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks.)

Yes, I know, I’m playing fast and loose with dates. There is a reason for this. Stay with me.

Slightly over a century ago, in 1890, the pressure-relief valve began to close. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this was the year that the frontier officially ceased to exist. There was no longer any boundary between settled and unsettled lands, or explored and unexplored territory; now all that was left was to fill in the blanks. Perhaps not coincidentally, in 1896 the frontier of the imagination can be said to have officially opened, with the founding of the first pulp fiction magazine, Argosy.

A decade after that, and the Progressive movement was in flower, exploring the frontier of the terrarium and calling it Utopia. If there can be said to be one grand unifying idea underlying all the different flavors of Progressivism, it is this: that instead of Man creating Society, it was now time for Society to begin creating a new and better form of Man.

I for one deeply distrust people who truly believe Utopia is attainable. They always start out talking about the joys of living in their perfect world-in-a-bottle, but sooner or later get around to talking about the unpleasant necessity of weeding out those who are not fit to live there. Whenever someone starts talking about the need to change Man to better suit Society, be afraid; be very afraid.

The creative synergism is always difficult to explain. I was thinking about the Civil War—which, the more I consider it, closely resembles its contemporaries, Bismarck’s wars of German unification and Garibaldi’s wars of Italian unification, so perhaps it should properly be termed Lincoln’s War of American Unification—

I was thinking about the war, and the giant pressure-relief valve that was the Wild West, and concurrently ruminating over my theory that no closed society survives more than from three to five generations after its founding. Okay, let’s split the difference and call it four generations. Just how long is four generations?

Well, from a purely biological standpoint it can be as short as fifty years or as long as 160, but let’s accept the conventional definition and say that one generation is twenty years, and therefore four generations is eighty years. Expressed another way, that’s four-score years.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure...”
It doesn’t line up with mathematical pseudo-scientific psycho-historical precision, of course. This is an organic system we’re talking about, after all, and in an organic system there is always a fair amount of slop. But the pattern seems to hold true with disquieting accuracy.

In 1695, Americans were for the most part the loyal subjects of the King of England. By 1775 rebellion was at a furious boil, and the lid was about to blow off the kettle. The nation that emerged from the smoke and fire of Yorktown a decade later would have been unrecognizable to the Americans of even two generations before. A land without a king, where even Jews and Catholics were allowed to practice their religions freely? Unthinkable!

Four generations later, the pattern repeats. By 1855 the Republic was coming apart at the seams, and the idea that America was composed of a voluntary union of separate but equal states died in Mr. Lincoln’s war. The nation that emerged from the smoke and fire of Gettysburg would have been unrecognizable to the Americans of an earlier generation—which many of them proved, by fleeing into the Wild West. A land where even Negroes were allowed to vote and own property? Unthinkable!

Four more generations? That puts us in or around 1935, and while the popular image of that decade now is of soup lines, Oakies, bank robbers and depression glass, the nation was much closer to the brink of disintegration than people now like to admit. There were authentic Fascist plots to overthrow the government. There were Communist plots, too. In the end FDR somehow held the country together, with considerable unintentional assistance from the Japanese and Germans, but as my parents never got tired of pointing out, the nation that emerged from the Great Depression and World War II was one that would have been unrecognizable to the people of the 1920s.

There is ample evidence to support this assertion. If we accept that science fiction is collective secular prophecy packaged in commercially marketable form, then the science fiction of the 1920s proves that the world of 1950 was unthinkable to the people of only twenty years earlier.

What about now? Today? I’m a science fiction writer, and having observed the failures of prescience of so many other writers before me, I am reluctant to prognosticate. However, I can’t help but notice that we are approaching the 80th anniversary of the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, and that every eighty years or so we seem to spew up a truly transformational leader who for better or worse rewrites the terms of the social contract. [nb: This was written in 2008, remember?]

Do the times make the man or does the man define his time? I don’t know. All I know for certain is this: Nature abhors stasis. And this leads me to wonder whether this four-generations principle has nothing to do with whether a society is closed or open, but is only more readily visible in a closed society.

Or perhaps our society is not so open after all...


Part IV: In lieu of a conclusion... 

Conclusion? I have no conclusion. I’ve held off clicking the [Publish Post] button for hours now, in hopes of coming up with a stirring and inspirational conclusion, but the best I’ve been able to come up with is an observation. Like it or not, we are all here together on this giant multi-generational spaceship we call the Earth, traveling into the future at Time Factor 1X. The only thing we can be certain of now is that things will change, and what matters most to you and your posterity is how you react and adapt to this change.

And with that thought, I wish you all a happy, safe, and successful New Year.

Nil desperandum,

31 December 2008


Mark Keigley said...

This is pithy enough that I'm going to have to reread this several times to glean all that there is here....and think more about the way I treated some of this in my Genship Concept upcoming in issue # 22...... :)

~brb said...

To be honest, the cyclical nature of it puzzles me. It should be a continuous process of upheaval. Every day, new people are born who will someday be adults who totally don't give a @#$(*& what their great-grandparents' hopes and dreams were. So why the apparent four-generation cycle?

The only thing I can think of is that that is about how long it takes for the people who remember how bad the last massive social transformation was to age out of the population. But that's just a guess.