Putting the life back in science fiction

Prelude to a Starship

On Charlie Stross’ blog, I think I called starships gaiaspores, because apparently the term “starship” is passe among the cognoscenti. Or something like that. Gaiaspore does have a certain endearing clunkiness, so use it if you wish. I’m mostly calling them starships here.

But I’m thinking about something a bit different. What comes before the starship? If you remember James Burke’s Connections from the late 1970s, you remember that no invention comes about without a long chain of preliminary discoveries. For living in space, we’re going to need a lot of precursors. What are they?

Let’s start science fiction: how do others see us getting to the stars? The science fiction answers range from, well what we have now (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, where Ohio hadn’t changed at all in 200 years, except that the elderly now emigrate to the stars) to planetary destruction (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, where the living, moon-sized spaceships basically ate planets down to the mantle before departing). Charlie Stross seems to break on the large side of the spectrum, talking about hollowing out asteroids and putting slow motors on them. That would require us to digest a few large cities, at the very least.

Assuming a starship is even feasible, it’s going to demand some things we’re currently really bad at, like living at close quarters with nuclear or fusion plants, living sustainably, and living in free fall or microgravity. No culture on Earth lives this way now (although people try it for a few years as an experiment).

So culturally, how do we get there from here? Cultural evolution tends to be path dependent, so it’s not as simple as re-educating the people we have. Imagine turning a Tea Partier into an 18th Century Japanese farmer, or a Papuan highland farmer (both picked because they lived fairly sustainably), and you’ll see the problem. Because of the path dependence, it’s fun to think about where we need to be going before our culture evolves to the point where it can live in space.

What do you think? What do the predecessors to the stars look like? Remember that a pre-starfaring culture has to work on its own merits. Like a bird ancestor, it can’t “half fly.” Those too-small wings have to perfectly good for something else first.

When I wrote Scion of the Zodiac, I cheated on this question. I assumed that we’re going into a post-oil dark age first, and that somehow in that unrecorded time (heh heh) we learned the critical lessons of sustainability that allowed us to go to the stars after the next Renaissance (spurred, I think, by discovering a readable copy of Wikipedia and translating it. No sarcasm there). However, I’ll admit that I was more interested in low tech terraforming than star flight, so I spent more time figuring out how you could survive in an alien biosphere at a low tech level. That last stipulation was so that I couldn’t use magic tech boxes to make life livable. For my “barefoot gaiaformers,” I used three books as my primary references: Bill Mollison’s An Introduction to Permaculture, Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking, and Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running. Those three books are ones I’d recommend for any post-oil bookshelf, but there’s a lot of good material in there for how to run a gaiaspore. Note that none of these books are mainstream, which is why I think path dependence matters. As for the mechanical side, I’m only starting to think about it.

Obviously, I can babble about this for hours. But what do you think? Can we get to the stars from here? If so, how do we make the connections, and what do the intermediate culture(s) look like? If not, what’s standing in our way?


7 Comments so far
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By “spore” do you mean the ship contents are in suspended animation, like an endospore? That is certainly an alternative to a metabolically active colony ship.

Your book Scion of the Zodiac sounds interesting, and I’ll check it out.

Comment by Joan Slonczewski

Hi Joan,

I was playing with the word “diaspore,” in the sense of something that disperses the Gaian biosphere, with appropriate support material.

I think suspended animation, or alternatively, an “upload” system, are both possibilities. The idea with an upload is that the information travels in some sort of computer, and we have the ability to technologically assemble cells and organisms from raw materials. Perhaps organisms get printed out at the other end?

If you do read “Scions,” let me know what you think. There’s a comment thread elsewhere on the blog.

Comment by heteromeles

Hi there
To be able to go to the stars I think colonizing the lave tubes of the moon would be a good start.
To seal off an area and start growing food, either keep mushrooms or else have optical fibers installed in the underground habitat that channel the sunlight down the 100+m under the surface.
To seal off a lava tube could be done with todays technology albeit it would cost alot of money.
A usefull invention for building a moonbase in a lavatube could be teleoperated robots. Also technology we posses to some extent.
If food could be produced in bulk and shelter from the solar wind could be found, our moon would be an ideal place to equip future atempts of going further into space.
As humans our biggest concern is having food (water is luckyli not an issue as far as i know, ice?) and protection from radiation and gravity in some form.
I’m sure the spinoff from a selfsustaining underground moonbase would be very beneficial for life on earth.

Comment by F.

I guess the questions are:
–Who would do it? The Chinese?
–Why do that as opposed to, say, doing the same thing in the Sahara or Antarctica?

Comment by heteromeles

I would hope it could be a joint effort involving alot of different countries.
The mission should have a timeframe in the order of hundreds of years.

It would do humanity good if somebody started planning a century ahead( if possible).

The goal wouldnt necsesarily be putting a whole lot of people in an habitat but to push technological development to a new level. (Without spaceprobes we wouldnt have half as good solarcells as we got now.)

An experiment consisting of a diverse fleet of robots.
Imagine robots with modified spinnerets with which they close an ‘air’tight cocoon from made ultrathin polymer sheets inside the lavatube. Its basicly a ‘free'(hmm) moonbase, structure and radiation protectionwise.
Next wave of robots could ‘seed’ the habitat with a basis of starting a fledgling culture of microorganisms choosen to produce an more life friendly enviroment, still optical fiber cables send sunlight into the habitat..

At some point in time the habitat reaches a state where human visits of longer duration will make sense. (100-500 years?).

People are living in Antartica some months of the year but they bring everything with them. In space you’d really have to utllise the materials available.
I know we need factories in space before it really gets interesting. (And I’m also aware of the fact that we’re not meant to inhabit space.)

2011 the main point of strife is still the fact the Earth has finite ressources, the Earth would a more peacefull place if we could tap into the solarsystems pool of minerals.
If we could produce stuff in space we wouldnt pollute our biosphere to the same degree as today.

The marsrovers are a great example driving around for years on end for no other reason than to get a better look at one of our neighbouring planets.
Before we know for sure that life is abundant in the universe we have to make efforts to create sustainable selfsupporting systems, if not for anything else than simply just to see if it is possible.
I think the discoveries made along the way would make up for the cost.

Comment by F.

And by the way sorry for the very long ranty comments, I know we could focus our money and resources to problems here on Earth to greater extent than what is being done at the moment.

We can travel to the stars in our imagination, indeed a very unique ability.

Kind regards

Comment by F.

Don’t worry about it. I appreciate your comments.

Comment by heteromeles

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