Putting the life back in science fiction


The Interstellar Two-Step

Let’s assume, for the moment, that interstellar travel is possible. Let’s further assume that there’s no magic wand of teleportation or FTL, traveling to another star takes a looong time, and it basically means colonizing your starship (or gaiaspore, if starship is too passe for you). The ship may be Charlie Stross’s hollowed out asteroid, or a comet, or something similarly large, but whatever the ship looks like, the basic idea is that people don’t put their lives on hold for the duration of the trip. Rather, they settle into their ship, and then they (or their distant descendents) settle another world elsewhere.

The two-step is an environmental filter. Many technologies that are ubiquitous on Earth, such as cooking knives or internal combustion engines, are non-starters in free fall (where scissors work better) or in small biospheres (gasoline engines). Consequently, interstellar travelers will abandon quite a lot of Earth’s technology when they live in space. They’ll also certainly invent lots of uses for vacuum and all sorts of high energy particles, but that’s another story.

Anyway, once they’ve made the first step of abandoning Earth tech and its associated culture (no car culture in space), once they get to another planet, they’re faced with a new environment where they have to adapt again. Suddenly they have dependable gravity and a huge biosphere to draw on (or at least, a planet’s worth of resources). In the second step, do they simply adapt spacer culture and technology to meet the challenges of the new place, or do they read through copies of the ancient Wikipedia and start experimenting with, say, gasoline engines again?

There’s a real-life analogy to this process: Polynesia. As the Lapita peoples settled the Pacific, they abandoned things like pottery, weaving, and flaking rock (and possibly bronze metallurgy) as part of their adaptation to living on coral atolls. Once they colonized places like New Zealand, they didn’t spontaneously pick up their ancestor’s technologies, even though they had the resources (such as clay) to do them again. Instead, they adapted their Polynesian tool kits to new surroundings.

There are some subtleties here: for example, Polynesians didn’t just abandon pots because there was no clay on atolls. They were abandoning them before they got to the atolls, because they were switching from cooking over an open fire (where pots are useful) to cooking in an earth oven (where pots are useless). Moreover pots are more fragile than wooden bowls, coconut shells, and gourds. Similarly, they switched from flaking rock edges (on obsidian) to grinding, because grinding works on all sorts of materials, including the giant clam shells used for adze blades on atolls, while flaking just works on glassy rocks. The thing is, adzes work better when they’re ground rather than flaked (whatever they’re made of), the Polynesians also had bamboo (which can be shaped with an adze to make a nice sharp knife), and Easter Islanders figured out how to flake knives on their own in any case. The bottom line is that loss of technology isn’t just about losing the tech, its involves a whole shift to other tools and practices that sometimes makes things superfluous. A society on electric cars won’t be exactly the same as a society built around gasoline cars, because the two vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses.

Getting back to the interstellar two-step, it’s a fun to play as a thought game. If you were leaving Earth for space, what would you abandon? If you were planning on getting your descendents to settle elsewhere, would you have them do: resurrect Earth culture, adapt spacer culture, or both?

Examples of adapting spacer culture might range from using scissors and shears in place of knives, to using air guns instead of gunpowder, to using various cooking techniques that work regardless of gravity, but not gravity-requiring methods such as frying. How about transportation? Art? Agriculture? For example, if they kept goats in space, would you have them bring along cow embryos and the means to grow them to re-establish cattle, or would you rather give them the biotechnology to engineer a giant goat that fulfills most of the cow’s roles in terrestrial agriculture?

What do you think? How would you do the Interstellar Two-Step? I’ll say right off that there’s no right answer. This is a thought game, pure and simple.

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8 Comments so far
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I think they’ll be leaving behind metals, which are heavy and expensive to transport, in favor of plastic–hydrocarbon and nanotube materials. Which of course will get printed out by a 3D printer. As life has shown, from redwoods to archaeons, carbon-based materials can do most of what metals can. Silica, too, I think we’ll keep that.

Comment by Joan S.

As a red-blooded human being, I’d just as soon take some iron and magnesium with us. A few other metals ( e.g.Ca, Mo, Mn, Zn, Cu, Ni) might be good, just for the active sites on enzymes and other vital uses (hemoglobin, chlorophyll, etc.). Otherwise, that’s not a bad idea.

Comment by heteromeles

Given the techniques necessary to live between stars for centuries, pretty much any place in a star system looks hospitable. If the colonists can find more nuclear fuels in the new system they can probably live wherever they like. If not, they’re best off living near the star but still in space to take advantage of the constant radiated energy. On planetary surfaces most renewable energy isn’t as convenient as PV in space, though with a whole planet to work with and a population of no more than a few million, they can afford to use only the cream of renewables like geothermal and hydroelectric power.

A successful centuries-long space voyage probably requires a roughly constant population. Do the forces managing population between the stars still operate once they arrive in the new system? It only takes a small minority who want lots of kids for exponential growth to work its magic. If the population stays small enough everyone can be wealthy in terms of real estate and every other sort of natural resource and still not overtax the planet. I use “wealthy” here to indicate that the colonists can all enjoy a lot of material wealth and consumption; it’s not intended to presume anything about their economic/political arrangements. Consuming like a rich American would be mostly fine if there were only a million people on Earth.

I would like to believe that the colonists will tread lightly on any new planet. They certainly would have the means, if they lived in a small closed system for centuries. On the other hand, knowing that they can always go back to those managed systems, they may feel little incentive to preserve natural ecosystem services on the new planet. The local biosphere, if there is one, may in fact hinder the colonists more than it helps them.

Perhaps a more basic question is whether the colonists even want to live on a planetary surface, or if they’re happy to keep living in hollow asteroids. There’s a lot of reasons that colonizing space looks ridiculously inconvenient and expensive from my current vantage point, but if you assume that all those problems have been solved, I’m not sure that your average planetary surface has much to offer over a space colony. I think that Earth still has more to offer, but nobody’s going to find a second Earth just lying around.

Comment by Matt

Fascinating! Nothing like a little data to inject life into an old concept.

The remark about space livestock brought to mind an interesting factoid I read a while back; apparently, if the air is sufficiently humid, fish can breathe out water in a vacuum. Presumably their gill filaments don’t stick together outside the influence of gravity, allowing them to function if kept moist. I wonder if space colonists might maintain schools of (possibly genetically engineered) air-fish for food?

Comment by Spugpow

You know, the idea of a bunch of tilapia or catfish flopping around in a compartment is…interesting. What really scares me about this concept isn’t the fish, but how the water acts. Do droplets blob up, or can you simply keep the air wet? How do you keep the water in the fish tank and not, say, in the electronics down the hall? I don’t know, but it seems like one of those little things that needs to be figured out before we scale up. Hopefully, if someone’s taken zebra fish into orbit, they’ll post how it was done.

Comment by heteromeles

I’m envisioning a biosphere 2 type habitat separate from the electronics portion of the ship, where crops and livestock are kept. Food could be grown using aeroponics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeroponics), which requires a misty environment that’s also ideal for fish.

Comment by Spugpow

True, although water always gets these weird ideas about doors.

Actually, today I went for a hike, and in the trail, I saw a better candidate than most fish: a 6″ crayfish. They aren’t native to this area, and this one was quite alive, about 20 feet from a creek, and rather annoyed about being spotted. I think the combination of feet and swimming ability might be useful in zero gee, and they do taste good if cooked properly.

Comment by Heteromeles

Good point, crustaceans tend to do well out of water. Plus they can be fed garbage.

Comment by Spugpow




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