Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever. – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
The dream of humanity escaping its “cradle” to colonise the stars is the subject – or perhaps a better word would be “target” – of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel (the first of his that I’ve read), Aurora.
This book expands on the thesis advanced by Robinson in this recent essay for BoingBoing: that the dream of interstellar colonisation will never actually come true. Robinson does this by telling the story of a spaceship carrying 2,000 pioneer colonists to the Tau Ceti system, 11.9 light years from Earth. He depicts their attempts to overcome the insuperable difficulties – “ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological” – which their mission faces, despite the best efforts of both the mission’s original designers and subsequent generations of colonists on board.
For Robinson, the science fiction “eschatology” of humanity colonising the stars is not just a harmless dream, but can become a dangerous delusion to the extent that it makes us think that there is any long-term alternative to Earth for humanity’s survival. As a character puts it towards the end:
The idea […] that Earth is humanity’s cradle is part of what trashed the Earth in the first place. (p.439)
The positive lesson that Robinson wants to drum home is that:
life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. […] So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. (p.178)
Human beings have evolved to live in a complex symbiosis with our environment; indeed, we are each of us ourselves a complex ecosystem in which my health as an individual is dependent on maintaining a balance with the microbes that inhabit my body.
Towards the end, a character summarises Robinson’s argument in words that are worth quoting in full:
“No starship voyage will work,” [Aram] says abruptly. “This is an idea some of you have, which ignores the biological realities of the situation. We from Tau Ceti know this better than anyone. There are ecological, biological, sociological, and psychological problems that can never be solved to make this idea work. The physical problems of propulsion have captured your fancy, and perhaps these problems can be solved, but they are the easy ones. The biological problems cannot be solved. And no matter how much you want to ignore them, they will exist for the people you send out inside these vehicles.
“The bottom line is the biomes you can propel at the speeds needed to cross such great distances are too small to hold viable ecologies. The distances between here and any truly habitable planets are too great. And the differences between other planets and Earth are too great. Other planets are either alive or dead. Living planets are alive with their own indigenous life, and dead planets can’t be terraformed quickly enough for the colonizing population to survive the time in enclosure. Only a true Earth twin not yet occupied by life would allow this plan to work, and these may exist somewhere, the galaxy after all is big, but they are too far away from us. Viable planets, if they exist, are simply too—far—away.”
Aram pauses for a moment to collect himself. Then he waves a hand and says more calmly, “That’s why you aren’t hearing from anyone out there. That’s why the great silence persists. There are many other living intelligences out there, no doubt, but they can’t leave their home planets any more than we can, because life is a planetary expression, and can only survive on its home planet.” (p.428)
Of course, many will continue to dispute Robinson’s assertion that interstellar colonisation is impossible. He foresees this in the debates he describes between his characters on the prospects of success:
This pessimism, or dark realism, whichever it might be, enraged Speller and Heloise, and everyone trying to make the best of things, trying to find a way forward. Why be so negative? they asked.
“It’s not me being negative,” Aram would reply. “It’s the universe obeying its laws. Science isn’t magic! We aren’t fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand.” (p.195)
Hence Robinson’s answer to Fermi’s paradox (the supposed mystery of why interstellar civilisations haven’t arrived at Earth yet):
“…by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. […]
“So, of course, every once in a while some particularly stupid form of life will try to break out and move away from its home star. […] But it doesn’t work, and the life left living learns the lesson, and stops trying such a stupid thing.” (pp.178f.)
If all this makes the book sound rather dry and didactic, it’s not: Robinson is an effective storyteller, and I found myself gripped from start to (near) finish. During the first half of the book, this was heading towards being my favourite book of the year. It went off the boil a little in the second half, for reasons which are hard to describe without posting spoilers (see after the fold if you want to know more), but it’s still an important, enjoyable and persuasive work of science fiction. Highly recommended.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS >>>
So, what are my criticisms of the book? As I said above, during the first half I was gripped, as we cover the final twenty years of the ship’s outbound journey to Tau Ceti, and its (SPOILER ALERT) tragically unsuccessful attempt to colonise the planetary system there. In all this, Robinson shows in vivid detail the mounting biological and social problems caused by the ship’s confined environment, and then the impossibility of settling on another world (“What’s funny is anyone thinking it would work in the first place. I mean it’s obvious any new place is going to be either alive or dead. If it’s alive it’s going to be poisonous, if it’s dead you’re going to have to work it up from scratch.”).
This is when the problems start, as the colonists split into two groups, and we follow the story of the group that (ANOTHER SPOILER, FOLKS) turns round to return to Earth. Quite apart from the success of a return mission stretching credulity (especially after Robinson has shown so effectively how unlikely it was that even the outward voyage should have succeeded), Robinson is simply trying to do too much at once in this half: not least by introducing, rather arbitrarily, new hibernation technology to allow the same cast members that leave Tau Ceti to arrive at Earth 180 years later. Then he presents a rather rushed depiction of a post-climate change Earth. Just too much happening. But those qualifications shouldn’t put you off reading the book.