Space colonisation for sapiens is probably beyond us


I read this book over the summer of 2017-18 (Southern hemisphere for all confused northerners) and these comment here are not really intended as a review (critique of writing style, narrative flow, its fit in the canon ...). I don't care too much about that. Rather, it is my visceral response to an extraordinary space journey.

The premise of this book is stunning once it becomes apparent what is happening. Call it a sophisticated allegory or just great scientific fiction writing, this story feels like this is how a long term space expedition would actually turn out. Two thousand humans, several ecosystems and many other species, including bacteria, which are after all essential for life, leave earth about 500 years from now on a space-craft (a very large one) to head for an earth-like planet a long way away. The journey takes close to 200 years, so the space craft has to be their 'earth', an entirely self functioning ecosystem. Easy as bro! Well, this is one story of how that ambition might well turn out.

For me, the book is at times stunning in its storytelling audacity and rich with science and learning and immense command of detail that Robinson does so well. This is not a book of ceaseless action, and if that is what you need, then probably this will not excite you. But as a profound thought experiment in the evolution of biological beings and the place of earth as our natural and proper home, I know of no better book.

It regularly shattered me by confrontation with so many plausible scenarios of what can go wrong when we leave the ecosystems and atmosphere of our birth. It literally shook me, thinking about how complex the challenge was. They needed to take everything with them everything for life. Everything. All the minerals, elements, genes, bacteria (the good but not the bad ... but which were the good and bad?) and the right amounts because energy was not unlimited. The gravity was slightly different, and although they lived in small biospheres 3km or so across, these had to provide all the food, manage all the waste, produce all the oxygen and breathable air, manage toxins, not just for humans but for all life forms on the ship.

They needed a mighty fine balance like, well, what we have on earth!

And I kept thinking how, as they got sick, as their crops failed, as they struggled to maintain the balance, our current planet does all this for us. For free.

So as I look at the enthusiasm we seem to have for collectively degrading our ecosystems and reshaping our climate, the idea that we can ingeniously replace all of this through smart algorithms, robotic helpers and AI companions seems increasingly implausible.

For this reason Robinson's book ought to be read and discussed. Personally, I am not opposed to Elon Musk's dream of colonising Mars by building underground cities and his dad jokes about cool pubs such as 'The Mars Bar'. But it will be tough, and it will not be earth, our mother. And it may not work. We have evolved in this moment on this one planet with this particular balance of chemistry and biology, well suited to life here because there is a good match between our bodies and our environment. To thrive we need this balance. Aurora taught me that it is a hell of a challenge to build this new earth. And not only challenging, but full of low level dread. When you are flying through space at 3% of the speed of light, you can't stop to refuel. And if the bugs get sick and the ship's nitrogen slowly leaks into space and can't be recovered, it is hard not to regret leaving the planet where all this stuff still actually works.

Aurora is not a perfect book of course (unlike my soon-to-be-written perfect first novel). At times the pondering by 'Ship' (the increasing self aware AI) carries on like a science classroom teacher at a summer school cramming intensive, sometimes interesting but sometimes a bit much for this non-scientist. Still, small quibbles over what must be one of the best and most creative minds writing these days.

#Spacetravel #KimStanleyRobinson #ecofiction

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