Generation Ships – John Carlton

Generation Ships – John Carlton

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book recently apparently to show that interstellar travel is impossible. He expresses his point of view in this post.

And this one.

As far as Mr. Robinson is concerned, once the solar system is filled up that’s it, game over.  Only one earth, one solar system, that’s all there is.  It’s not possible to travel between the stars and even if we could, the missions would all fail.  Of course he also believes that utopia is possible as some sort of Socialist paradise.  Now that’s a fantasy.

David Brin has some rejoinders here.

As does Stephen Baxter.

And Gregory Benford.

As an engineer, I think that Mr. Robinson is clearly wrong. Or at least, he doesn’t understand the basic rules for setting mission parameters and designing to meet those parameters. Mr. Robison’s vessel failed because he wanted it to fail. But to extend that to saying that ALL such proposals would fail is more than a little egotistical. And wrong, really wrong.

Now I haven’t as yet read the book. Reading Greg Benford’s review left me going WTF, WTF, WTF, are you kidding? If you are going to write a book on pioneering could you at least set it up so that the pioneers are at least a little realistic. A ship without a captain or seemingly a crew? No community structure? What was it, a commune in space? Of course something like that is going to fail. That’s what happens to fragile structure and the commune is the most fragile of all. Just look at all the failed examples in the 19th Century. So that’s fail #1.

Then we get to the system and apparently the crew has forgotten the idea of pathogen protocols. And they all go down to the planet. Why? When you have the capability to build starfaring craft, planets suck. they have those nasty deep gravity wells and keep all their good stuff in their centers where it’s tough to get to. This is a spacefaring society. Why would they care about planets at all, at least in the beginning? Fail #2.

Then there’s the ship itself. I kept asking myself why it was so fragile and so small. Here’s how Greg Benford describes it.

Aurora depicts a starship on a long voyage to Tau Ceti four centuries from now. It is shaped like a car axle, with two large wheels turning for centrifugal gravity. The biomes along their rims support many Earthly lifezones which need constant tending to be stable. They’re voyaging to Tau Ceti, so the ship’s name is a reference to Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn, which takes place on a world orbiting Tau Ceti named Aurora. Arrival at the Earthlike moon of a super-Earth primary brings celebration, exploration, and we see just how complex an interstellar expedition four centuries from now can be, in both technology and society.

First of all, why the biomes? Doesn’t that add complexity that may not be necessary? Also why the wheel on axle design with such large wheels? Why add complexity where you don’t need it? When your vehicle is expected to be under thrust you want the mass as close to the center axis as possible so that you avoid dynamic stability issues. And having all that extra surface area just makes radiation shielding more difficult. Fail #3 and out.

Now it’s obvious from the way Mr. Robinson is presenting the story that the ship and it’s culture were set up to fail. Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to make his point. But does that mean that a ship couldn’t be designed to succeed? Of course not.

Now one of the most interesting SF books of the 1980’s was this one, to me anyway.

It’s interesting because it was written by a Senior Boeing system engineer. And the story is mostly about how the engineering process works written in an entertaining manner. While it wasn’t Hugo material, at least the writer knew what he was doing. I learned a lot from Callin’s book on how to make a mission a success.

See, a while back , way back in the late 1980’s the National Space Society ran a contest on designing a space habitat. I entered. At that time my wall had been covered with space colony posters for years and I had been collecting space books and whatnot for years. And I had just graduated from college and did not yet have a job and I wanted a design project as a portfolio.

So away I went. Back then, doing the homework was harder because you couldn’t just go online and find stuff because the internet wasn’t available to everybody. Still, UB, my college and the local library had a bunch of stuff and I was able to come up with some design numbers. I’ve since lost the design sheets in one move or another, so I no longer have the exact numbers and the only drawings printed at full scale were sent off with the contest entry so I don’t have any pictures to show and the files themselves are long gone several hard drive crashes ago.

Still I do remember a few things about the project. Being able to calculate how much volume each person needed and what the requirements for hydroponics were going to be. Some numbers were fuzzier, like air recycling, but I worked out most of that for my colony size of 65,000 or so, which would make good size for a generation ship. I did make some guesses like how much gravity is “enough.” I think I went for 1/6 g but it might have been 1/3, which made the habitat space more compact.

If I were to approach such a design project again I would have much harder numbers for a lot of it simply because we have so much more experience in space. A lot of numbers that were vapor in 1988 are solidified by experience now. And that’s going to continue. I’m frankly surprised that Robinson had trouble finding hard data, because I know that I didn’t and doing research is so much easier now with so much online.

Of course, the reason his spacecraft failed in the end was not the ship itself. It was the society that Robinson had build the ship. From what I can see from Robinson’s posts, the reason that humans can’t go to the stars is because the Socialism he likes so much can’t handle pioneering and he’s right, Socialism and pioneering just don’t work. but then neither does Socialism and anything else work, except as bloody messes.

The fact is that the first colonies on the Northern american continent did fail, for the same reasons that Mr. Robinson’s mission failed.  Too much Socialist idealism and not nenough hard practicality.  But it’s the ability to be free enough to make your own decisions and get rewarded for those decisions that makes pioneering antifragile.

I come from a family with a long pioneering history. MY family came across the pond, not to a bustling NewYork in the  late 19th or early 20th Century, but to a Massachusetts where Boston didn’t even exist yet. I think that we probably paid for the first farm in Roxbury with arrow points and tools. Yet my ancestor persevered and thrived, because that is what pioneers do.

Real pioneers don’t fail because failure is not an option and incompetence is something that can’t be tolerated. They do the work that needs to get done because they are working to make a better place for the next generation, not themselves. We as a culture have suppressed the pioneer spirit in the last few decades and maybe that’s a mistake. Because pioneers desire and understand liberty and the alternative is tyranny.

Here’s a bunch of links to get the pioneer spirit started. Sorry, Mr. Robinson, our carracks to the stars will not fail because the pioneer spirits in them, will not let them fail. Look if my ancestors can cross the North Atlantic in a tiny leaky little boat, can I say anything less?


337 thoughts on “Generation Ships – John Carlton

  1. That encapsulates in a nutshell how the American Left went from wanting to explore the New Frontier to “Let’s solve all our problems on Earth first” in a single generation.

  2. My recent articles in ANALOG and in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, and my presentation at the 100 Year Star Ship Symposium in 2011, show that generation ship concepts need to take into account “Colony vs. Crew”: that first generation will die in space; they must have reasons for doing so, and the society that launches them likewise needs to justify the expense.

  3. I’ve had the misfortune of using Robinson’s 2313 as a long delayed foray into reading what looked like hard sci-fi. I instead got an object lesson in how never to write.

    This review on Amazon, is a fairly polite one, highlighting all the flaws. I’m quoting this other one because it’s funny and true:

    One example was the fact that the main character was somewhat post human, ie change gender, brain, and body details by choice. This was countered by the fact that I wanted the main character to die before the end of the first chapter. I admit that the character made somewhat more sense when it was revealed that she was the 2300’s equivalent of a junky drop-out rather than a massively spoiled brat, but it made her no more likable. The fact that she was supposed to be part of the folks going up against a secret deadly plot, was laughable. She wouldn’t be a match for irate cub scouts.

    And this one:

    Plot, what plot, where, did I miss something?!! I’ve been an avid reader all my life. I was the kid that hid under the bed covers with a flashlight and my library book, until I was caught and the flashlight confiscated, but this book is 568 pages of my life that I’ll never get back. My husband bought it and never came close to finishing it, but I persisted just because I was SURE it had to get better. I was SO wrong!

    Spaced in between pages, and pages, of weird “stream of consciousness” nonsense were a few, very few, interesting chapters that wanted to be a honest to goodness storyline, but totally failed in the end. My advice if you see this book….run, Forest, run!

    While he had lovely visuals – especially at the start – after a while I began to wonder ‘Why the everliving fsck would that be necessary? What was the POINT of that scene?’

    Actually, the entirety of the book had zero point and frankly I saw no reason to take this human-hating author seriously after that. He bags endlessly on humanity while somehow attributing immense feats of interplanetary solar settlement to it at the same time. So really, I am not surprised that he thinks we’ll dead-end.

    1. “This was countered by the fact that I wanted the main character to die before the end of the first chapter.”

      Kind of says it all right there, doesn’t it?

    2. Nothing interesting happens, and the characters are all assholes who need to die in a fire.

      So, a typical Hugo nominee then? ~:D

      1. Yep. Especially thanks to the nightmarish Ikea-manual sex scene in the middle of the book – which I landed on when I shut the book, and opened at random to see if there was the faintest hope that a story was abruptly discovered out there in the ramblings of space and the contempt the main character had for her previous creations.

        I think Robinson just added a zero to her age to make her ‘mature’ but Christ she acted like a petulant 16 year old.

          1. I am not joking about the Ikea manual sex. Apparently the two main characters both had ‘major and minor’ sexual organs – and which gender they were identified as was determined by which organ… was bigger? So the ‘guy’ had a small …hole? Vagina? above? his penis, and the heroine ‘played the swan’ or something like that being on top and slotting in her small penis into him and … yeah.

            1. Guh. There is a reason I am excising the adult section of the in process novel. I don’t mind playing with assumptions and what is a society but this just seems juvenile.

              1. I’m not sure whether it was RAH – someone wiser than I at the time, anyway – that gave me the following definitions:

                Child – you don’t know (and don’t care) about the purpose of tab B or slot A.

                Adolescent / juvenile – tab B and slot A are all you think about (and most of your thinking is incorrect).

                Adult – you know quite a bit about tab B and slot A (with a few misconceptions, yet, alas), but realize there are a lot of other interesting, and sometimes more important other things in life.

                Old age – you know all about tab B and slot A, but are too tired to practice.

                Far too many seem to skip right from stage II to stage IV these days.

                1. IMO it seems a lot of people just want to rage against the ‘squares’ of the 50’s and thus go overboard in the stuff that was not allowed. I don’t need to see the blood and gore to understand that someone is dead. It’s a gorn fest now imo

                  1. To this I tend to laugh. Loudly and not kindly, unfortunately for me, that’s a failing.

                    People who did not live those years (and the earlier ones) can still watch old movies from back when the censors still had Hollyweird in a full-Nelson lock. I love the noir genre that was born then, back when any sympathy for the villain of the piece was verboten, and no sex, no cursing allowed.

                    Ah, but what the censors don’t fully understand is how subtle the human brain is. How innuendo can build, moment by moment, until the crescendo peaks in full realization- without ever being explicit.

                    That’s something I look for in a story well-told, too. The reader needs space for his imagination to run wild in. Sure, there’s a time and place for the 2×4 to the head. You can’t run the whole book that way without losing something essential.

                    Not that David Drake goes in for the sex scenes, but it’s something I’ve noticed he does well. He doesn’t belabor a point or do a scene to death. He’s got a light touch with the finer points that can be devastatingly effective when it goes *just* right.

                    1. Exactly. The older movies were not explicit but could be very startling and evocative. A handyman with a screwdriver and wrench is not necessarily worse than one with a truckful of tools

                    2. It’s my understanding that Mae West did a lot of provoking with being censored. 😉

                    3. But that is part of the allure, bad dragon. No need to hit you overhead. Watch Dr no and Spectre and see the Delta.

                      Plus one of the few detective episodes that I was surprised was mission:impossible

                  2. It’s a gorn fest now imo

                    Gorns want to blow off steam just like everyone else.

                    1. Yeah, I know that feeling. My first “brief” play of Fallout 4 where I was “just going to try the character creator and maybe get past the intro level” ended about 9 hours later. O_o;;

                    2. I bought my first computer the weekend of a local gaming convention. I’d heard good things about this game called “Civilization”, so I bought it. Loaded it Friday morning, thought I’d give it a quick try before going to the con.

                      Several hours later, I was getting hungry (skipped lunch, hadn’t eaten dinner yer) and realized I missed the first slot of the convention, so I stopped playing to grab a sandwich and go to the con.

                      Just one… more… turn…

            2. Makes Red Mars’s orgiastic hippie sex cult seem tame. And, even descriptions of was more concerned with the mechanics than anything else.

            3. Ew. I hate it when authors feel compelled to re-enact their 14 year old fantasies and make me pay for it. The tab A – slot B stuff is inherently boring to read. I suppose sometime characters misbehave, but that’s why we have editing. To take out the dumb parts after we write them.

              And if the plot hinges on something where I -need- to know tabs A-F fit in slots M-R, with a backflip and a half twist for the full points… I’m pretty sure that’s going to be stupid.

              I’m more interested in the acceleration couch. Can it support your kidneys at 5 Gs? How does it do that?

              1. As far as I could tell, while the main characters were ostensibly trying to avert some system wide plot of ….SOMETHING TERRIBAD… they apparently spent weeks? Months? in some pipes doing SOMETHING that was supposed to avert that terrible thing. I couldn’t really tell. There were pages of description of Swan’s internal perspectives, including how she and the man she constantly derides as toadlike ‘grew so companionable they communicated through whistles.’ Or something that was supposed to ‘show’ that they were close, but made me go “Why? Wouldn’t a whistle echo uncomfortably in a pipe tunnel?”

              2. When JMS informed the viewers of Babylon 5 that Centauri males have tabs A through F, that detail was relevant in two or three scenes total in the entire 110-episode series — and every time the detail showed up, it was played for humor.

                1. I love that scene where Londo is cheating at cards with his A-F tabs. And then somebody puts a drink on top of it. Awesome!

              3. I have read a (very) few scenes that made me go O.O in a *good* way. Without exception, they had vast amounts of characterization behind them and were about *those two people*, not random sets of happy genitalia. But, y’know, that’s difficult, so why bother?

                1. I don’t have sex or sexual scenes in a book unless they’re vitally important to the plot. Okay, or the publisher made me put it in, but I’ll change Heart of Light when it comes out by me…

                2. I think Nora Roberts (as J. D. Robb) does a good job of this in her Eve Dallas novels.

                  Eve and Roarke are always having “heavy” sex (although the author has toned it down in later books) but IMO it always works because of when its shown.

                  It almost always is shown when Eve “needs” a release from the tension of her job. Of course, we also see Eve getting a release from her tension in other ways. [Smile]

            4. You know, something like that can still be done as a passionate love scene. What needs to be present, which was probably missing in this one, was the love and the passion. That doesn’t preclude physical description, and I can see why with genitals that strange KSR wanted the physical description.

              But if the characters don’t actually love one another, then nothing can really save it.

              1. I flicked to the end to find out what happened in the end. Apparently, the heroine eventually marries the man she repeatedly describes as ‘froglike’ in features, even when she was supposedly in love with him – after he spent several decades courting her trying to persuade her to marry. But the way it was written made me think she didn’t really want to get married or was in love with him. As if, along with the changes in human gender so that everyone is intersex AND bisexual… or something… human emotions no longer are recognizable. At the best i could gather, she barely tolerated his presence and at the point of the sex scene they were supposedly companiable enough to ‘not need to communicate, save for whistling’ (in those pipelike tunnels) and had sex, where the description was more to talk about how ‘skilled’ she was at being the one on top. The whole relationship felt… forced. “Because the author says so.” The ‘male love interest’ish character ticks all the boxes of what they call a ‘gamma male’ these days.

                And no, she does not in any way display any more maturity at the end than she did that the start.

                Wayne Barlowe did truly alien sex description far better – in what was supposed to be a catalogue of species across different science fiction settings.

          1. The fix broke something else. Which is now fixed. (See the latest post, where there are COMMENTS omg. On a recipe. *sigh* )

            Y’know, if you hadn’t told me that there was something wrong, I wouldn’t have known about it. So thank you for letting me know there was an issue with the comments so I could fix it.

            1. I thought you were doing “no comments” on purpose to keep the monsters out. Glad I helped!

      1. There was this sex scene that I misfortunately discovered when I opened the book to a random page. I stared at it then handed it to Rhys, who had bought me the book so I could read something on the plane flight we were on.

        He looked unhappily at me and asked me why I had to inflict it on him, because not only could he visualize said nightmarish sex scene, and “I cannot unsee!”

        I kinda couldn’t – and still can’t- make myself go after any hard sci-fi book since. The book was supposed to be ‘good’ and the opening hooked me. And lost me just as quickly.

        1. I enjoy hard sci-fi if there’s story within the science, and if the science makes sense. There can be handwavium and balognium if necessary (like some of the ship technology in the Weberverse), but the science needs to be internally consistent.

          One of my biggest gripes about a hard sci-fi anthology I read last year was the were 90% downers. Great science, neat set up (in most cases), but to much no-hope and people-are-bad. in other words, the hard was stuck in grey goo.

          1. Which? So I don’t pick that up on an impulse buy. I tend to do that when I see “hard s/f” and the back cover blurb isn’t horrible.

            Whenever I see a lot of grey goo in an anthology, I want to hunt down the editor and poke the book at him and say “were you even trying? Really?” *shakes head*

            1. I’m trying to recall. I can see the cover in my mind’s eye, but I’m blanking on the title. The first story was about a micro black hole that destroys Earth.

          2. I never got to see “The Outer Limits” or “The Twilight Zone” on TV; I was too young when they first aired, and they were never syndicated where I lived.

            Over the decades I heard a *lot* about them, though. So when a friend loaned me his DVD sets of both, I was pretty chuffed.

            Over the next week I watched season 1 and part of season 2 for both. And then I returned the discs to their owner. It had taken a while for it to sink in, but Every. Single. Episode. had one of two plot lines:

            A) humans suck
            B) technnology is evil

            A few even managed both.

            Every episode was a downer. I don’t insist that the good guys always win, just that they make a fight of it. But I didn’t even see that.

            The SJW embedment was firm even back in the early 1960s…

            1. Every episode was a downer. I don’t insist that the good guys always win, just that they make a fight of it. But I didn’t even see that.

              A couple I didn’t think were downers were The Night of the Meek (season 2, Christmas episode) and The Changing of the Guard (season 3, teacher facing forced retirement).

              There were probably more, but I haven’t watched the series in years, and those are just the ones that popped into my head.

            2. I remember an episode of “The Outer Limits” where someone was being diagnosed a schizophrenic because she was receiving messages from a passing space ship, and she managed to help that space ship on its journey…but, yeah, the episodes where humans suck and/or technology is evil also often have stupid illustrations of said human technology (and in the case I’m thinking of, where nanobots that were used to cure cancer went terribly awry–the actual lesson was “technology is evil”, but the message I got was “I don’t care if you’re dying from cancer, if the researcher says the bots aren’t ready, don’t use them! Oh, and the writers don’t have any idea how nanobots–especially the early ones–are even going to work!”).

        2. I kinda couldn’t – and still can’t- make myself go after any hard sci-fi book since.

          This does not seem to be an era that has produced a lot of good, hard stf. A lot of the greats of the past produced such. Much of it is still enjoyable; although, sometimes the science has passed its used-by date. Anderson, Clement, Niven, Heinlein, and Smith (among others) sometimes wrote hard stf. Clement wrote hardly anything else.

          1. Writing good hard sci fi, you want a good detail oriented, meticulous can do problem solver. One of those reads gray goo, and they aren’t inspired to write. We should be producing more inspiration in the future, and building up the number of writers.

        3. Do you read the webcomic Freefall? It is good, positive, and has story and tension.

          It is also Hard Sci Fi, at least per the degenerate English major Moe Lane. 🙂 (Check out moelane dot com and on twitter moelane) I’d quibble some about that, as I want to categorize hard sci fi more narrowly, but it certainly qualifies by the David Drake criteria. (IIRC Peterson is an engineer at a nuclear power plant.)

          1. I sadly no longer have time for webcomics. They have a tendency to eat up my time more than just blogs, so given the choice between enjoying the lovely company of y’all, and a webcomic, I’ll pick you lovely folks.

            When I do feel antisocial, I read manga online.

          2. I’ll second the recommendation for Freefall for those that have the time to read the entire story. That’s the key limitation; you need to read the whole thing for it to make sense.

            I’ve had to pare down my webcomic reading; Freefall and Girl Genius are the last two must-read comics I have left. Once you’re caught up, Freefall’s 3 strips a week isn’t an issue, it’s getting through the rest of it. It’s reasonably hard sci-fi, intelligent, funny, and not dark: (the last three are general requirements for me to want to read something, the first is a bonus.)

      2. 2313 is probably the only other book I’ve ever read that I would cheerfully use as a fire starter. Or target practice. At least that way going the first route, it’ll have provided me with warmth or started the grill; in the second it would provide some ballistic testing.

        1. I recommend tracer rounds. You get your target practice AND you get to set it on fire. Win win!

            1. Probably not. But you might be able to get exploding targets. Then you get practice, fire AND explosions! Hat trick!

            2. No idea, Australia is pretty totalitarian on gun control. Here we can buy them with no problem, and I have no idea WHY Australia would prohibit them, but they were a “military technology” so I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

  4. “Real pioneers don’t fail because failure is not an option and incompetence is something that can’t be tolerated”. There’s truth in that, but it is only part of the story. Another part may be the “medieval building effect” — the only things that survive for us to see are those that are strong enough. Ancient buildings are impressively well constructed mostly because those that weren’t no longer exist. (The cathedral in Utrecht, Holland, is a notable exception.) Similarly, I assume there were pioneers who did fail and were not sufficiently competent — or not sufficiently lucky. But you don’t hear about them because they, or their offspring, are extinct.

    1. Not quite true. We hear about some of the failures, mostly as horrible examples about what not to do. Donner party anyone?

      1. Donner, party of five.
        Donner, party of four.
        Donner, party of three.

            1. I can see that.

              Having read rather detailed discussions of what happened with the Donner party … I find myself oddly uncomfortable with the jokes.

              Which is strange, for I truly enjoy Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17, and Roberto Benigni’s La vita e bella.

          1. I ate at a cafe near Jefferson County airport (Jeffco) that had the Alfie Packer sandwich: ham. My flight nurses and I had a lot of fun with that. Which is probably why they’d seated us away from the normal people.

            1. That wasn’t bad, there are considerably less PC sandwichesque items they could have named after Packer.

      2. Pinky: Look, Brain, the reindeer are inviting the elves to a party at Donner’s house.
        Brain: Hm, for some reason, the idea of joining the Donner party is unappealing.

        1. It’s Pinky and the Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain
          I never regularly watch that show, but I think every time I stumbled onto it, something like that quote made me smile or laugh outright.

          1. My daughter was 9ish when it was fresh. Watched many an episode with her. I love that show.

            1. If I ask my wife what she wants to do tonight – she will still answer “try to takeover the world!”

              Of course, my kids being kids have added their own phrase to it “Only if there are ice-pops.”


    2. And even some things that don’t ‘survive’ in the typical sense. Growing up in Minnesota, a building from the early 1800s, such as Fort Snelling, was *really* old, as opposed to the merely ‘mature’ houses built by the grand (or great grand) -fathers on the farms of our neighbors. Then I was in Boston, and my friends took me to a pub in a building posted as built in 1713; now that was *really* old. Then I visited the Tower of London, whose White Tower was erected in 1068. Now that was *really, really* old, until I stubbed my toe on a stone which was a part of the ruin of a wall built by the Romans before Christ was born . . .

      1. I’ve experienced that, too. My great-great-grandparents homesteaded on the Oregon Coast in the 1870’s, and I’ve heard both my mother and her mother talk about how old a certain building is. But I’ve been to Boston, visited Paul Revere’s house and some other old sites. Lived briefly in a house built in the 1790’s. And I know how old some of the structures are in other parts of the world. A wooden house built in Oregon in the 1890’s is no longer *really old* to me!

        1. I live in a house started in 1901 – yes, it’s a continual work-in-progress, but that’s OK. We bought it to live in, not to sell. And I’ve been to Boston, and southern Germany. “Old” now means “interesting thing that’s less likely to be intact for my viewing.”

          1. *grin* My pile of sticks is a handful of years younger, but I feel yer pain. I may be done “remodeling” by the time I’m seventy… but somehow I doubt it.

            And my “old” received something of a kick in the pants when I started handling bones and “maybe tools” from the australopithecene era… To which my paleoarch colleagues chuckled at me and told me what *really* old was… Then the astrophysicists just *had* to one up everybody… *chuckle*

            It’s all of a piece. The age is context. Context can be pretty darned important… or it can be just another data point.

        2. When I was in England I went to a cathedral that was over 1000 years old at the time of my visit. For lunch, we went to the small pub next door that was built the year before the cathedral was started on, as a place for the workers to eat.
          Yup, I had lunch at a place than had been in business for over a 1000 years. THAT makes you think.

          1. Yup, I had lunch at a place than had been in business for over a 1000 years. THAT makes you think.

            “Just how old IS the meat in this stew?”

    3. Real pioneers do fail sometimes. But, speaking as someone who is not only descended from multiple generations of pioneers (starting in the mid-1600’s, pretty much every generation moved farther west), but who spent my childhood on a homestead in Alaska carved out of the woods by my father and grandfather, I can tell you that 1. Survival is a powerful motivator, and 2. The pioneers most likely to succeed are the ones who can’t go back. Whether they can’t afford the trip, or there’s nothing to go back to, we humans have a powerful imperative to create a new life for ourselves and our children. I think one of the reasons life under socialism/communism causes so much despair is because not only is there no escape, there’s no hope of escape for your children.

    4. In the Blue Ridge Mountains where my mom grew up, there are the Scot hill people, the black folks, the Cherokee, and the Melungeon. The Melungeon were already there when the first white Scot settlers came, the Indians could not explain where they came from. They have olive skin and look remarkably like our hostess, they say they are Portugee. The most perfect example of a failed pioneer expedition I know of. They survived, but they did not plant the flag of wherever they came from, and lost track of their national identity. All they remember of their origin is the word “Portugee.” Probably sent to settle the Appalachians sometime just before the Iberian Union, or at least that would explain where the records went.

    5. Which is the other point KSR misses. A system-wide civilization probably wouldn’t launch only one generation ship before self-destructing. It would launch many — and some would make it. Some wouldn’t, but that’s just (cultural) evolution in action.

  5. My chief objection to generation ships is that the longer the voyage, the more chances that things could go catastrophically wrong.

    1. Cars used to go 2000 miles between tuneups when I was a kid. Now they never, ever get a tuneup.

      I liked Ascension, that TV series with Tricia Helfer in it. 1960’s technology generation ship. Now that thing was an accident looking for a place to happen.

      1. Well, in that series, the generation spaceship was a fake.

        IE They were still on Earth. 😦

    2. Like JC implied, you can build your lifesystem and live in it for any arbitrary amount of time before you fire up the engines and move to the outer planets, the Oort, and finally wander off to another star.

      Once you’re self-sustaining, it doesn’t much matter where you are or how long it takes to go somewhere.

      1. That’s one of the things that bother{-ed,-s} me about some of the ideas of even in-system space travel. low Earth Orbit is a great place to try stuff “just to see” (or Low Lunar Orbit, even). And then the next obvious step is to plan a ‘space station’ with a big engine (or set) and try stuff in higher orbits – with the option of getting back lower if things aren’t as hoped. And then going higher and higher… oh, hello Moon. Oh, the moon looks so small from way out here. Hey, we have enough experience that a trip Mars is No Big Deal except we’re going to freaking MARS! (alright, it might more an orbiting Mars mission and exploration of Phobos and Deimos than Mars itself, but… for spacefaring it makes more sense than Apollo’s “go gangbusters, then stop.” turned out) And then, well then. Yeah, but people are impatient. That might not be how the first get to Mars (see: Apollo), but it’s how people keep getting to Mars, for a while.

            1. I’ll see your time sink and raze you a bathtub:


              Look up the Pascal-A stuff under “USA” and “Plumbbob,” then scroll down…

              It was nearly the first nuclear powered manhole cover, and just about the fastest manmade object ever. Probably the fastest when it occurred…

              Put it in perspective. They set off a nuke in a pit. A very deep, very narrow pit. Boom. Yuuuuuuge Roman candle. Then they did it again, except they put a lid on it with some detectors and such, and a collimator some ways down (five feet thick of concrete).

              Now this second bomb (Pascal-B) was a bit special. It was supposed to be a “one point safety test.” Meaning that if the bomb kinda sorta *accidentally* went off, only a teeny fraction of the Wrath of Zeus would be released. Good plan, right?

              Except. When the bomb was “one point” triggered, it released a teeny bit more energy. Fifty thousand times as much.

              There was a camera set up outside the hole. Nice camera for the day. Very fast, it took pictures in the fractions of seconds, and had a pretty wide view of the hole. One frame shows the biggest, baddest manhole cover in history (4″ thick solid steel) being launched at some six times Earth’s escape velocity…

              A longer bit on it here, that I shamelessly stole from.

        1. von Braun’s original plan, which probably originated in the break room at Peenemunde, was to build a permanent Earth space station, then use low-impulse rockets to build another permanent station in Lunar orbit, *then* just make the short drop and ascent to the surface. They had similar plans figuring what they needed for the rest of the solar system.

          The USAF was following von Braun’s plan until Congress yanked all their toys and gave them to NASA, and NASA got the go-ahead for a “Manhattan Project” style maximum effort Moon landing. Once it was theoretically possible to launch one huge rocket all the way there and back the space station plans were abandoned.

          NASA never recovered from its days of cost-plus accounting and waterfalls of money. It has been their institutional system for forty years after their money ran out, but NASA hasn’t changed.

          We need a space program. But we don’t need NASA involved in it.

          1. The worst thing that could happen to our current space program is for NASA to take it over. Bezos is running it just fine, TYVM.

  6. I hate books like that. And I think there will be sufficient breakthroughs in _engineering_ that generation ships will encompass a lot fewer generations than what we calculate now.

    FTL, of course would involve some _physics_ breakthroughs, and is much less likely.

    Or, of course, you can have both, and wind up with R.A. MacAvoy’s _The Third Eagle_ situation where the long settled by FTL colony worlds have to occasionally deal with the old partially functioning slowships careening into their systems.

    1. Or the opposite. In Weber’s Honorverse, Roger Winton, CEO of the colony expedition, had the foresight to place the remaining money for the expedition after outfitting in trust, which hired lawyers and other individuals to prevent claim jumping by FTL ships. So that people arriving on the slowships were greeted by members of the trust. And that’s why the House of Winton still rules Manticore.

      I’m curious to see if this comment gets moderated as a first comment. My ip address and email address changed when I PCSed. The ship’s connectivity is crap, so the page is not showing up well at all.

        1. You too, darlin’, you too.

          I will likely be out of communication for looooong periods this year,starting in June. EMCON and crappy connectivity, you understand. Okay, and little things like writing up sightings of IRIN vessels, and such-like. You know, the real job.

    2. And dealing with the inhabitants thereof.

      Let’s not forget ST:TOS “Space Seed”


      1. Well, the Bounty Bay wasn’t a generation ship.

        The crew & passengers were in “cold sleep”. 😉

  7. It appears that he repeats the stuff that bothered me about the inexplicably (to me) popular MARS series. When I read RED MARS my reaction was “how out of 6 billion people did they choose THESE for a Mars mission?”

    It just seemed weird to choose a group of people who didn’t like each other, and some of who were AGAINST EXPLORING MARS.

    About colonizing solar systems rather than planets, that needs a not to Dave Freer’s SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS which first made me think about that.

    His argument seems to be filled with technological tautologies. He assumes that the state of the art as we see it today is what it will always be. He assumes things about “cold sleep” merely because if he didn’t, he’d be wrong.

    He assumes, also, that the crew of such a ship would be Homo Sapiens as they exist now. That “human” will also mean “hairless ape.” For all we know our offspring will shape themselves into star-whales, or will go to the stars leaving their meat behind, perhaps to be regrown and redownloaded to at the end of their trip.

    That life on a generation-ship would be in essence totalitarian isn’t a surprise that it would be difficult for such a State to let go is a ripe field for fiction ((cf WISE OLD OWL or ORPHANS IN THE SKY)

    1. I bailed on Red Mars when they discovered immortality and I realized I would be stuck with these awful people for the entire trilogy.

      1. There are SF writers who invent immortality rather than let characters die.

        There are other SF writers who invent it in order to impose draconian population control on their societies.

        It’s a rare one that invents because the story needs i t.


      Because “conflict”, which is apparently a must-have nowadays.

      You don’t have to have any actual reasons for it, just make your characters bristle at each other like strange dogs. Voila!

      1. You know, I wonder if it’s possible to write a story without conflict. I’m sort of conflicted out, in terms of the stories I read. Why does everything have the be the ultimate battle of ultimate ultimateness on which the fate of the universe balances?

        There’s the old categorization (not sure of it’s provenance) from English class: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self.

        What if there was no vs? Could you get by entirely on worldbuidling and inventing cool things, cool places, cool technology solving interesting problems, interesting people to show the reader?

            1. I used to enjoy reading the supplements to TRAVELER and SPACE OPERA for just that reason. Essentially travel guides to fictional worlds.

            2. Unfortunately, I could see those Travel Guides as the lead-in to stories that have the line “They never mentioned <bTHIS in the Travel Guide”. 👿

              Mind you, the Travel Guides might include “Warnings To Travelers”. 😉

                1. I was thinking more like “Unless you know the Kzin extremely well, don’t accept a dinner invitation. If you’re lucky, you’ll just be horrified about how/what he eats, but if you’re unlucky, you’ll be dinner.” 😈

        1. Some conflict is IMO realistic.

          Perfect humans always getting along with other perfect humans isn’t going to be realistic and could be boring. The interpersonal conflicts don’t have to be major but have to be there. For example, nobody wants to spend time with Harry Smith because of his irritating habits but man alive Harry Smith always gets his job done right.

          Of course, some “tension” is needed for a story in that the reader must believe that the characters can fail. A story where the building of the Mars Colony goes exactly as planned without any set-backs could be boring. IMO you want competent people having problems but surmounting the problems.

          Yes you can have “inventing cool things, cool places, cool technology solving interesting problems, interesting people to show the reader.” but the “vs” is the idea that they could fail and the readers know that they could fail.

          1. Perfect humans always getting along with other perfect humans isn’t going to be realistic and could be boring.

            Yep – see “Introduction of The Ferengi” for the traditional response to this situation: Invent outsiders to have conflicts with, using foam latex forhead appliances!

              1. Does this mean ST:TNG and DS9 are actually the long-awaited History of the World, Part 2?

                  1. No, but in the ST:TOS episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” they did have to take action to keep Hitler from winning.

            1. Back in my oilfield days I worked as part of a three man crew. Some of the worst crews had nice, fun, interesting people who just weren’t competent. The best crew I worked on was two total a$$holes that I never hung out with after work. I had to be constantly on watch because mean practical jokes were considered hilarious. But when business got slow, we kept working. We could outwork any other crew in the company. And when we were on a roll it was a dance for three men and a rig.

              I like to see casts and characters with that vibe. That was a big draw for me on Firefly.

          2. “Perfect humans always getting along with other perfect humans isn’t going to be realistic and could be boring. ”

            See: socialist realism

            1. I remember reading a Soviet Union SF story about First Contact.

              The “Humans” were the “Perfect Beings” predicted by Communist Dogma to come into being and lived in a classless no-government society.

              Since Communist Dogma predicts that all advanced societies would reach that “classless no-government society” so the aliens were likewise that type of society.

              So no tension, no conflict. Boring. 😦

              1. Or a Human-Alien Pact against the degenerate capitalist Other Aliens, leading to a genocidal Human-Alien War with the Other Aliens helping the Humans. But the writer could never have gotten away with that. 😀

        2. Depends on your definition of “conflict” I guess. I would generally consider the “cool technology solving interesting problems” part a form of conflict.

        3. No vs gets a bit boring. But serious in-group conflict is a rather poor way to “do something interesting and/or dangerous that will the MCs will have to beat while showing some character growth.”

          Take Star Trek TOS. A bit of snippiness between Spock and McCoy, but by-and-large it was one big buddy series, with the challenges coming from the outside.

          But I suppose, sticking to realism as to Mars, you’ve either got the hostile planet or in-group problems.

          1. Yep. McCoy and Spock constantly insulted each other, but when it counted, they were there for each other. Spock even invited McCoy to his wedding (insulting him as he did so, but still).

          2. Aff is introducing me to Stargate the tv series and Stargate: Atlantis. Third episode in on SG:A, they introduce a character who Aff described as ‘every single American tech I’ve had to deal with is concentrated into that guy.’ An accident has happened at the Gate, one of the away team is injured, possibly dying, they have thirty minutes to figure out how to fix the ship, and the new character’s focus is his ego, and wasting time in order to vent his injured feelings about being ‘cut down as if he were a military subordinate’. He’s given a verbal slap in the face for his petty attitude – which he persists on pursuing – by the female leader of the expedition and told to get his act together or he’s otherwise welcome to find a deserted planet somewhere so he can reflect on his own self-importance. It was GLORIOUS. The lead scientist wasn’t bitchy, she was proper about having priorities in place.

            One of the other doctors has the tendency to panic when things go wrong and start describing nightmare scenarios. But push comes to shove, he actually gets the work done and doesn’t just focus on his own feelings, but part of his panic is because of his extreme worry about everyone else around him as well as his own hide.

            1. Rodney improves somewhat as SG:A progresses, but he pretty much remains and arrogant, self-important a-hole. But he gets things done when the fit hits the shan.

                1. Kavanagh remains an absolute jerk until the end. Fortunately, we don’t see him very often.

                  McKay (Rodney) has already gone through significant character growth before Atlantis started, believe it or not. 😉 Which shows you how bad he was before. I really liked him on SG Atlantis, and the chemistry he had with John Sheppard.

                  I also really liked Zelenka, he was about the only person with enough science to shout McKay down. 😀 He was supposed to be a one time character, but the fans like him enough to bring him back a couple of times a season.

                  1. Heh, I liked Zelenka too. “Stop talking, please?” – he was curt in that episode but understandably so. I really liked the head scientist – strong character, happens to be female. She looks stressed but seriously, could anyone blame her?

                    1. If you are talking about Weir, she isn’t a scientist. They had a couple of different actresses for her, but her background was in the US Department of State. They went with a diplomat to head a civilian mission.

                    2. *after being briefed on the Goa’uld’s tendencies*
                      Weir: “Now why should I be worried? Sounds like a typical day at the UN.”

                  2. McKay (Rodney) has already gone through significant character growth before Atlantis started, believe it or not.😉 Which shows you how bad he was before.

                    Didn’t Carter once tell him to go suck a lemon? 🙂

            2. Rodney McKay in SG:A was actually a Canadian (nit picking is my specialty).
              He was even more insufferable in the handful SG:SG-1 episodes the character appears in.

                1. Ah yes, Kavanagh – the unredeemable a**hole. I’m sorry that Aff thinks that is typical of American tech types. Maybe American tech managers, but not tech foot soldiers.

                  1. Aff clarifies: The older the tech, he says, the less useless. The younger ones are the more obnoxious, and worthless they are at their jobs the more arrogant they are; and the cutoff age seems to be about 45.

                    Mind this is his personal encounters with American-trained IT guys. He’s told a few of the worse horror stories to Kate (Paulk). One of them involved a critical failure in the use of an ordinary light switch.

                    I’ll leave it at that.

                    1. I can understand how that would come up. If I understand what he does correctly, he’s basically taking calls from guys who have tried to fix or install something and run into trouble, right? So the young guys are the ones who think they know it all, and want to tell him how it works, even though they got stuck trying to do it themselves, while the older guys are more secure, and want to know what they’re doing wrong, or not understanding, or whatever.

                      I remember taking support calls for a rollout of new computers to a national department store chain. There was one tech who had called in 9 or 10 times for us to do the same thing that he couldn’t get to work. Finally, he calls in to tell us he found out how to make it work, and basically described the procedure that was laid out in detail in the instructions he had been given at the start.

                    2. Well, not just calls. Sometimes he has to call his equivalent person in a different company, or in some cases before, a company or branch in the US send over a team to work with his team…

                      I kinda gather that one of the main problems he has had with such people is that they absolutely refuse to listen and think they know better than the person opposite them, even if they’ve already fucked up, or gotten reprimanded by a superior. The thing that boggles me a bit about this is that the person usually arguing with him is supposed to be in the equivalent position he has in other companies that render similar services… sometimes, said other person has had a decade of experience but still manages to fuck shit up in some truly spectacular ways. The guy who failed to correctly operate a light switch was such an example. Apparently it was a light switch that you flick up to turn on and flick down to turn off. This guy pushed it in. And pushed it in so hard the switch broke, hit the circuit breaker behind it and cut power to the whole floor.

                      And apparently, that was the least of the damage he did, and the only vaguely technical story I was allowed to be told. The other story involves this same dude opening a cola can with a can opener. I’m told the only reason he wasn’t packed off right away was because they couldn’t book a flight on the same day.

                    3. In fairness though, I get the worst stories told, because they’re both incredibly mindbendingly bad and hilarious. But yeah. Kavenaugh Techs is what I’ll call that type from now on. Because a lot of the refusal to learn was ego, similarly, refusal to admit being wrong, and more concerned with their own ass.

                    4. Also they are rare.

                      It speaks something about the requirements gathering process that I will the story about the time that a person apologized for giving me a bad requirement, and the other time that when I coded to the requirements, and it went into production, they never came back with a complaint despite extensive use — they had actually given me correct requirements.

                    5. I have been on both sides of phone/email support, so I can sympathize. It gets more, umm, interesting when you deal with not just different egos but different cultures (US, UK, France, Germany, India, Japan, China). Some cultures (Japan, for example) emphasize humility, gratitude, and attention to detail. Others cultures are … different. Every once in a great while I would get a customer who would : clearly state his/her problem, supply all relevant data to diagnose problem, list all the things he/she had done to try to rectify the problem, followed my instructions diligently & promptly, and said ‘thank you’ when the problem was resolved. Those are the days I ran out and bought a lottery ticket.

                    6. Well, they’re trained that way. BOTH my youngest brother and Aff said that the nicest people to work with are the Japanese because they would state clearly what they wanted, give the necessary details, etc.

                      It has to do with the concept that when you’re dealing with people who aren’t your fellow countrymen, you kinda do want to put your best foot forward, so to speak. So they probably pick the ones who are able to deal with gaijin.

                      Works the same way with dealing with phone support for banks. A lot of my coworkers back in PH would be baffled at the American (and Australian) frequent need to complain about the various requirements to ensure that their freaking banking details weren’t stolen, because it’s inconvenient. “As if they think we could do something about it.”

                      It took most of them to grow a thick skin and realize that it wasn’t personal, but we had a few people who would be in TEARS after vicious harangues simply because they hadn’t learned that yet. Those people tended to be terrified at the idea that an angry customer = loss of job, and that’s hard if you were helping your parents out and helping send your younger siblings to school.

              1. He did have one of the better lines in an SG-1 episode. Re: Anubis’s superweapon
                “Why did he take so long to contact us?”
                “Maybe he wanted to make sure it was working.”
                “Yeah, that would’ve been embarrassing: ‘PREPARE TO MEET YOUR DOOOOOM.’ Then the ‘Gate shuts off: ‘OH. SORRY. NEVER MIND.'”

        4. Without conflict? No. Without world-shaking conflict?

          There are a lot of standards lower than world-shaking that can be pretty high tension. I still remember an online discussion where a dichotomy of “low tension” vs. “world shaking stakes” was posited and I — thinking of my own “Witch-Prince Ways” — said that a story where a woman had to rescue her child from the –ehem — Good Folk could be pretty high tension even if no one but her (and the child) were in danger.

          Of course, that’s still pretty sharp conflict. But I have just read Nathan Lowell’s Quarter Share. Which you might like. Amazing how interesting he manages to make it with low key obstacles. (A coming of age story rather than a space opera — even aboard a far future merchant star ship.)

      2. I was just complaining a couple of weeks ago about the tendency of all TV show casts nowadays having so much inter-group friction all the time, instead of having external puzzles and/or threats be the primary source of challenge.

        1. I liked “Sliders” until Season 3 or so, when the producers decided (according to one of the fan pages) that there “wasn’t enough conflict” and decided to make all the characters argue with each other all the time.

          It doesn’t take a whole lot of that to move me from “involvement with the story” to “why don’t you just die, then?”

          For those of you unfamiliar with the series, yes, it was pretty lightweight… but for the first couple of seasons, the writers put a *lot* of effort into filling in timelines and backstories without infodumping. And then they worked 45 minutes or so of standalone TV episode around it. I thought it was pretty freakin’ impressive; whoever signed off on the scripts seriously knew his business.

          1. Sadly, Sliders became an example of how to do multiple shark-jumps per season as time went on.

    3. I made it all the way through Red-Green-Blue Mars, but it soured me on ever reading more of his work. Endless talk, the struggle being between people in committees and not against Nature and the planet; if his characters had been responsible for engineering and exploration in the Stone Age, we’d still be arguing over representation in the cave paintings.

      1. These cave paintings could disrupt the life cycle of bats? Do we have the right to disturb the life cycle of the bats with our cave drawings?

        But aren’t we obligated to spread the magic of cave drawings?

        Lather, rinse, repeat.

      2. I made it through two of them, but couldn’t force myself through the third. I simply despised the characters far too much. They were mediocre to bad to start with, and only became more loathsome as the series went forward.

      3. I did read some KSR back when I was under the delusion that this was the kind of important SF I should be reading.

        Fortunately, I was soon cured of that delusion.

    4. “how out of 6 billion people did they choose THESE for a Mars mission?”

      It was government sponsored?

      Seriously, after dealing with the USFS or various state Fish and Game agencies; choosing people for a Mars expedition that were against exploring Mars makes perfect sense.

      1. Considering we have the socialist kook, the crook, and the richneck as the ‘Big Three’ (of the media anyway) in the Presidential race… maybe they were elected? Perhaps: Get these fools off this planet!

  8. A little island in Polynesia might be a decent model for a generation ship. They were stable societies with not much outside input, and they lasted for a pretty long time that way.

    Humans -can- get along in adverse conditions, just not when they’re Socialists.

      1. Pitcairn Island was a “special case” of too few men for the number of women with some of the men not letting the other men “have any”.

        At least according to the surviving man of the original colonists. 😉

        1. Actually, I may have had that reversed. Too many men for the number of women. :embarrassed:

        2. I was referring to the original Polynesian inhabitants, whose culture (according to Wookiepedia, as well as my own spotty memory), due to resource depletion, became extinct before the Englishians (Bountitians? Tahitimen?) showed up.

          1. Ah, I noticed that when I looked up Pitcairn Island. [Smile]

              1. Well… Leia did plant an incestuous kiss on Luke when he was in the infirmary on Hoth… so yeah.

    1. The polynesian analogy may be a good one for another reason. The polynesians didn’t start out to make great, legendary voyages across the broad ocean. They just were looking for more living space after the islands they were on at the moment had reached carrying capacity. I can see humanity gaining more experience in building long-lasting nearly closed habitats, gradually tweaking them to be more and more efficient, and moving farther out into the solar system as various locales become “crowded,” for various values of crowded. Eventually, one or more will decide that there’s no reason to stay tied to Sol, since they’re pretty much self-sufficient already and those folk in the inner system don’t really have anything at all to do with them. Perhaps 5-6 habitats will decide to “migrate” together, for redundancy and cross-fertilization. I see it as more of a radiation than a sending out of missions.

      1. That’s actually one of the models I’ve used when thinking about how we’ll go about spreading to the stars. The Polynesian model is the slow boat, primitive tech path, somewhat akin to the one that C.J. Cherryh uses in the first of her Merchanter books. While they’re doing that, the big-ticket high-energy path, modeled by the Europeans, will probably leapfrog the Polynesians, and in a similar fashion. Interstellar settlement will probably come to look a lot like the history of the Southern Pacific, in regards to how it happens.

        Nice to see that someone else sees the same things happening.

      2. Once you’re well into the Oort cloud you are a good chunk of the way to Alpha Centauri, and much closer to a-Centauri’s Oort cloud. If you have a habitat that can survive in the Oort cloud who cares if there are habitable planets? Keep that process up and you can get pretty far.

        1. Perzackitly!

          Why put up with an alien (and possibly incompatible, unliveable, or hostile) ecosystem when you carry your own ecosystem around with you?

          1. Well, we are a colonizing species. I guarantee there will be Odds in the habitat who want nothing more than to live planetside.

            1. A “real sky” perhaps?

              Remembering one of the Macross series where one of the leads was a young pilot on the colony fleet who yearned for a real sky to fly in.

              1. Macross Frontier – the same series revealed that the first human civilization, 300-500 kiloyears before, broke down when even their FTL communications were still not enough to keep society unified, which led to research into biological weapons (Zentraedi supersoldiers, and the “evel”), and faster FTL tech (which breached dimensions, accidentally letting in energy beings that possessed the “evel” bioconstructs, that became the protodevlin of Macross 7, that killed 99% of the sentient life in the galaxy before someone managed to shut them down, until some idiot went looking for them around 2040)

                1. Which reminds me that I noticed that some rather tepid pop idol music both causes the Zentradi to rampage and soothes their rampage in Delta. What happens when the Zentradi discover metal? Do Judas Priest and Iron Maiden finally cause the Apocalypse?

                  1. Oh ghods, I just got an image of Klan from Macross Frontier activating a playlist like that from her armor’s flight computer while going up against a bunch of enemies. 😉

              2. I never had much use for The Great Outdoors. It’s mostly too cold, too hot, too humid, too bright, too dark, dirty, and always full of nasty insects and allergens.

                Remember, most of this planet is uninhabitable for an unprotected human. 3/4 of it is water. And while none of the land gets hot enough to kill you, plenty of it gets cold enough to freeze you to death at night.

                1. Personally I have no desire to spend the rest of my life in a tin can, no matter how big or comfortable. I would be very interested in emigrating to another planet that I could wander across exploring and discovering new things (especially if there was animal life) however.

                2. True, but the character in question kept getting frustrated at reaching the warning beacons for the dome of the colony ship he was on.

                  (Very bad design, but IIRC the Ominously Vague Council behind a lot of the Bad Things were counting on that design as part of their plans. Then again, this universe had FTL travel so a colony fleet wasn’t completely cut off from help.)

          2. About that “carry your own ecosystem around” thing…

            I’m going to suggest that, after awhile, the constant need to “do something” to keep your little micro-ecosystem alive is going to get really, really annoying, and the lack of variety and random variation you get in a “natural ecosystem” is going to be missed, even if the parties involved never experienced such. So, I think you’re going to have a natural yearning for big, self-supporting, self-regulating ecosystems in new star systems, if only for the convenience of “not having to work at it”.

            Thing is, getting around the time required to create those things is going to require some sort of Deus ex Machina. People are going to want them, and any system with a life-bearing world is going to be at a premium.

          3. Eh, because they are explorers? Seriously, in a whole society of people self-chosen to “go where no man has gone before”, you think no one is going to want to explore a planet that no man has ever set foot on?

            1. Well, the people who set out in a Generation Ship would think that way but would their children & grandchildren think that way?

              They have lived, worked, etc for all their lives inside this “giant world” and may be more comfortable inside it than on a planetary surface.

              Would the “religion” of their grandparents be held by them?

              Of course, if we’re talking great great grandchildren, the problem could be worse.

              1. I would expect there would the Odd folks who didn’t want to cramped:

                “Imagine, having space!”
                “We’re IN space.”
                “Surrounded by space we can’t _use_. Go outside for a walk, get some air? Oh, you gotta take canned air with you. This is like living on a sea: all the water you can’t drink!”

              2. That issue came up in Footfall. The “spaceborn”, IIRC, didn’t really want to colonize Earth, because they had lived all their lives in the ship. But with Humans, I’d expect that some would want more space. There are still people who have grown up in cities, yet move to the country when they get the chance, and some of them never go back.

              3. Throughout the entirety of human history we have always had those who wanted to explore new places and things. Somehow, by taking an entire breeding pool, and society, populated with nothing but those types of people, we will manage to COMPLETELY lose something that has been not only human nature for forever, but specifically selected for in that population, in a few generations?

                1. Catch-22 situation IMO.

                  You’re taking a large population of those types and then “sticking” them in a large spaceship which they won’t be leaving in their life time.

                  The society on the spaceship would have to emphasize living on this giant spaceship in hopes that their remote descendants would be the ones who will explore new worlds.

                  IE How much “exploring new worlds” will the first few generations actually be doing?

                  IMO this is the major problem with Generation Spaceships. You want people willing to explore new worlds but they and their children, grandchildren, etc will be stuck on this giant spaceship. Not sure that you can have both “wanting to explore new worlds” folks and “willing to live a lifetime in this giant spaceship” folks in the same group of people.

                  No, what would be better might be a combination of “cold sleep” and “generation ship”. The passengers are the people who want to “explore new worlds” and are put into “cold sleep” until the ship reaches the new world. The crew will be the type who are willing to spend their lives, their children’s lives, their grandchildren’s lives on this giant spaceship.

                  1. You have a good point, so here’s a thought:

                    A truly gigantic generation ship, say 20 miles in diameter. (Side benefit, I think this is actually big enough to build a ramscoop outer circuit into the hull. ) Divided into several biomes, you could have the inhabitants required to move every generation or two.

                    I know, it’s weird, and probably not practical, but it’s an interesting idea.

                    1. I think the fleet will have to be comprised of something similar to O’Neil cylinders in scale .
                      I have always believed that only if some type of cold sleep was used either for the entire or at least a major portion of the voyage, a generation ship would have to be very large and incorporate some degree of natural terrain. After all, humans are not ants and, to paraphrase Dr. Grant, “You can’t just suppress 100,000 years of gut-instinct.” and IMO to try to do so will only end in disaster or as others have pointed out, having the arriving population completely unsuited to the task the mission was originally sent to do.

                  2. You can have a variant: The “single generation ship” – sure your trip takes x00 years, but your astronauts have medicine that allows them to live an arbitrary length of time.

                    I do think some sort of metabolic suspension of astronauts/reconstitution of your biosphere at your destination might be the way to do it if you don’t have any sufficiently fun engines.

                    All of these things are chemistry problems. We have all the elements of the periodic table at our disposal. Even assuming no physics advances, given some *arbitrary* amount of technological refinement (infinity years of biotech/nanotech research), I’m sure we could do all sorts of things with life to create/start/stop/etc it as needed.

                  3. Zelazny’s Lord of Light touched on the problems f shippiing colonists as cargo.

                    Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky remains the classic tale of a degeneration ship.

                    Eventually those with a vested interest in the status quo will gain control while those who escape to planetary environments will discover the meaning of agoraphobia.

                    1. By the way, one of the things that really pissed me off about the Mundane SF movement was that they claimed to have just discovered that there might be political and social problems with generation-ship interstellar travel. The very first stories written about such situations, by Heinlein, Murray Leinster, and A. E. Van Vogt, et al in the 1930’s – 1940’s, were about precisely such problems.

  9. Obviously he’s not an engineer.
    He also has some very strange ideas/beliefs.
    He only brought up on idea that is not already solvable: Collisions with small debris in space, and that’s one that they’d been working on quite a bit lately.
    Everything else he has issues with is because he either doesn’t understand it, or he has a very peculiar view of the problem. His thought processes are rather limited, which is kind of strange for an author.

    1. A shield of “smart metal” or some other kind of programmable matter might be a solution. That way its constantly being repaired during the voyage.

      1. Nanobots? Or are those a modern mythology? I see them used quite a bit in the sci-fi I’ve been reading, but don’t know how realistic they are.

        1. They may be possible and usable but too many stories use them as a “magic wand”. 😦

        2. Well, the Earth happens to be covered in a generally solar-powered chaotic stew of nanobots. 😛

            1. There was mold growing on the -outside- of the Russian space station. By accident.

        3. Not very realistic, at least the way they’re typically depicted. The main issue is heat dissipation, followed closely by how you pack any sort of intelligence or memory into a platform that small (fundamental physics issues, there, not just engineering ones).

          Possible dodges are to have them work at the same speed as existing microorganisms (i.e. very slow) and work in a very simplified environment and maybe under external control. This would still be a revolutionary technology allowing for many magnificent advances, but as you can see rather different than what is more and more the standard SF description.

          1. I have James P. Hogan’s “Bug Park” as a “car book” at the moment; I have trouble handling a tablet and eating at the same time, so I have paperbacks scattered through the Carfleet for when we might go out to eat…

            Anyway, Hogan’s story mentions nanotech, but the technology in the story is much larger than that; from beer can size down to bean size, approximately. He kind of skips over what they might be good for; in the story, they’re mostly used for murder and industrial espionage so far…

            “Nanotech” in its usual meaning is synonymous with “magic” as far as I’m concerned.

          2. You don’t need every nanobot to be “smart” on its own, do you? You could network them.

            1. On something like shield repair, they don’t even have to be “nano”, or even “micro”. They can be “mini” bots a few inches across that would move material around to plug holes and fill little craters, or build up the surface periodically as it is abraded away. They can even be tethered, so they don’t have to carry their own power.

              1. Yes, that’s a much more likely scale for such machines.

                Referring specifically to the shield, I somehow think there’s an easier way to do this whole thing that doesn’t require lots of little robots crawling around in a hellish radiation environment that is periodically blasted by hand-grenade yield dust particles. Maybe make the shield out of something amorphous but stiff, and rotate the whole affair so as to produce just enough force that it flattens out any craters over some reasonable time-frame.

            2. Hence “external control.” Of course that’s no mean feat in and of itself. There’s still intelligence involved in receiving, interpreting, and acting on messages from outside. Especially if you’re a complicated thing with multiple degrees of freedom acting in messy environment. And then there’s the issue of sensing the local environment, getting that information to whatever is doing the controlling (whether on-board or off-board), etc.

      2. The reformable shield you suggest isn’t a bad idea – it can move itself around to fill craters blasted in it by bits of dust the spaceship runs into – but the bigger problem is still there, namely the overall loss of shield mass from impacts.

        Well, there’s also the problem that if you run into something big (as in kg) then your whole ship will be wrecked, but I’ve always assumed you’ll have an active defense system as counterpart to the shield that will use a powerful laser or other DEW to redirect stuff like that out of the way.

        Most designs suggest the shield be constructed of ice, which is rather plentiful in the solar system and easy to form into the shape you want, too. I suppose there’s some sort of design balance between the cheap, simple, low performance option (ice) and your expensive, high-performance option (smart-matter), but the specifics will have to wait for trade studies that are still at least a few centuries out, I should think. 🙂

        1. Centuries? The progress in designs and studies that we’ve made in the last 70 years, and how fast our available computing power and materials tech are advancing, I wouldn’t expect it to be more that 50 years.

    2. The metal foam tests are looking promising. They can handle bullets with aplomb. I am not sure about the process needed to make it, but wouldn’t it be neat if it could be extruded/printed in orbit?

      1. If it’s big enough to be a threat, it’s big enough to show up on radar.
        Then, you can ‘nudge’ it out of the way with your laser PDS, or just dodge it with the thrusters/engines.

        1. The faster you go, the smaller the object required to be a threat. At any reasonable interstellar speed (even for generation ships), very small objects carry a LOT of energy.

          Taking the Tau Ceti example (12 LY), I calculated that a ship would have to travel approx. 300km/s to reach it in 1000 yr. At that velocity, a one-gram (about a sugar cube) object will impact with the energy of about 9kg of dynamite. It would be hard to detect something that small at a great enough distance to do anything. A ship will need several layers of ablative shielding with some sort of automated repair mechanism to handle the small stuff.

          1. You could also stick a thin whipple shield in front of your main shield, with a bit of a standoff.

      2. Sigh – the perils of scanning while at work and prepping comments for later posting from home: somebody makes a point first.

        For more details,
        Read: news[DOT]
        Metal Foam Obliterates Bullets – and That’s Just the Beginning
        Composite metal foams (CMFs) are tough enough to turn an armor-piercing bullet into dust on impact. Given that these foams are also lighter than metal plating, the material has obvious implications for creating new types of body and vehicle armor – and that’s just the beginning of its potential uses.

        Afsaneh Rabiei, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State, has spent years developing CMFs and investigating their unusual properties. The video seen here shows a composite armor made out of her composite metal foams. The bullet in the video is a 7.62 x 63 millimeter M2 armor piercing projectile, which was fired according to the standard testing procedures established by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). And the results were dramatic.

        Watch: youtube[DOT]com/watch?v=wfFcs25KmMc

  10. “Real pioneers don’t fail because failure is not an option and incompetence is something that can’t be tolerated. They do the work that needs to get done because they are working to make a better place for the next generation, not themselves”

    I was talking with family members recently about our awesome ancestors, my 9th-great-grandparents, who were on the first ship to bring the New Amsterdam trading settlement to the western hemisphere. They married just a few days before the ship left Europe and arrived in the new world pregnant with their first child. That’ll put some drive to succeed in you, fer sher. I look at them and see myself, in an alternate timestream, on a Mars settlement mission. Until we have somewhere for pioneers to go, we humans are just going to stew and ferment in our mess … unfortunately …

    1. Failure really isn’t an option. It’s succeed and live or fail and die. If you’re on a colony hundreds of light years from earth who is going to bail you out? You’re neighbors may not be in any better shape.

      I can’t see generation ‘safespace’ taking off for the stars. Or if they do manage to actually do it that it would end well since they’d be more focused on the diversity of the crew than finding a crew that could get along and not murder each other. (Would there be a role for gay/lesbians on a generation ship? It would seem to defeat the purpose to send one out if nobody is going to actually reproduce! Though by the time we can build a ship like that natural reproduction may be seen as old fashioned. Sorry, bit of stream of consciousness.)

      1. Nah, Gays and Lesbians are welcome. They’re the families that raise the frozen embryos and use the frozen semen and maintain genetic diversity in the population.

        1. Yup. Gays can still reproduce. Might create some interesting family arrangements, but they still have a role.

        2. that makes their reproduction more costly than the natural variety. At least some colonies will insist on your being personally fertile to go.

          1. I could see the role being certain ship positions that can only go to those who can’t procreate. The fleet is your family, your children. And your not having offspring is meant to prevent key positions becoming filled via nepotism over generations. Inherited leadership goes wrong far more often than it goes right (see, the Kims)

            1. A number of historians think that George Washington not having any children of his own helped prevent the development of dynastic succession to the Presidency. Sure, there have been some families that have produced several Presidents — John and John Quincy Adams (father and son), William Henry and Benjamin Harrison (grandfather and grandson), Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (cousins) and George HW and George W Bush (again, father and son). But on the whole, they’ve been the exception, and have generally been viewed with a measure of unease.

              However, even mandatory celibacy, sterility or whatever is not necessarily a proof against nepotism. The word itself comes from the Italian word for nephew, and refers to the practice of senior clerics of the Catholic Church favoring their nephews for high positions (since a sibling’s child will share a significant number of one’s own genes, and the child of a sister is guaranteed to, absent reproductive technology).

    1. If you’ve read the Martian, the interplanetary craft in that book uses a form of high Isp, low-thrust propulsion.

      1. Would you mind if I tossed out a question regarding moderate thrust orbits? I don’t want to just put it here and give any feeling of an obligation just because you admitted to being a real rocket scientist.

        1. Go ahead. If I know a simple enough answer off the top of my head to wedge into a comment thread, I’ll shoot.

          1. Thanks.

            I was studying up on rocketry a while back while thinking of both a story and learned of the Oberth Effect, which apparently makes a large difference in Delta-v requirements to go from one orbit to another, depending on whether you are using a high-thrust or a low-thrust engine.

            Unfortunately, I was unable to locate a good resource that would help me calculate the effect on a medium-thrust engine. Would you be able to tell me how much Delta-v would be required for a 1/10th g orbit-to-orbit transfer vehicle to make it from low Earth orbit to a Lunar orbit? I want to write something into a story, but if it’s much more than what the Wiki article says, I can’t make the numbers work, and I’ll have to do it another way (even though the engine that I thought up is dubious in its own right).

            1. Okay: For raising your orbit when you have limited ability to accelerate (such as in your medium thrust example) – how efficiently you are able to do it depends on what portion of the trajectory you spend accelerating near periapsis.

              For the SMART-1 mission (image here):

              SMART-1 was an ESA spacecraft that used a Hall Effect thruster (very low thrust relative to your decent acceleration of 1/10 g) to slowly raise it’s orbit until it could transfer to lunar orbit, then spiral in to lunar orbit. What it did was thrust within +/- some angle of periapsis, each time it passed by periapsis, and eventually raised the apoapsis of the orbit up to the lagrange point, where it slipped over to the moon.

              If you only thrust a few degrees before to a few degrees after periapsis, you would almost be as efficient as in the case where you had a pure impulsive maneuver. Let’s say you only thrusted for four minute bursts around periapsis, (+/- 2 deg or so) each time your spacecraft came around: you could escape in 33 orbits for roughly 8 km/sec delta-V.

              For the case of just thrusting continuously in a prograde direction: my math is messing up, hold on: I’m pretty sure it was in Prussig and Conway, Chapter 7. You can integrate the specific orbit energy equation.

              1. Well, according to Prussig and Conway, you can thrust very slowly, keeping your orbit roughly circular, and spiral out with the same delta-V as in an impulsive maneuver, independent of the acceleration (provided the acceleration is small).

                deltaV = (mu/a0)^(1/2) – (mu/af)^1/2

                mu is Earth’s gravity constant. a0 is the starting semi-major axis. af is the ending semi-major axis.

                1. Nevermind – the reason SMART-1 performed it’s orbital maneuvers that way (stretching out into highly elliptical orbits by only thrusting during perigee) was that when it’s apogee got close to the moon’s orbit, lunar gravity perturbations helped pull it’s orbit the rest of the way to escape. (Some amount of semi-major axis change was accomplished for free by the moon).

  11. I don’t know how we’ll do interstellar travel (yet – processing…). It will probably involve at least some breakthroughs in mass-energy conversion physics: If we could convert mass to energy (more than the sorry few percent you get from fission), we’d be a long way towards being able to build relativistic flight vehicles.

    But, we *will* do it. The same people that crossed the oceans with two twigs and a hanky aren’t going to be held back now that we have such powerful levers with which to move our world.

    Call me Crazy Eddie, but I happen to like science fiction that tells us how we can do things. “Hard” science fiction, where “hard” means the author whining “it’s too haaaard” is not what I read for fun, and in engineering terms, it’s not what I do for a living either.

    1. Ya. It is one thing when you want to play with realistic problems and fudge a technology, but when you say that technology simply cannot work or exist and that there are no work arounds possible it is grating because we should have learned by now that that is not something that we think is impossible can often be juryrigged around.

    2. What’s your take on nuclear themal water/ammonia rockets for short distances (eg. LEO) with, switching out to ion (maybe alpha source) drives for long? Not interstellar, but I’ve sometimes thought such things could give us the solar system.

      1. From what I know about nuclear thermal rockets – the main limitation in Isp is the temperature you can tolerate in the reactor. 850 sec was what was achieved during the NERVA program, using hydrogen.

        Molecular mass of the propellant is important. Isp at a given chamber temperature divides like the square root of the molecular mass of the atoms involved. If you go from hydrogen (2) to ammonia (17), your isp divides by 3 (so you get 300 sec Isp). I suppose doing better would depend on how much dissociation there is (I’d have to fire up GasEq and see what you could do. If your chamber operated at low pressure, you might get lower average molecular mass in your hot state, and higher Isp than 300 sec).

        GasEq is a free program that does rocket nozzle chemical equilibrium calculations btw.

        Click to access 19920005899.pdf

        This is the report I go off of for all things NERVA.

        If you want to keep your core solid, your temperatures are limited to 2200K. If you don’t care that you’re spraying uranium plasma out the back, you can do all sorts of fun things with gas-core reactors. (A solid core that sources neutrons to a gaseous inner core, with propellant spraying around the sides of the inner core).

        1. Also, internal DOFs of the molecules involved act like a “thermal battery” and mean you do slightly better than that. Divide by sqrt(M) is more of a rough worst-case about how much worse you do if you don’t use the lowest MM you can get.

          1. From Gaseq: I’m getting 433 sec Isp with internal NH3 DOF for 2200 K. This is without chemical dissociation.

        2. “If you don’t care that you’re spraying uranium plasma out the back, you can do all sorts of fun things with gas-core reactors.”

          As a radiological controls technician, this makes me want to cry.

          1. Hey, I’m a *mad* rocket scientist! 😛 At some point, you just want to get off this rock.

      2. Using something high thrust to get out of tight orbits around a planet makes sense. You don’t want to spend months coasting around trying to get out of LEO.

        Once you’re in solar orbit, low thrust accelerations of 1 mm/sec^2 (pretty ambitious by modern standards, but doable) seem to allow you a surprising amount of flexibility in how you move around the inner solar system.

      3. Depends on what sort of NTR you’re using; solid, liquid, or gas core (in order of increasing specific impulse from ~800 s to as many as ~5000 s hypothetically possible for a very advanced gas-core NTR). Generally you’ll be wanting to use LH2 as your propellant with solid-core designs; specific impulse with methane or ammonia is low enough that going nuclear might not be worth the complications. There are some exceptions to that, like steam-NTRs for transporting water-ice back to LEO from the Martian moons.

  12. Of course it will fail, but we will learn and make a better design and try again. And again, and again.

    We will colonize the solar system and probably the galaxy, without a physics breakthrough.

  13. Every time I see one of these eminence grise wannabes make some of these pronouncements of gloom and doom, I’m reminded of how often they’ve gotten this stuff wrong.

    “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Lord Kelvin

    “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” again, Lord Kelvin

    “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States.”—T.A.M. Craven, Federal Communications Commission commissioner (1961)

    There’s a gentleman of the name Ludwik Fleck, who postulated the existence of an idea he called Denkkollektiv, which says that “thought collectives” come into existence in fields of endeavor, ones which have the tendency to stultify new and original thought. Which is why we have to wait for the old generation in entire fields to die off, before new ideas can even get a foothold. Kim Stanley Robinson typifies that concept–He’s decided it’s impossible, therefore it must be. How much of that is sour grapes, since he’ll never be able to participate…? A lot, I’d wager.

    1. Well, and his political stance seems to predispose him against space exploration and colonization. An escape valve means people can leave and don’t have to accept the only (to him) proper form of social organization able to save the world – socialism.

      1. If there is no other escape from socialism, some people might choose death. And then get reanimated as zombies forced to serve the undying state.
        You know that’s a bit too grim for me so I’m going to go listen to Christmas music.

            1. They allow Gentiles to play concerts on it in summer (both the one in the tabernacle and the new one.) You just have to include a version of ‘Come, Come Ye Saints.” Oh, yeah, and pass the audition.

  14. Just in case some here aren’t yet aware of it, please take a look at The Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop ( It considers these and similar questions, and the 2016 workshop was a lot of fun. The 2017 workshop will be in Huntsville, Alabama, probably in October. You can also visit the Centauri Dreams website ( for a couple of reports on the workshop as well as many other interesting articles dealing with interstellar flight.

  15. By the time you actually start seeing colony ships as viable outside of doomsday scenarios humanity will likely have significant experience in designing and living in orbit and possibly other planetary bodies. One century ago aviation was the toy of idiots and military. Three centuries just traveling out of state was a major undertaking. It took millennia for sailing to go past line of sight of land. Today all three are pretty much normal for the vast majority of the country. There are certain impossibilities that we believe right now, namely physics laws, but we also had the same beliefs about heavier than air flight, the sound barrier, space radiation, etc.

    The progress of technology if allowed to proceed, or even if slowed by idiot bureaucrats still serves as a potent growth industry. But we are trying to regress our society into neofeudalism, somewhere where society. If we go there, it will be a much harder slog.

    1. As long as there is some cultural distance between people-groups, one society failing and regressing just leaves room for another, somewhere, to try, try, try, and succeed.
      I think the only real catastrophe would be a single pan-world culture, as it would allow an equally pervasive stultifying thought collective with perhaps no escape valves… or at least, none until the next really major natural disaster comes to break the system.

    2. I think that was my biggest problem with the setup for KSM’s novel. Any civilization that’s sending slow-boats to nearby stars probably has a ton of experience with large-scale space habitats and closed life-support systems. It just doesn’t make sense otherwise, at least not without some really heroic assumptions.

      Also, why go with the Stanford torus as the hab-section when a segmented O’Neill cylinder is so much simpler to engineer? I feel like he kind of just phoned in the hard-science part of the world-building.

      1. Ya. I cannot speak to book itself since on TMIAHM at the moment in queue but outside of cataclysm tech is additive. Same process as us space program in my mind

  16. I can’t believe someone else remembers “A Lion on Tharthee”
    But I think you might be misremembering. His first book Saturnalia, which I really enjoyed, had a lot more about engineering and mission design then A Lion on Tharthee.

    Lion had the idea that the basic language of the universe is slapstick humor.

    1. I have only read “Saturnalia” I was not aware of his other book, I’ll have to find it.
      It has been so long since I read it I honestly can’t remember the plot or characters.

    2. It is said that whomsoever the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. In fact, whomsoever the gods wish to destroy, they first hand the equivalent of a stick with a fizzing fuse and Acme Dynamite Company written on the side. It’s more interesting, and doesn’t take so long.”
      ― Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

  17. As mentioned in a comment above, baseline homo sapiens will probably not be crewing the slow boats to the stars. It is more likely that they’ll be a bit like Dan Simmon’s Outsters from the Hyperion books- people biologically adapted to live in the space environment. In which case, the trip is more important than the destination.

    It may be more of a Ghost in the Shell approach, with crews that have organic brains in cybernetic bodies shepherding a ship full of recorded DNA sequences.

    1. Robert Forward also put forward some ideas about long duration space voyage in “Rocheworld”. IIRC he did some other writing on the subject in some of his essays and short stories.

      1. Speaking of Dr. Forward
        an excerpt:

        ” In 1973 I had a visit from science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I gave them a lengthy briefing on a lot of far-out physics. They took away a lot of ideas on miniature black holes, which they immediately turned into award-winning short stories. They also took away my idea of a laser-pushed lightsail. I had warned them that the light from the Sun was not strong enough to stop the sail, but, being science fiction writers, when they wrote Mote in God’s Eye, they ignored my advice and pretended it would work.

        In 1975 I was approached by a group of people who knew that I was interested in interstellar flight. They were staffers to the House Committee on Science and Technology of the US House of Representatives 19th congress. What the Committee was aiming for was a plan for a Future Space Program 1975. They asked me to contribute, along with many other people working on Earth-to-Orbit launch, Orbit-to-Orbit launch, mars Transit, and similar near-term topics. They wanted someone to look further out than that, so they asked me to come up with a National Space Program for Interstellar Exploration.

        I did.”

        1. I fear that Dr. Forward, who was a pretty good friend or Larry and me before he died, misremembers the events.

          By the time we met Dr. Forward, Mote In God’s Eye had been in print for years, and had become a best seller: he never saw a draft of it, and we certainly did not ignore advice from him, because he gave us none. He never saw the book before it was in print. As to the light sail the Moties used, there is no hint that they tried to use it to slow the Motie ship, and since MacArthur intercepted the Moties at a velocity of about 8% of the speed of light, it’s pretty clear that they weren’t trying to slow it down; so neither the reader nor Captain Blaine have any idea of how they planned to slow it down enough to be captured by a sun or planet; nor do they try to learn, being in an Imperial Navy ship with the mission of intercepting it. They’d leave that to scientists, meaning that it’s fifty pages of one incident in a rather long book, not an exposition on how to build a ship given the limitations the Moties face.

          We had a different book in mind, and I doubt we’d have changed it much if Bob Forward had read it in manuscript; we’ll never know because he never saw the book until it had been in publication for years, had been nominated for a Hugo, and had become a best seller in sales although not on publication. It remains the best selling science fiction book Simon and Schuster ever published. Sagan’s Contact was the most profitable, but that is because S&S retained 50% of the movie rights, and the movie did rather well; but both Mote and Inferno sold more copies, and still sell pretty well although neither ever made a movie.

          As to our sources on black holes and gravity waves, Niven and I first met Bob Forward when Dr. Forward telephoned me out of the blue at a time when my phone number was not so easy to come by to congratulate me on having gravity waves in my story “He Fell Into a Dark Hole” which he had just read in Analog. Larry and I went out to his lab art Hughes near the Pepperdine campus in Malibu, and learned a lot about gravity and general relativity; Dr. Forward a week or two later invited us to come with him to Cal Tech to hear a lecture by the visiting Stephen Hawking; I wrote that lecture up in one of my Galaxy Columns giving full credit to Forward, but Larry and I learned most of what we know — or knew then — about black holes from Hawking, and later in 79 (“Britain is fine in ’79”) at the Worldcon I arranged to have an interview with Roger Penrose at Oxford, whom I had met in Berkeley a few years before when Poul Anderson invited Larry and I up to attend one of his lectures and come to dinner with Penrose and Anderson and a few of Poul’s friends. No doubt we learned much about black holes from Forward, but we probably learned more from Hawking and Penrose. In any event, my black hole story was published in Analog before I ever met Dr. Forward or Stephen Hawking. Niven wrote his and has many times said it was partly inspired by Bob Forward. Alas it beat my Dark Hole story for a Hugo, but I suppose that was inevitable.

          I have never read Dr. Forward’s Fast Forward, and I suspect I didn’t know about it; this is the first I’ve heard of this. Mote was the first of many successful books Niven and I wrote, and we did it in the early 70’s.

          1. I have just gone to Dr. Forward’s autobiography, and he remembers thing happening at dates much earlier than I do; but since he was writing at times much closer to the events, perhaps he is correct, and it is my memory which is at fault. It is easily resolved; I’ll look up the publication date of “He Fell Into a Dark Hole”.

            Well, he’s not right, but neither am I. Dark Hole was published in 1973, and we were still writing Mote then; but I do not recall discussing light sails with him, and in particular the subject of slowing the ship down. Of course we both knew that it was a different and difficult problem, but it wasn’t one we needed to solve since the Empire never built anything like that. We assumed the Moties knew what they were doing.

            I remain grateful to Dr. Forward for the years I knew him. I certainly did get the ion drive engines for “Tinker” from our visit to his lab, and Bob was one of those I invited to a conference on the Dean Drive when I had a small grant to do the study before everyone who knew Dean was dead. We could only document what was known, much of which turned out to be hearsay, not hard evidence. Harry Stine saw it push but it was on the floor at the time and it reminded my German scientist friends of a device that was marketed in vain to the Peenemunde group, who heard stories of what it could do, but only — once — saw it climb a string. No one ever saw it in a swing. John W. Campbell, Jr., said he had seen it on a bathroom scale, and it weighed less when the power was on than when the plug was pulled; but Campbell was dead, and Harry Stine never saw it on a scale. It only push against his had, and it was on the floor at the time.

            Dr. Forward was the one who emphasized in the study report that without some repeatable hard evidence of a result, further study was not indicated from theory alone.

    2. I was wondering what was going to happen with the embryos at the end of Interstellar. I mean, genetic preservation is all very well and good, but long after the movie I was wondering, ‘who is going to raise those babies, cleaning, feeding, etc?’

      1. I thought Cooper not bringing an entire team with him when he went to find Dr. Brand was a weak point.

      2. Dr. Reynolds touched on that in the ‘Revelation Space*’ series- the Americanos sent slow boats with just embryos & robots… and it didn’t work.

        *”The Prefect”

      3. Larry and I address that problem and more in the book we are writing with Steve Barnes; it’s the third in a bestselling series about the first interstellar colony. Since there is no way that any child could give informed consent about going on a starship (whether in cold sleep or not), the first generation on the colony will consist of adults and infants; no children at all. This makes for a generation gap in spades with big casino…

          1. Whether it is or not, those are interesting reads. I just snagged the novella, The Secret of Black Ship Island, which I didn’t know existed. And NOW I see that there’s a third Motie book out, which I will have to consider picking up.

            1. I’ve got Metro 2033 and 2034 slated to read after Dave Freer’s Changeling Island; which I’m reading sort of ‘at the same time’ as Schwarzenegger’s autobiography. (I pick up either book depending on my mood at the moment.)

              1. You’re only simulreading two books? My, but you are odd, aren’t you?

                I confess that all the reading I do online has generally reduced the number of books I simulread so that I often am reading only two or three (not counting short story collections or books put down and not picked back up again for a period in excess of a year.)

                1. I’ve got “Changeling Island”, “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” and “Religion and Society in Russia” going at the moment.

                2. I feel so inferior… I usually only have two books going at a time (plus the occasional Shakespeare play and a few Bible chapters on Sunday).

                  Currently Slaughterhouse Five and Wealth of Nations. I’d like to spend more time reading, but work has me so stressed out I spend most of my time off watching old TV shows on the idiot box just to try to stop thinking.

                3. *dry* I’m only simulreading two books right now. I normally have three or four going. And I don’t count rereading the ones I pick up at random for comfort reads as part of the list of ‘simulread.’ And the scientific paper I’m making myself slowly read (as opposed to zooming through it) because it’s fascinating stuff and I don’t want to blow through it.

                  And yes, reading stuff online doesn’t count. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer and I prefer physical books for when I want to step away from the screen.


  18. The most important thing to remember about all of this is that Robinson doesn’t really know anything about engineering or probably science either.
    He went to school for English.
    I suspect his exposure to science is only what he writes about, and his exposure to engineering is nil.

  19. RE: Slow boat – Catch an asteroid, a big one (say 3km x 1km), and park it in a Lagrangian point. Mine it and supply material to earth, the moon and Mars to make money and to convert it to a ship. Add people as you have the space and support systems for them. Say this takes 50+ years. Now you have a ship with all the systems well debugged. You can also get rid of troublemakers without throwing them out an airlock.

    1. Explain the root cause of the futility of the character’s actions, and the implications for the role of “technical fixes” to the insoluble problems of the human condition.

      I started writing this thing in 2012. In a way, I think I had exactly these sort of books, and exactly this sort of analysis in mind back then.

      1. Technocracy is the mystical fad of our era.

        We’ve failed to ‘scientifically’ solve the problem of poverty by murdering the poor, by murdering the rich, and by crushing both under the iron heels of bureaucracy.

        This is a category error.

        Real scientific and engineering methods have given us wonders when we’ve used them towards actual engineering goals.

        Norman Borlaug was not an engineer, but few engineers would dismiss how he compares in good done by systemic product improvements.

        The mere appearance of scientific and engineering methods have created horrors when directed towards other ends. “Let’s build a machine to dry out all the winos!” “You push a button and it dries out a wino forever!”

        The social ill or character flaw itself is not an engineering goal, and no ‘technical fix’ is going to change human nature.

        Human societies are not all the same. They do change. If changing them to design is not impossible, it certainly is beyond the rote formulas of the left.

        There are things that are not futile. Human problems might be solved on the personal level by personal means such as choices, habits, custom and faith. Engineering methods solve engineering problems.

        I bit my thumb at the technocrats, Grovers and gray goo writers of the world.

        1. Engineering : Let’s get this job done. Methods that efficiently & effectively help us approach the goal will be embraced; the others will be rejected. Otherwise we lose our jobs.
          Science : Let’s examine this hypothesis. Even if proven false (likely), we still may learn something new & interesting that helps define future directions. Gotta keep the funding rolling in, regardless of results.
          Technocracy : Let’s solve problem A with method B. If B works, we will be out of a job. If not, it can only be because we did not expend enough resources. Ignore the possibility that we could simply be wrong about B’s effectiveness or efficiency.

          Using these definitions, it should not be a shock that :
          Engineering quickly converges on adequate to good solutions.
          Science converges on truth, but often slowly & painfully.
          Technocracy quickly converges on failure, and remains there.
          When in doubt, follow the money.

          1. When Technocrats wholly capture a society, failure is a blood bath, and a society saturated with lies. Such constant dishonesty begets confusion, which can lead to a sense of futility. But that futility is a lie, because mad technocratic criminals in charge do not want you thwarting them or getting away.

            1. Yup. Every day I look at the current crop of activists (BLM, microaggresion witchfinders, etc) and the thorough corruption/politicization of the Federal bureaucracy. The Confucian concept of revolution as a Rectification of Names makes perfect sense.

  20. Vile linked to this post. The responses display all the fairness, level-headedness and open-mindedness that one has come to associate with that site.

    1. “Jim Henley on April 12, 2016 at 7:12 pm said:

      (4) BEYOND LIMITS. Man, that John Carlton excerpt is really compelling me not to click through. Partly because the introductory clause “As an engineer” can be pretty reliably translated as “I am about to mistake my own pomposity for objective fact.” (Not saying being an engineer means someone will do this. But using “As an engineer” as a preamble often heralds it.)”

      “Ray on April 13, 2016 at 1:38 am said:

      Having read your excerpt of John Carlton’s reaction to Greg Benford’s review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, I am confident that he is WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!”

      1. I don’t think that they understand the difference between commentary and review. I was commenting about the articles that KSR wrote for Boing Boing and Scientific American and what I thought about how KSR was presenting the problem. As for pomposity, is it pomposity to state experience that you have when addressing a relevant issue.

  21. Since IMO we’re getting a little too serious, I’d like to suggest a somewhat lighter story about a Generation Spaceship.

    The Whims Of Creation by Simon Hawke. [Very Big Grin]

  22. KSR is clearly more concerned with signaling the right opinions than with thinking freely about possible futures. He’s stuck with being on record in believing in the possibility of interplanetary colonlization because of RGB Mars. His ploy for the approval of the “Just one …” crowd is to limit us to “Just One Solar System,” forever.

    1. Also, failed exploration voyages and failed colonies were a standard element of science fiction from the Interwar Era on. The thing is, most of those stories were written from the POV of the expedition which follows later and manages to avoid failing by studying the mistakes made by the last one. A true failure of the protagonist was rare until joanna Russ wrote We Who Are About To …fifty years ago.

      Yep. KSR has boldly gone where the New Wave went before you were born Much like Margaret Atwood boldly went where Silver Age science fiction went before either of us were born..

      1. IMO Joanne Russ’s character thought that the group would fail and worked to cause the group to fail.

        Note, the situation Joanne Russ set up was that the group had no chance of success but her character should have killed herself and let the group fail on its own. 😦

        1. Joanna Russ stacked the deck by making the whole lot of them idiots, nd from an idiotic civilization to boot. When the protagonist kills the others, she does so because they’re about to subject her to gang-rape as part of a forced breeding program. Being a violent loon, she kills all the others, not just the ones who wanted to do this to her.

          1. Yep, “violent loon”. If she just killed herself or just killed the would-be rapists, I’d understand but she completely ruined the chances of survival for everybody.

            And of course, Joanne Russ wanted us to approve of her character’s actions. 😦

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