Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the grandmasters of modern science fiction, released a new book on March 14: New York 2140. It’s a sprawling adventure story/political drama/slice of life story set in New York City after climate change sends sea levels surging more than 50 feet—drowning Lower Manhattan and transforming a city of gridlike streets into a city of canals, a Super-Venice. We spoke extensively with Robinson about the book—check it out here.
But we also spoke with the esteemed author about his last book, Aurora, and the big ideas behind it—from the present state and near future of space travel to what could happen when humanity does reach the stars. Aurora is set a hearty seven centuries or so from now, on an interstellar colony ship heading toward Tau Ceti. Heavily rooted in real science and realistic future science, the book takes a dramatic turn halfway through—one that left many SF fans gasping. Consider this interview half Aurora postmortem, half conversation on space travel’s future. Full spoilers for Aurora start right now; this interview assumes you have read it, or at least know the plot.
Halfway through the book, the interstellar settlers, all of whom were born on the generation ship, reach the planet Aurora. Off to a promising start, they begin building a settlement—only to find that a deadly microorganism inhabits the soil, rendering the planet essentially permanently inhospitable to human life. The other planets in the system present other challenges. The settlers make a grim decision after a century-long journey that their ancestors started: to return to Earth, to give up on their dream of colonizing another star system. It seemed like a shocking turn… but to Robinson, it’s actually meant as an inspiring message.
This interview has been lightly edited.
International Business Times (IBT): The settlers’ decision to give up on a centuries-long mission they never chose is very different from most other “generation ship” stories. Was the failure at Aurora always part of your plan for the story? Is this intended as a response or repudiation to more utopian SF, including your own?
Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR): My plan was always to tell a story that showed that the common notion of humanity “going to the stars” isn’t possible. This view is the result of various discoveries we’ve made since the idea was first put forward. The reasons we can’t do it range from physical to biological to ecological to sociological to psychological, and in combination these various difficulties mean that we probably can’t do it.
But I don’t think of this as a repudiation of utopian SF! I’m still fully committed to the utopian project. Aurora is only opposed to the dream of interstellar travel, which distracts us from our current necessary work of building a sustainable civilization here on Earth. If we manage to do that, more realizable dreams for subsequent projects will be invented, but interstellar flight won’t be among them.
IBT: Could the settlers have overcome the challenges on Aurora, or was the “prion” [the microorganism that drives the settlers off the planet] scientifically insurmountable?
KSR: If we tried to move onto a planet that was already home to a microscopic lifeform that was poisonous to us, we would fail. There’s no way to sterilize a planet. We couldn’t do it here on Earth, we couldn’t do it on Mars, if we happen to find life on Mars and wanted to get rid of it. Life is tenacious, and can survive deep in the bedrock where we can’t get to it.
This was one of my points in Aurora; even if we were to succeed in reaching other star systems, we would find the planets there to be either alive or dead. Either way we would face intractable problems. If the target planet was alive, we would have to co-exist with it, which might be possible but might not, and that would be hard to find out safely. If the planet was dead, we would have to terraform it, with very limited power and resources. In both cases the explorers would be stuck in their starship for a long time, after already having spent a long time in it. Eventually such a closed biological life-support system would break down, and then there would be nowhere to go.
There is a third option on reaching a new planet, which is that the explorers wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was alive or dead, as is the case now with our understanding of Mars, for instance. But that would just mean they wouldn’t know which kind of problem they had.
IBT: Is faster-than-light travel entirely out of the question? Is the Aurora ship’s 0.1c [one tenth the speed of light] the maximum speed we could realistically expect?
KSR: Some physicists speak of some postulated faster-than-light possibilities, such as wormholes that connect a black hole to a white hole somewhere else, a white hole being a place where energy is pouring out into the universe. This flow of energy, moving possibly through some wrinkle in spacetime, could mean that that energy is moving in some other dimension we don’t register, and also faster than light—although I don’t see why these hidden dimensions might not perhaps move the energy slower than light, but since they’re hypothetical, people call out what they want from them. Wormholes and white holes might not exist at all, and if they did, I feel that humans would not be able to travel in them without getting squished; there’s also the navigation problem, seldom addressed, i.e., how would you know where you’re going? So, despite these various wishful speculations, my conclusion from what the physicists have said is that faster-than-light travel is impossible. If some new discovery was made in fundamental physics that made it possible, that would be greatly surprising, not just to me but to the standard model of physics.
As to maximum speeds, it’s possible to accelerate humans in a spaceship to quite tremendous speeds, with no barrier that keeps us from getting well beyond one tenth of light speed, but this increase in speed means that decelerating from it would require more energy. This need to carry some kind of fuel for deceleration grows at a rate proportional to the increased speed, making for a kind of vicious circle, in which the faster you go the more decelerant you need to take with you, and thus the heavier you get and the harder it is to decelerate. Because of this, in the discussions of starship design that have been ongoing since the 1950s, 0.1c is often put forth as the best balance between shortening the travel time and having to carry along the fuel to decelerate from that already very rapid speed. So I went with the plans that speak of 0.1c as the optimal practical speed. Much of my design for the starship in Aurora came out of the already-existing starship literature.
IBT: Why do you think [Earth’s] Solar System largely stagnated during the ship’s journey? If interstellar travel is extremely difficult and unlikely and the Solar System reaches a scientific and logistical peak, is further progress possible?
KSR: I don’t think stagnation is the right word. In my story there has been some progress, but when you’re talking about humans inhabiting the solar system while also inventing a sustainable civilization on Earth, 800 years is not that long. It’s a long-term project.
My Mars trilogy portrayed Mars being terraformed in about 200 years, and in 2312 it’s done even faster, in about 100 years; but if we were to use less drastic methods, which are possibly more realistic, it could also take more like 2,000 years, or even 10,000 years. And the rest of the Solar System is much less easy than Mars for humans to terraform.
But scientific stations, where human crews could be swapped in and out, could be established pretty quickly on many planets and moons and asteroids. So there’s a distinction to be made between a human presence in small outposts, and human inhabitation or colonization.
The thought that I’ve often used to guide myself in my postulated future histories is that human progress will probably be like many other phenomena, and eventually be describable by a logistic curve, in which a long period of slow improvement is followed by a period of rapid progress, followed by a leveling off to a slower rate of change, as various limits and difficulties arise to complicate further progress. This big S curve (see the Wikipedia article on the logistic curve ) may be a good general descriptor for many aspects of human history. In any case I think it’s more realistic than assuming continuous regular improvement, or increasingly rapid improvement speeding up forever.
IBT: The Mars at the end of Aurora is far less terraformed than the Mars of Blue Mars. Do you still believe terraforming on a massive scale could be feasible in a reasonable timeframe, or has our understanding of the science changed?
KSR: Reasonable timeframe is the question here. What if I say ten thousand years is reasonable?
Our understanding has changed since I wrote the Mars trilogy in the following ways: first, we now think Martian life below the surface is possible. Second, the surface seems to have perchlorates widespread in the sand, and this salt is poisonous to humans and would have to be dealt with. Third, there seems to be less nitrogen on Mars than we expected when using standard models of planetary formation to estimate its prevalence, and nitrogen is necessary for plant growth, and maybe as the inert component of a terraformed atmosphere.
Whether we would terraform Mars if we found Martian life is a hard question to answer. We might, we might not. Either way, if we proceed to try terraforming Mars, it might take much longer than portrayed in the Mars trilogy. Is that bad? I don’t think it’s that bad. I still like the project of terraforming Mars, and whether it takes a century or ten thousand years, I still like it, and consider it to be a wonderful project for humanity to try. It can only work from the platform of a healthy civilization on Earth, so advocating it is also advocating a permaculture established on Earth first. There is no Planet B!
One final thing to add is that progress can be defined in ways other than physical expansion. Improvements could take place in other realms, such as happiness, or health, or justice, or aesthetics.
IBT: Are environments like Europa and Mars inert enough that issues like the “prion” [on Aurora] wouldn’t arise? Why don’t the same problems apply? Is it just a matter of distance?
KSR: The same problems do apply. If we find life on Mars or Europa, we are going to want to keep an impermeable barrier between us and whatever it is, until we know what an interaction with it will do. By indirect and robotic means, we’ll be looking at this new form of life to discover whether it’s a cousin to us, meaning long ago it bounced from Earth on a meteorite and landed on Mars or Europa (or vice versa), or if it’s truly alien to us, a lifeform that started independently on its own. We should be able to make that distinction by chemical and biological analyses, and if we can get that answer, it will tell us a lot about life in the universe.
All this would be less fraught here than it would be if we were doing it around some other star, because we would be doing it with Earth as our own planet and refuge. The stakes would be much reduced, because we have a viable home no matter what we found out. If we could co-exist with aliens discovered on Mars or Europa, fine; if not, we would avoid them by staying on Earth, and keeping them wherever we found them.
All this could actually play out in the next century or two of Solar System exploration. It’s a very exciting prospect. Just because I think interstellar travel is beyond human capacities, that doesn’t mean I think space exploration is a bad thing or a waste of our time. In fact I love it. Our neighborhood, the Solar System, is spectacular and fascinating, and very worth us going out into it in a robust way.
IBT: When do you think humanity will pursue space exploration and colonization in earnest? Does the slowdown over the last few decades make a difference in the long run? What economic/political/cultural incentives could push humanity to start entering space in a real and permanent way?
KSR: We’ve been pursuing space exploration in earnest since the 1950s. Don’t discount our robotic explorations, which have been fantastic and will continue to be so. As for human travel in space, it turns out it’s really hard. We’ve been in Earth orbit continuously for some time, and that’s taken a big effort. People tend to discount it—your question discounts it, to an extent—but consider that if we had a base on the moon, you might discount that too. After each step we make in our explorations, our culture tends to react by saying, Oh we’ve already done that, it’s no longer interesting or valid.
So, we’re out there in space. Colonization is a different matter. My feeling is the analogy we should use to think about this whole process is “it’s like Antarctica,” not “it’s like the New World.” I think that for a long time it will play out like Antarctica has: we’ll build small shelters in which scientists and maybe adventure tourists will live for a few months or years, after which the health impacts (and the boredom) will cause people to go back home, so that there will be a turnover of crews, rather than permanent residents.
Back on Earth, the fact that we have reached these places in the Solar System, and normalized them with scientific stations, will mean that interest in them will diminish. Again the Antarctic analogy is instructive, as is the history of the Apollo missions to the Moon, or the nineteenth century efforts to reach the North Pole. Once we get somewhere, we’re less interested in that place. It’s the getting there—getting to the hardest place we can reach, if we can—that interests us as a culture.
Much later than the “Antarctic phase” of Solar System exploration, we might see the large scale inhabitation of Mars, and the moon, and maybe the asteroids and the Jovian moons, by local populations who are born there and live and die there, in domed craters or giant tents or underground. Then later still, on Mars, we might move on to the terraforming effort. All that will take a long time to accomplish.
Meanwhile, in the current economic system there’s no incentive to do any of this, because the costs of doing it are much higher than any immediate financial returns. So that too will slow us down. It will take other motives than current economic ones for us to do it.