Generation ships are a staple of science fiction, and they’re awesome. I love stories with giant ships that are heading out into the unknown. It connects the future to the past when human explorers would jump in their ships to battle the seas while dreaming of a better life. Generation ships represent the indomitable spirit of curiosity that is in all of us, and at their root, they represent hope. Hope that humans will not only just survive but continue to improve technology. Hope that humanity expands beyond what we’re currently capable of being. Hope that curiosity is greater than our petty differences.
But…but the great Kim Stanley Robinson pointed out that they’re not a viable technology. As he says, “So it won’t work. But people want to believe in it. […] Multi-generational starship travel is simply very, very, very unlikely to succeed.“1 The obstacles to a generation ship solution are numerous and grand, and humans aren’t capable of confronting many of these challenges yet. Some of the easier problems, like ‘is it possible to shield the ship from radiation,’ are still beyond our current technological level.
Does this mean that the generation ship is dead for SF? Well, no. No one gets to tell an author what not to write. However, it’s important to keep the points of failure in mind when creating generation ships for stories or games. Can the problems that KSR presents be overcome? Let’s brainstorm.
What follows is a series of articles on generation ships. These are my musings on the subject, and it is essentially just throwing out ideas. I have expertise in one small part of what follows, and the rest is speculation. I do not claim to be 100% right; in fact, I may end up proposing stupid things. In fact, as the series goes on, I will propose stuff that becomes indistinguishable from magic.2 Hey, it’s my blog; so, I can do that. I will do my best to indicate what is possible and what is crazy.
In a sense, the whole concept of generation ship is crazy; isn’t it? A bunch of people pack into a building and head off into the unknown on the off chance that their descendants can find a new planet or moon to call home. But that’s what makes the generation ship such fertile ground for storytelling.
In this series, I will draw on my knowledge of SF, imperfect as it may be, to use examples of space-faring vessels in general. But I’d like to level set before moving on. The problems of generation ships can be overcome with things like faster than light drives, cryogenic sleep, being able to reorganize matter itself, and/or some combination of all three. For the purposes of these articles, the generation ship obeys the universal speed limit set by light, and replication technology, such as seen in Star Trek: the Next Generation, is not available. 3D printers will not be manipulating atoms to form molecules, and artificial intelligence will not be godlike, but both technologies with reasonable advancements will be in play. The ships inhabitants will not sleep through the voyage; though, frozen embryos as a method of increasing the population at the destination is acceptable.
Now, this is not to say that stories with those technologies are inferior; they, of course, are not. Those three constraints are an attempt to set boundaries that require creative solutions. Because this is ultimately an exercise in creativity for me. No, I am not writing a science fiction novel about a generation ship. I’m simply being a nerd. Or a geek. Maybe a dork. I never really understood the distinction between the three, but I’m sure all three can be applied to me.
This is the introduction to the series. I have three other parts planned out with subsections in each. Depending on how verbose I get, there may or may not be multiple posts per section. It’s entirely possible that as the series goes along, I find additional subjects to discuss, which means an expansion beyond the three other parts. But for now, there’s a lot to talk about and discuss. If I missed something or am wrong, please, comment and let me know. Just abide by the commenting policy, and we’ll design some generation ships together.
1. “Our Generation Ships will Sink,” 2015, Boing Boing, http://boingboing.net/2015/11/16/our-generation-ships-will-sink.html
2. Nods to Arthur C Clarke