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Nitpicking Recent (Great) Hard Science Fiction Novels: AURORA and THE MARTIAN
David Brin   Sep 15, 2015   Contrary Brin  

Is interstellar travel by bio-humanity even possible?  Not according to my dear bro and esteemed colleague Kim Stanley Robinson. Whose new novel AURORA follows one of the first… and possibly last… efforts to send a generation starship to a neighboring star. Naturally, any KSR book is worth rushing out to purchase… though like many of his other works, there is a very strong sense that the author has a point to make. 

Starting with the fact that he’s been asked for thirty years: “Hey, Robinson, how come you never leave the solar system!” AURORA is – foremost – his answer.

Why? Because it cannot (in any reasonable way) be done. Aurora proclaims: “There. I left. For a bit. Okay? But there’s nothing interesting out there. And getting there is too hard. Let’s focus on fixing our home.”

In fact, I got no bones to pick with KSR’s Odes to Our Planet – (hey, one of my tomes is EARTH) – and its solar siblings. Moreover, I find his politics to be interesting, grownup and major contributions to our grand discussion of how advanced human societies may govern themselves. I tend to emphasize the role of regulated competition in the synergies that he seeks, that might offer our Enlightenment experiment extended success and wisdom. Still, I agree so often with KSR’s general zeitgeist that it’s actually refreshing to get a chance to pick at some disagreements, for a change!

Moreover, when it comes to Aurora’s stay-home message, he had to expect folks would accuse him of stacking the deck.

Of course Robinson’s fundamental premise is one that I violate like crazy in my Uplift Universe… that Einstein’s law is the law. Let’s start by assuming any interstellar travel endeavors that take place in the future must obey, and indeed use technologies that are within “squint” range of our own. We can see them in the distance as plausible extensions of things-currently-known. We are - for example - on the verge of achieving some kind of fusion and can collect traces of anti-matter… so it is not untoward to imagine an interstellar ship propelled by either fusion power or antimatter. Or else, since KSR veers away from those energy sources, let’s instead picture a combination of electromagnetic launch plus laser boost from home, followed by a series of planetary swing-bys in the target system–

— exactly the combination that I used earlier, in Existence. But no unobtanium. No warp drives. No uploaded people who get downloaded into new bodies at the other end. And… most tellingly – no suspended animation or deep sleep or cryo-storage.  Those are cheating.

I’m not so sure about that last one. If KSR cannot squint and see it as plausible, I sure can. Indeed, the technologies that he chooses to include are only ones that are hard and likely to remain just barely on the edge of possible—especially the closed ecosystem methods needed for a generation ship.  Techs are excluded if their existence would make interstellar travel much, much easier.

But let’s hop over for some other opinions. Starting with a pair of sagacious reviews at the Centauri Dreams site. The first, by my fellow “Killer Bee” Gregory Benford, addresses a number of the social aspects of KSR’s novel, including plot elements that seem designed to make the expedition more likely to fail.

In another fascinating followup, honorary Killer Bee Stephen Baxter dissects some of the physics and engineering behind KSR’s starship.

== My own riff re AURORA ==

Okay, my turn.

1- First, where I absolutely agree with Kim Stanley Robinson is over the biggest of all Big Lies in hard-SF tales about humans conquering the galaxy… the notion that it will be easy for ortho-humanity to colonize other earthlike worlds. A mere cloning of the European experience settling the Americas, stepping off the boat, inhaling the fresh air, chopping some trees and pushing back natives, building prosperous farms, then cities… this re-figuring of the American West in space is a standard motif, from Poul Anderson to Lois Bujold and a thousand other authors, and although it is so alluring a dream, it ain’t necessarily so.

A point that Stan hammers repeatedly, in AURORA, is that living ecosystems defend themselves. They have predation pyramids and immune systems and it seems improbable that human settlers will just fit right in, finding it easy to eat but not too-easy to be eaten… or simply poisoned by a zillion incompatible chemicals unfamiliar and lethal to Earth biology.  Some authors have pointed out this problem before—Ursula LeGuin, David Gerrold in his Cthorr series and I’ve poked at it. Indeed, the SF author with the biggest galactic empire of all—Isaac Asimov—gave himself an out by assuming that all 25 million human-settled worlds had been free of metazoan life when robotic machines came along to terraform them for humanity. (See this resolved and made clear in Foundation’s Triumph.)

So, at one level, KSR is offering a badly-needed splash in the face with some cold-water reality, countering a hoary and overly-lazy old SF trope.  And yet… 

And yet, there is such a thing as way-overcompensation.  In fact, it now seems likely that alien life forms will use plentiful adenine as their energy molecule and as one of their nucleotides.  And the 20+ amino acids that we use in proteins just happen to be the ones that are most thermodynamically stable and easiest to produce and collect.  I am not saying there won’t be bizarrely different biochemistries out there!  But if you take twenty life worlds out there, I bet some will supply most of what we need to eat, enabling us to supplement with transplanted foods.  The poisoning or immune system problems are bigger unknowns. But are you saying it will be forever beyond human science to analyze such things and reconfigure versions of humanity that would be capable of coping?

Indeed, this notion of us adapting to new homes is one that both KSR and I have dealt with, before. Trouble is… it distracts from AURORA’s core polemical message.  And that message is a heavy one.

2- Alas, we keep running into the same problem, even among fellow members of our Promethean guild. To envision that your current set of problems might seem quaint to people just a generation hence. 

In this case, when an author uses tech-science difficulties to stymie his colonists, the question then arises… might not the next mission learn from these mistakes? One has only to squint and picture that successor ship finding Tau Ceti’s obstacles quite surmountable.

Especially since… and this is kinda crippling… (spoiler alert!) .... Earth eventually saves some of the returning colonists by sending them exactly such a trick of technology.  One that will change utterly the design of the next wave of starships, making them four or five orders of magnitude simpler, safer, easier, cheaper and quicker!  

In other words: okay okay, so generation ships are barely plausible. But then, in that case, how about skipping them to something better?

3- Another deck-stacking… Robinson presumes Solar System civilization is just barely rich enough to have afforded to send a few generation ship expeditions… but not (generations later) wealthy enough to make expeditions increasingly a matter of proliferating whim. In the end, the stay-at-home lesson boils down to an assumption of permanent (if relative) poverty.

Indeed, the simplest way to perfect your systems for a generation ship is simply to keep such a ship as a freestanding colony in the Solar System. There might be ten thousand such habitats in a rich civilization.  Pick a few that volunteer to have no physical contact with others, for a century. Many of the closed ecology problems KSR discusses could be old-hat and solved.

4- Ah, but a strong moral point against generation ships is the commitment of your grand-children to a stressful and dangerously limited life in which they had no choosing.  Stan does a good job conversationally weighing the ethical tradeoffs… if leaning on the scales a bit. But again, our conclusion is simply to find something better than generation ships.

For other scenarios about starships and generation ships, see Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, an anthology of stories and articles about our longterm future in space, edited by Gregory and Jim Benford.

5- KSR’s no-Captain premise may allow lots of colorful chaos, murder and plot-propelling societal collapse. But it also is silly. Even if the population aboard ship lives according to Robinsonian prescribed post-Marxian according-to-needs principles combined with Rothbardian no-coercionism and LeGuinian anarchic individualism (that predictably shatters under stress) they’d still have backup plans and those would include occasional emergency drills that familiarized them with age-old techniques. Those drills would include meritocratic selection of a ceremonial captaincy – AI -chosen, perhaps – that could assume command in a crisis. Should that arrangement then fail in order to drive the plot? Sure! But stacking the deck should be subtle. Even just a bit. It should not be based on everyone aboard having never cracked a single book about ancient eras of exploration.

6- What I find stunning is that in this book KSR indicts his own prescriptive utopia as brittle and incapable of resilience! I am sure the intended message was “if my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition, then no one can, hence forgetaboutit.” But that is not what the reader derives. Rather, the book’s take-away is just “my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition.”

Indeed, from the behavior of the denizens of Aurora, one is left to conclude something fundamental about this ship and expedition – that it was created by the folks back home, and carefully staffed, with one fundamental goal in mind – to be a “Golgafrincham B Ark.” A dig that should be self-explanatory, if you are sf’nally literate.

The most disappointing thing is that Stan Robinson is generally a master of problem-solving fiction, making him an archetype of what I believe to be the fundamental premise of Sci Fi, making it the opposite of traditional fantasy. The premise that children might – sometimes — learn from the mistakes of their parents. But not this time. By that metric, Aurora is, for all its tech-heavy recitations — alas – far more polemic than science fiction.

Do give Aurora a read. And now, let’s move on to another terrific - if flawed - best-seller.

== Nitpicks on THE MARTIAN ==

Hey, I agree that it’s a great book!  Andy Weir’s The Martian deserves its plaudits and I look forward to the film.  Still, a novel that’s called “competence porn” – presenting itself as a rigorously plausible Robinson-Crusoe-in-Space on every page – does merit scrutiny.  My pal Joe Carroll – the best space engineer I know – loved the book but offers up these cavils. (Let the techie crit commence!):

1. It seems unlikely that there would be enough light inside to grow useful crops except right near windows or LED lights.  Mars gets only ~43% as much sun as earth; the hab windows will be small; and LED area lighting is likely to be only a few percent as bright as outside.

2. His quantitative chemistry was sloppy.  He’s confusing the pleasantly simple ratios of volumes of gas at the same pressure and temperature, with liquids.  You don’t get 2 liters of liquid H2O from 1 liter of LO2 (liquid oxygen): 1 liter of LO2 weighs 1.14 kg and gives 1.14 * 18/16 = 1.28 kg = 1.28 liter of water. 

3. Baselining a full 1 atmosphere for the hab, rover, and EVA suits doesn’t make sense to me (ISS uses 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch) but only 4 psi for EVA; Skylab used 5 psi).  I think it should probably be more like 6-7 psi.  That allows enough N2 dilution of O2 to make fires less of an issue in 3/8 gee. I think NASA would use 3-4 psi pure oxygen in the EVA suits.  When the suit pressure is comparable to the N2 partial pressure in the hab or rover, you don’t have to pre-breathe O2 before EVA to avoid bends. 

4. I don’t think his composite pressurized structures are very realistic.  Flat floored “tents” are very hard to do.  I think it would be far lighter, stronger, and safer to have a cylindrical pressure shell, with a lightweight raised flat floor inside, and space under the floor panels for storage. . I also think that 60 seconds from resin mix to strong cure may be reasonable for a patch material, but it makes a lot of what he did nearly impossible.  But if he let it get cooler than intended, he could stretch the cure time.

5. I can’t see any reason for such high acceleration leaving Mars. I think the best initial T/W (Thrust to Weight ratio) would probably be less than 2 Mars gravities or less than 0.7 Earth gee. 2Even with a single stage and no throttling, that would probably be  less than 3 gees max to low Mars orbit, and approximately 5 gees to rendezvous with the rest of the crew in a hyperbolic flyby.

Ouch! Burn!  That is… if you are a real nitpicker!) But… isn’t that Weir’s readership? Indeed, the pickiness of these nits only shows how terrific the general execution truly is.

Seriously, as a “space cadet” since way back in my days as a post-doc at the California Space Institute .. and currently on the advisory board of NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group and the B612 Foundation, I am thrilled to see “competence porn” rising in popularity.

Now, on to Matt Damon. Go for it Good Will Hunting.  Give us something for (forever young-minded) grownups.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."

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