We dream of reaching the stars. Indeed, it’s at the core of what I’ve been writing, and the same is true for many other science fiction authors. It’s also the subject of intensive research by some fairly serious scientists, even if they don’t quite get the billing and notoriety of NASA projects focused right here in our own Solar System.
But is it truly possible?
I like to think so, but I also understand that the challenges are incredibly daunting, more so than the majority of interstellar-themed science fiction stories would have us believe.
Bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson tackles the challenges of so-called generation ships, in which people will be born, live, and die during the voyage, and only the grandchildren of the original astronauts will be alive at journey’s end in his 2015 novel Aurora. It’s a great read, and I highly encourage you to check it out. I won’t spoil it for you by talking about his conclusions in the novel.
But Robinson also wrote a blog post discussing his thoughts on the various challenges faced, Our Generation Ships Will Sink, and perhaps the title gives it away. He goes into some detail about the issues faced with biological, ecological, physical, sociological, psychological… lots of logicals there. Even upon arrival, the problems don’t cease.
Robinson’s article is a great read, but if you want a nicely wrapped up synopsis of it, I recommend Richard Rabil Jr’s Stars Beyond Our Reach, linked at the beginning of this post. Rabil is a technical writer, who writes both fiction and essays on subjects as diverse as technology and faith, and he tackles many interesting subjects on his blog (which I’ve only just discovered, but so far it’s very promising). He also does a great summary of the evolution of science fiction as a genre, another post I can strongly recommend.
If, like me, you are fascinated by realism in our quest to reach the stars, Rabil’s summary is a good place to start.
header image credit: Reimund Bertrams (user:DasWortgewand) / pixabay.com under Pixabay License
10 thoughts on “Are The Stars Beyond Our Reach?”
Thanks for the shout out, Matt. And if you ever write a book review of Robinson’s ‘Aurora,’ I’d love to read it. It’s a novel I’ve added to my (very long) reading list, along with Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy.’
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You’re welcome! I’m looking forward to reading more from you.
I admit, I’m not much in the way of a book reviewer, but I will say that I’ve gone both hot and cold on Robinson’s novels. I first came across his work with “Antarctica,” which captured my attention because I spent nearly four years there, and he was writing about some places that I know. He did a great job with that one, in part because he actually visited there under the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers grant program, so he was able to infuse his writing with greater realism about the southernmost continent than almost anyone else I’ve ever read who wrote about it.
Then I read “2312,” and that one was a disappointment. I felt the story was too disjointed, and I could never sympathize with any of the characters, or feel what the narrative direction of the story was. It felt more like a jumbled-together collection of shorts that became one unwieldy tome. As a result, I didn’t expect to read more from Robinson.
And then he published “Aurora.” Despite myself, I picked it up, as the concept was one of great fascination to me (though his was not the first novel I’ve read on the subject of generation ships — if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend Robert A Heinlein’s 1963 book “Orphans of the Sky,” which is actually a combination of two related novellas published twenty years earlier). To my surprise, I found the book highly engaging, and yes, just as you described in your post, he goes into some serious technical detail about what it would take to attempt such a journey. I feel that I learned a lot from reading “Aurora,” and probably some of it is or will be influencing my writing since then. “Aurora” is a great example of “hard” science fiction, which is not typical in the space opera or interstellar-travel subgenres.
I haven’t read his Mars trilogy yet, but I am now planning to do so (interesting note, “2312” takes place in the same “universe” as the Mars trilogy, and there are references to characters and events from the trilogy that, unfortunately, I didn’t have the frame for at the time). Of course, I have a stack of Alastair Reynolds, Peter F Hamilton, and John Scalzi books to get through first on my TBR pile! Perhaps like your own, it tends to grow faster than I can actually read the books.
Thanks for your comment!
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Cool, thanks for the follow up, those are some great insights. I might have to take a look at Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of the Sky.’ And I’ve heard good things about the Mars trilogy from a different author I follow. Robinson is definitely known for doing is homework. (And yes, by now my reading list is probably long enough to last a few lifetimes!)
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After I wrote that, it occurred to me that I just finished reading another novel which deals with some aspects of using generation ships to reach another star, though with a different set of issues for the inhabitants on board: “Chasm City” by Alastair Reynolds, published in 2001. It’s a standalone novel in his “Revelation Space” universe which I’m currently working my way through. Reynolds is a retired space scientist, so while his novels are definitely fanciful (he says he prioritizes story over science, but doesn’t want to lose the science), he does try to keep them grounded in principles of physics. He also attempts to solve the puzzle of the Fermi Paradox in the main trilogy that makes up the core of the series.
I’ve added Aurora and Orphans to my reading list. I was considering doing a generations story, either as an interstellar space ship or as a space station that stays in the solar system. I’d like to do more reading on the subject.
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Without doubt, there’s a lot of fertile ground here for story ideas! Two other takes on the generational space station idea that immediately come to mind are “Outer Earth” by Rob Boffard (2018) and “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson (2015).
“Seveneves,” of course, you’re probably already familiar with, as it seems that Stephenson can hardly publish anything without great fanfare. Still, I greatly enjoyed that story, and perhaps one reason was also one that many others DISliked: the extreme attention to technical detail. You can learn a lot about orbital dynamics just from this book!
“Outer Earth” is more of a straight-up action-adventure story, mostly taking place on a huge space station on which the last remnants of humanity eke out a difficult existence after life is extinguished on Earth. I was lukewarm about this one, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with it; I just didn’t care for the direction it took in the final act (or book — technically it’s a trilogy, though I read it as an omnibus single volume). The setting is dirty, dangerous, and chaotic… society within this huge station is essentially starting to break down, and so is the station itself.
What are some other stories you’ve read that you would recommend that deal with generation ships, or stations? Since you’re researching, I’d guess you’ve read a few.
Thanks for the comment.
Sorry that it’s taken me so long to respond. I’m still learning how to navigate around this site, as I don’t spend much time here. No, I haven’t read Seveneves or Outer Earth. On your recommendation, I did read Aurora, which was marvelous. It convinced me that the generations star ship idea was not the way to go, that the direction I should go in is the space station. My reading so far has been focused on space ship design. I read Poul Anderson’s Starfarers, which was very good, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I should read Seveneves next.
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No worries about the time; I’m just happy to see you back!
Ah, Poul Anderson. I haven’t read him since I was a teenager, and I have not read “Starfarers.” I should probably check that out. I recently read Ursula K LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” (yes, I know, shocking I had not read that much earlier, given the awards it won and the impact it had, and especially so since I read so much else of LeGuin when younger), and while not a “space” story per se (it takes place entirely on the surface of a planet), it nevertheless incorporates many “realistic” concepts of what interstellar travel would entail, concepts that were not common in science fiction then, and still are not common today. For a novel written quite a while ago, by someone who wrote as much fantasy as she did science fiction, LeGuin nailed the physics of time dilation on near-lightspeed travel. She also introduced the concept of a quantum-linked interstellar communicator, and coined a term for such a thing that now is in common usage by other writers: ansible. Perhaps the only other writer I’ve read who so deftly dealt with how quantum entanglement might enable instantaneous (but cumbersome) communication across interstellar distances is Charles Stross in “Singularity Sky” and “Iron Sunrise.”
There’s so much more I could say about “Left Hand of Darkness,” but it would not be related to the subject of starships or space stations, so I’ll let that go for now. I’ve diverged enough as it is.
Thinking about spaceship design, Alastair Reynolds comes back to mind. I mentioned him in an earlier comment on this same post. Reynolds has constructed a universe where humanity has spread out to the nearer stars in our galaxy, but there is no faster-than-light travel. In his main series, the “Revelation Space” series, travel is done in “lighthuggers,” huge ships kilometers in length that are able to accelerate to within a fraction of a percentage point away from lightspeed, but then that is their limit. Due to time dilation effects, the crews and passengers on these ships might spend 5, 10, or 20 years on the voyage, but to the rest of humanity the voyage may take 50, 60, 80 years, etc. As all the lighthuggers are technically capable of the same top speed, if you intend to beat a rival to a destination, you do it by waiting longer before starting your deceleration burn, and then you decelerate considerably harder (and at greater risk).
Reynolds is nothing if not great at coining great terms for these ships. He has recently started another series, taking place millions of years in the future in the remains of the Solar System, where there is no interstellar travel, but instead people move between the thousands of “worlds” (mostly old space stations orbiting the Sun) with ships incorporating lightsails. He calls these ships sunjammers. Lighthuggers and sunjammers, oh how I wish I had come up with those names.
Needless to say, Reynolds goes into some detail about the ships, though not to the Kim Stanley Robinson level.
I hope you’ll return to talk more about your ultimate space station design!
I read Left Hand of Darkness several years ago. I should read it again sometime. It’s definitely worth a second look. I will check out Reynolds, too. That sounds fun. The Anderson book I mentioned goes into that time dilation idea, with one crew going on a long mission and coming back to Earth 10,000 years later.
I tend to read widely. Right now, I’m reading Le Carre. I want to re-read Murakami’s 1Q84 (two people moving in and out of an alternative universe. Very cool book!) So, my sci-fi deep dive is sporadic, random and slow.
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If you enjoyed the way that LeGuin played with gender roles in Left Hand of Darkness, then you might enjoy the more recent addition to the space opera oeuvre, “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie, and its follow-ups. This one will also introduce some rather different ways of thinking about starships than are common in the pantheon. I don’t want to spoil a major plot point upon which it turns, but perhaps the closest I’ve seen to this concept is the many ships of Iain M Banks’ “Culture” series, and perhaps to a lesser extent “The Ship Who Sang” by Anne McCaffrey.
The name of the starship in my own work, published here on this website, is a reference to an epic poem and its subject of extreme time dilation, although time dilation is not really a factor in my story. But, the time it takes light from distant stars to reach Earth is a factor.
I’m unfamiliar with Murakami, but that sounds like an interesting concept!
I AM familiar with John Le Carre, however. While not so much recently, I have at times been a voracious consumer of classic espionage thrillers, with my favorites probably being Olen Steinhauer and Len Deighton, but I’ve enjoyed many others as well. I think a writer should absolutely read outside of his or her chosen genre!