Living in Space
In a three-part discussion, Norman Sillito, Mark Koerner and Don Webb examine from the viewpoint of both science fiction and reality what it means to live in space.
The Society of Generation Ships
by Mark Koerner
I think the answer to your key question — why does every generation ship end up degenerating? — is that writers make the assumption that a healthy society needs a critical mass of human beings. When numbers fall below that (unstated) critical mass, bad things happen.
On an individual level, it is certainly true that most people need to be around other people. There is an extensive literature on prisoners kept in solitary confinement for weeks and months; the effects are clearly harmful. It may be, however, that the presence of a small- to medium-sized group — say, up to 500 people — is enough to stave off psychological problems. And if that is enough, that may be all one needs to keep society from degenerating.
However, science-fiction writers, are skeptical. So am I. Whether they see the problem as “not enough people” or “not enough new ideas and attitudes” — as a small group of people will have only a limited number of ideas and attitudes — they apparently believe that when a community gets too small, it becomes somehow fossilized, somehow unable to change or assimilate new ideas.
There is no proof of this, of course, but people who live in small, isolated communities do have a reputation for being “close-minded,” “small-minded,” and even “petty.” Even people who grow up in larger cities are frequently regarded as provincial and “hard to talk to” if they have never been anywhere else. And, in my own experience, such people do seem to think differently from people who have traveled to places where they met different kinds of people.
It seems reasonable to think that the more constricted the environment, the more “provincialized” people would become. Ultimately, they might come to think that their own immediate environment is the only interesting environment in the world or universe.
Another assumption writers appear to make is that people need work, if not to make a living, then to feel useful to themselves and others. If they don’t have work of some kind, the implicit theory goes, they will somehow cease to engage with an important part of reality and be the worse for it.
Loosely speaking, this is what “long-term unemployment” means. A generation ship need not be totally automated, of course, but many of them are, which only recreates the long-term unemployment problem.
If many generation ships “hang together in space like separate countries,” that would probably work. But it would be very expensive. As I only half-jokingly said in my article, building one generation ship might well bankrupt a medium-sized country.
As for building generation ships to stay in space forever: no, I don’t think that’s in the cards. It would take too much time and energy — and take too many human lives over the long run — for a society to get the resources it needs. Ultimately, too, the ship would wear out, practically speaking. It is safer, easier, and much more convenient to live on a planet, even under a dome or underground.
Gerard K. O’Neill’s orbiting space habitats are not the same as generation ships, as O’Neill would have been the first to admit. O’Neill’s space colonists would be in constant contact with Earth — close enough to ship people, supplies, and products back and forth at a few hours’ notice. Presumably, there would also be a frequent intermixing of people between the home planet and the space colonies. All very different from a generation ship.
Boredom is a universal but poorly understood phenomenon, in my view. Life in a generation ship might be boring to some but not to others. To children, a generation ship might be a great place to explore, comparable to a giant haunted house or a whole neighborhood here on Earth.
Extending the analogy, don’t you think kids would eventually outgrow their curiosity for the ship and want to find a new place to explore? Isn’t that part of the reason why young adults leave their hometowns and settle elsewhere?
The problem is that in a generation ship, there is no “elsewhere.” The ship is all there is. This problem might be addressed by video/radio contact with Earth, but my own view is that this solution is only a partial solution. One can only watch movies or talk on the phone for so long before getting restless.
Just as a matter of science-fiction history: writers were not inspired by O’Neill’s space colonies, which came much later. Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years,” the first known generation-ship short story, was published in Amazing Science Fiction in 1940, when Gerard K. O’Neill was 13 years old. O’Neill’s plan for space colonies was outlined in 1977, in The High Frontier.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Koerner