Why we’ll never actually travel to the stars

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So is that it for the generation ships dream? Will you remember it as a quaint but unworkable sci-fi idea, like Jules Verne sending his fictional explorers to the moon via a giant cannon? Do we have to be content with remaining in our solar system unless a convenient wormhole to another one pops up, the way it did in Interstellar?

Kim Stanley Robinson would like to say yes. His position is that the whole concept is a distraction from the essential task of fixing Earth, our current and only starship. Aurora contains several translations of a single poem about how you have to learn to be less restless and more satisfied with living in one place, but they all boil down to one succinct phrase: “there is no Planet B.”

But then again, as Robinson’s environmental chemist wife Lisa Howland Newell gently chides him when he says this, “never say never. Never say impossible. You don’t know.” 

Perhaps we can colonize other planets in the equivalent of a slow boat to China — a hollowed-out asteroid, with miles of rock providing the best possible cosmic ray protection. Robinson invented this form of transport, which he called Terraria, in another book, 2312. If we could learn to be self-sufficient within Terraria, we could travel to the stars in them, albeit in thousands of years rather than hundreds.

There’s the option of sending ships with DNA printers that could reconstruct human beings at the other end, although that too would require technology we don’t currently have. Or perhaps we’ll locate the perfect planet before we go by sending hundreds of so-called StarChips — tiny, lightweight sensors that could reach Tau Ceti in a matter of decades. Because you can go a lot faster when you don’t have to take humans with you. 

Regardless, there’s one side of space Kim Stanley Robinson can’t kill and doesn’t even want to: the imaginary version. “The galaxy is a great story space in the same way that Middle Earth is a great story space,” he says. “You don’t have to give up on the galaxy. You can tell these stories, and you can do a little handwaving, and you can let your imagination roam — and you can say, look, this story takes place 20,000 years from now. Who the hell knows what we will have done in that time, if we’re still around.”

May you continue to create and consume tales of the galaxy for as long as you draw breath.

Yours in interstellar imagination,

2018

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