The Dim-Post

July 30, 2015

Notes on Seveneves and Aurora

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:44 am

(Warning: contains huge spoilers for both novels discussed).

The last two books I read happen to be sci-fi novels: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. They’re two of the big names in contemporary science fiction, and they happen to have written books dealing with similar themes. And they both have similar problems.

First, the theme. A lot of science fiction is set in space and in it it’s a given that humans will invent space colonies and interstellar space ships and go and live on other planets. When people think about an optimistic distant future for humanity that’s what a lot of us imagine. ‘We were born here,’ Michael Caine croaks in Interstellar, ‘We were not meant to die here.’ So Robinson and Stephenson ask whether that future is remotely likely. What will living in space actually be like?

The answer both of them come up with is: really, really shitty. We’re biological organisms. We evolved on earth over billions of years; we’re tailor-made for terrestrial life, and space is just amazingly hostile to us. It’s a lethally cold vacuum saturated with deadly radiation. The occupants of Stephenson’s ‘Cloud Ark’ in Seveneaves – built because a disaster renders the Earth uninhabitable – find themselves contemplating a perpetual future in which they and their descendents live on a low-calorie diet of photosynthesized algae, have no privacy and a low life expectancy due to the phenomenal cancer rate, micro-meteor strikes and chronic mental illness from the stress of orbital life.

Things are less immediately doomed in Robinson’s Aurora. It’s set five hundred years in the future, and the characters are on a large, far more comfortable starship than Stephenson’s doomed cloud, travelling to a solar system forty light years from Earth to colonise a planet there that has liquid water and breathable air. The journey takes about two-hundred years, so we’re several generations in when the story begins.

Robinson does a couple of interesting things. Firstly, he points out the basic flaw of the ‘intergenerational starship’, which is a beloved sci-fi trope. Starships are closed systems, he explains, and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy will always increase inside a closed system. How’s that gonna work over hundreds of years? Very badly. The soil pathogens on the starship mutate, wiping out crops and leading to famine. Cosmic rays from space damage the ship’s quantum computer. Vital elements bind to plastics in ways that are hard to recycle, leading to resource depletion. Which leads to scarcity. Which leads to violent conflict. Starships ain’t gonna work, Robinson reckons.

The second very interesting thing he does is attempt to answer the Fermi paradox. Given that the universe is old and vast and compatible with life, why isn’t it filled with extra-terrestrial life? Why aren’t there loads of civilizations out there colonising the universe and coming into contact with us?

Because, Robinson says, planets capable of sustaining life will teem with microorganisms that will be deadly to alien visitors.There probably are other intelligent civilisations in our galaxy, the characters decide, but they aren’t reaching us via starships because of entropy and they aren’t colonising because of biology. They’re stuck on their home planets, just like us – only we haven’t figured that out yet.

So that’s an interesting moment in sci-fi. Two of its top writers are basically calling it for space. Sort of. Neal Stephenson is a self-confessed space-nerd. He doesn’t want his book to show that we have no future in outer space, so he does a very odd thing. Two-thirds of the way through his up-to-then very exciting, very bleak novel in which the deadliness of space brings the entire human race to the brink of existence and our extinction is inevitable, he flashes forwards five thousand years to a future in which billions of humans are all living happily in space, somehow.

This end sequence is terrible. Often plot-less, hard to conceptualise, filled with stupid neologisms – Stephenson’s worst habit – and with no proper ending. But my core problem is that I just didn’t believe any of it happened. The first six hundred pages set out with devastating clarity that everything in the last three hundred was impossible.

Robinson doesn’t know how to finish his book either. He gets his starship back to Earth with some of its inhabitants alive and should probably – like Gravity – stop at the moment of landing. They made it! Instead there’s a hundred extra pages of nothing much. He wants to say something else, I think, about how we should enjoy life here; so he ends with a very boring scene in which the main character goes swimming at the beach. For about twenty pages. But he’s already made the same point more effectively by showing us space explorers starving to death or being blasted out of airlocks or dying of alien pathogens. We get it. Space is awful. Earth is nice. We’re stuck here. We should look after it.


  1. i have always thought John Varley had the closest to reality idea of space colonisation. We can’t do it – it isn’t for us. But our genetically altered descendants might.

    The generation ship, space station, sort of idea of space colonisation requires us to be able live indefinitely in space. We can’t do that. Long before we would take thousands of years to do anything we will have the ability to reform ourselves into something that can.
    and once you’re adapted to living in space, why bother with gravity wells? You have more resources more easily obtained.

    The only way humans will live on a extrasolar planets surface is if we fire probes at them that tens of thousands of years later can use protected ingredients to manufacture us on arrival. We aren’t going in person.
    Unless we get FTL, and that’s probably impossible.

    That complaint about thermodynamics is wrong though – a generation ship won’t be a closed environment – it’ll take a trailer of material to replenish consumables.

    Comment by Fentex — July 30, 2015 @ 11:44 am

  2. Have you read “Colony” by Rob Grant (of Red Dwarf fame)? It was released in 2000, and it’s a more comedic take on the “doomed generation ship” idea. Every character is an idiot or an unlikeable prick (which is basically the point), and it pretty much resorts to magic in the end to sort everything out, but it’s an interesting take on the idea.

    Comment by Josh — July 30, 2015 @ 11:49 am

  3. Sad to hear that about Seveneves, it’s one of Stephenson’s I’ve not read. I don’t think he’s ever repeated the quality of Snow Crash, although my favourite work of his is still his (non-scifi) Cryptonomicon. You’re the second person this week on social media to bring up Kim Stanley Robinson: the only book of his I ever tried in the early 90’s was Red Mars (the first of his Mars Trilogy), but it was at a busy period of my life (getting a business going) and at that stage I found it too dry and ‘long’ – tedious, in fact. Always thought I should get back to him though.

    Comment by Mark Hubbard (@MarkHubbard33) — July 30, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

  4. Aurora was terrific up until the last chapter. Very, very bleak in places, but still terrific. And then – surfing! Couldn’t he have ended it the other way, with a scientific conference?

    Comment by idiotsavant23 — July 30, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

  5. For Seveneves, did anyone else want to reach into the book and whack the president of the US as soon as she arrived in orbit? She was pretty much responsible for so many deaths because she refused to not be in charge, despite not understanding the problems they were trying to resolve. I reached the start of the future scenes and then couldn’t bring myself to read any more. I’ll probably finish it later.

    As an exercise in all the things you need to think about to inhabit in orbit, it was quite an interesting first half of the book.

    My favourite recent Stephenson is probably REAMDE. It actually had an ending!

    Comment by Marco K — July 30, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

  6. My favorite Stephenson’s are (a) Cryptonomicon, even though there’s no ending and (b) Anathem, which has a hell of an ending and would be my favorite sci-fi novel of all time, if Stephenson hadn’t filled it with literally hundreds and possibly thousands of stupid neologisms, so you have no idea what the characters are talking about without flipping to the glossary at the back every few words.

    Comment by danylmc — July 30, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

  7. We might be stuck with Coronation Street but I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily stuck here.

    Comment by Ross — July 30, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

  8. I was loving Anathem until the divergence stuff late in the book – ugh, that plot device just sucks all the fun out of SF for me.

    Also is a really fun takedown of the book.

    Comment by xy — July 30, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

  9. It doesn’t really solve the Fermi paradox though. Even if the barriers for biological colonisation are insurmountable, you would expect a civilisation to be sending out self-replicating exploration probes (Von Neumann probes) which would reproduce exponentially and be spread throughout the galaxy in a few million years (which is nothing compared to the age of the galaxy). So where are they all?

    Comment by Marcus Jansen — July 30, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

  10. Get with the program, Ross.

    Mars One is a scam that literally everyone in the scientific community has identified as some combination of fraudulent, negligent, and ignorant.

    Comment by Phil — July 30, 2015 @ 4:13 pm

  11. We get it. Space is awful. Earth is nice. We’re stuck here. We should look after it.

    Congratulations! Now you’re thinking like an economist.

    Comment by Phil — July 30, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

  12. It doesn’t answer the Fermi Paradox, though. The Fermi Paradox was devised, not due to the fact that we haven’t been visited by aliens, but by the fact we can’t see them. If there was another earth out there in the galaxy somewhere, we would have seen it years ago, because it would be broadcasting radio waves so intensely. If the galaxy was full of other advanced but planetbound civilisations, we’d be able to perceive them even if we couldn’t reach them or they us.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — July 30, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

  13. I doubt that even Fermi, today, would really worry about his paradox.

    When we’re looking for alien civilizations, we’re implicitly only looking for those civilizations that have evolved like us, because we cannot measure the presence of technologies that we have not yet conceived here on earth. Additionally, we’re really only looking for civilizations that have evolved like us, at the same time as us.

    Comment by Phil — July 30, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

  14. I just got REAMDE out of the library, cos someone recommended Stephenson to me. 1000 pages, is it worth it? I’m a China Mieville fan and am hanging out for whatever he writes next.
    As for the flaws in the concept of humans surviving in space, um…… it’s called “fiction”.

    Comment by Corokia — July 30, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

  15. Apropos Anathem: I feel gauche now admitting that I liked it. But I did; found it gripping, and enjoyed ignoring the Dictionary and inferring meaning from context. I also enjoyed reading that deliciously vicious takedown linked above, but it is in fact wrong on a number of points, probably because its author was so infuriated.

    I suppose most of all, I enjoyed the fantasy of retreating into a cloister where one could just do manual work and think, with a bunch of other smart people who like arguing, and without any tedious religion going on.

    I expect Anathem is most enjoyable for people whose maths and physics is weak, like me.

    By contrast, if you read Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, dude really really really gets the music stuff right to an astonishing degree. Or to stay with scifi, if you read Mieville’s Embassytown, I don’t think it’s doing violence to linguistics.

    Comment by Stephen Judd — July 30, 2015 @ 8:19 pm

  16. We get it. Space is awful. Earth is nice. We’re stuck here. We should look after it.

    Best not read Paolo Bacigalupi’s latest book, then. Or any of his books, for that matter.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — July 30, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

  17. If there was another earth out there in the galaxy somewhere, we would have seen it years ago, because it would be broadcasting radio waves so intensely.

    No we wouldn’t. First we’re not that loud compared to other radio sources in the universe, but more importantly broadcasting loudly in all directions is wasteful. Earth doesn’t do it as much as we used to as we use better, quieter, more directed radios and what we broadcast as we switch to digital where the more patterns you can deduce indicates less efficient band width our signals are becoming increasingly random and meaningless to look at.

    In fifty years we will be broadcasting quietly signals we wouldn’t have recognized fifty years ago as meaningful.

    Comment by Fentex — July 30, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

  18. @Corokia: I won’t say Stephenson is worse than Mieville, but they are very different writers.

    @Fentex: We’re loud enough that if there were a mirror earth out there that was reasonably close (e.g. in the same Galaxy) we’d be able to see it. And even if the high-broadcating period of planetary development is a brief one, there only has to be one out there. While it’s true that this involves the assumption that our path of technology development is reasonably typical, so does Stephenson/Danyl’s “answer” to the paradox. I’m not saying there is no answer to the paradox, there just isn’t one that assumes that the earth is typical.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — July 31, 2015 @ 6:59 am

  19. The Fermi Paradox — Where Are All The Aliens?

    Comment by Phil — July 31, 2015 @ 9:17 am

  20. I loved Cryptonomicom as well. If you liked that (prequelish) Baroque Cycle is well worth a read.

    Comment by Gregor W — July 31, 2015 @ 10:14 am

  21. You could add Charles Stross to your list of top scifi writers who realise that interstellar travel just won’t work, and he’s been saying it for years. His blog posts “The myth of the starship” and “The High Frontier, Redux” pretty much catalogue the insuperable problem.

    Corokia, if I were to recommend one Stephenson novel to a new reader I’d go with Snow Crash, much shorter but contains all the elements of his style (great set-ups, a high regard for the technically skilled, lots of info dumps on various technologies, fast-moving plots that devolve into weak endings). Like danyl I’d rank Anathem and Cryptonomicon, as his best works, but they’re both big undertakings for someone trying him out for the first time. I only just finished Reamde and it was okay I guess.

    Never got into Kim Stanley Robinson, I had the same experience as Mark above.

    Comment by Conrad — July 31, 2015 @ 11:37 am

  22. These are the last two books I’ve finished as well, and came to similar conclusions: In fact, I thought Stephenson was channeling Robinson in the doggedly long technical hard SF parts of the book.

    its part of the role of SF to think about various contemporary conundra [1] and to take all the blind optimism of interstellar manifest destiny [2] away so we actually value what we have in the here and now is a good thing. I’m thinking of Le Guin, Atwood, and when it comes to killer robots, Asimov is a necessarily start [3].

    So my problem isn’t the theme or the message. Its the fact that these books need a BLOODY GOOD EDIT. Both of these authors have got into a JK Rowling how-dare-they-cut-out-a-word space, perhaps for the best intentions. Robinson has always been a wordy bugger, but so many pages of description that really sounds like kerbal space program fanfic would put off most casual readers.

    Don’t get me wrong: i love these guys, and I’ll devour whatever comes next. I just hope its a bit … tighter.

    [1] is that a word?
    [2] as the reviewer at Kirkus put it
    [3] Even though his characters are awfully two dimensional.

    Comment by Anton Angelo — July 31, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

  23. No one knows what physical and biological technology humanity will develop in the coming centuries. So no one, least of all fiction authors, has the faintest idea if it turns out to be stupendously difficult or really quite simple to reach other habitable planets or live happily in space. Claiming anything else is just showing the tint of your political spectacles and Danyl’s are a pretty deep green.

    Comment by Jerry — August 1, 2015 @ 12:40 am

  24. So that’s an interesting moment in sci-fi. Two of its top writers are basically calling it for space …… Space is awful. Earth is nice. We’re stuck here. We should look after it.

    Well that sucks on so many psychological levels. One of the things about SF that was so great was that it enabled me to be step into a wonderful, open future, away from my everyday child and teenage reality. And does this mean that Robinson has given up on terraforming Mars, or is this just about the futility of interstellar flight?

    In that respect I’m going to fall back upon a the SF writer that first took hold of my imagination, and still has my respect in spite of his godawful female characters, poorly drawn characters in general, clunking dialog, etc: Arthur C Clarke. Because it seems to me that three of Clarke’s books go to the heart of all of the above.

    First up is the Clarke book that is generally regarded as one of the best SF books ever and perhaps his best- Childhoods End.

    I hated it.

    Humanity is doomed because it finally produces a generation that is effectively a different species, one that will actually go all non-corporeal and disappear into The OverMind, or whatever the hell it was called. All the children end up living on planet earth by themselves while even their facial features melt into a blank common expression: the Ultimate Collective, off to join the big collective in the sky. They also take a moment to just wipe out all the plants and creatures sharing the planet with them because, hey – Superior Mind. This is all aided by a patronising alien race that is somehow unable to join in the same walk of life and is all sad about it. Instead they run around the universe helping the OverMind to get species through the spirit sequence – which means putting a stop to the species exploring the universe.

    Fuck that.

    Then there’s one of his lessor known works: The City and The Stars. This story is about a bunch of humans living in what seems like the perfect city. It’s completely closed off from the rest of earth, which is supposedly largely a wasteland due to some war or other, and the humans live multiple lives: their bodies created anew every few decades or centuries with past memories intact, being raised as children by assigned “parents”, living a life and then walking back into the central computer’s eternal flame.

    However it turns out that the computer is designed to throw a random bit every few millennia and produce a completely new human, with no memories. As a result this person starts doing all the stuff that the good little perfect citizens are not supposed to do – like exploring and trying to get to the outside world, rather than sticking with his friends totally immersive 4D games. He pisses his friends off by always trying to break through the programmed limits and crashing their games, which are supposed to suffice: after all, they’re stuck in only one city and need to take care of it. Apart from sex, food and drugs what else are they going to do with their endless, numbered days.

    Suffice to say that when this guy does reach the outside world and tries to bring the rest along they all try to run back into the flame to hide for a thousand years or until things return to normal – only to find that the computer won’t let them, which leads some to suspect that the random bit was not so random after all.

    Finally there’s the one where Clarke tried to answer the objections raised to interstellar travel: Rendezvous With Rama, possibly his best selling book. An alien Space Ark turns up in our solar system – but it has started out completely clean and empty, with no attempt to have living creatures onboard. Once it hits our solar system it “wakes up”, and all sorts of creatures begin to be created out of the vessel’s central sea of soup – creatures that amount to organic batteries wired up to bodies and brains (“biots”) programmed to check out the ship. Presumably the Ramans’ get created the same way, but we never find out as the ship swings past the sun, picking up some of that good old free matter-energy from the corona to replenish the losses from millions of years in space, before buggering off to parts unknown.

    The book also starts with a largish meteor crashing into Venice and generally screwing up Italy – on Sep 11, 2077. In your face, Nostradamus!

    I’ll stick with the latter hope, thanks. I can enjoy the SF of dystopian futures, stuff like Blade Runner, Gattaca, or Ex Machina – but the idea of all of us just sitting around the earth navel gazing for eternity or hoping we’ll evolve into some sort of spirits that might roam the universe at will, is altogether too depressing.

    Comment by tom hunter — August 1, 2015 @ 11:13 am

  25. >Don’t get me wrong: i love these guys, and I’ll devour whatever comes next. I just hope its a bit … tighter.

    Totally. Of Stephen Donaldson’s Gap series, I only like the first one: The Real Story. It’s short, and so much better for it. One of the best things about Le Guin is that she writes smaller sized novels. Asimov was the same. As the Foundation and robot novels got further and further in, there was less and less of interest in them. But by then you’re hooked.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 2, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

  26. It’s interesting, but I can’t say I buy the entropy angle as an argument against starships. The same argument could apply to our whole planet, which is just a big thing floating in the void. Clearly it doesn’t just decay to the end of life just from the passage of time alone. At least not until the energy coming into the system from the sun starts to peter out. So long as a starship had sufficient energy, and an ability to get more when needed, and more raw materials, then entropy is no more of a problem than it is for life on earth. In a universe that is mostly full of stars, and what isn’t stars is mostly stardust floating around full of raw materials, I don’t think that entropy is insoluble before the actual Big Freeze. Starships only need to be able to make it across the interstellar gaps. These aren’t so big, as you get closer to the galactic center, either. We don’t have to spend all of time out here in some unfashionable spiral arm,

    But space is a bit tapped out in SciFi mainly because of being superseded by computers as the progressive direction. The singularity just seems far, far more likely, as does transcending physical form. We’ve already done it with most of our space exploration. It probably will be probes that get furthest, fastest. Humanity’s representative will be HAL 9000, not Dave. What will we be representing to? Who knows?

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 2, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

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