(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.