Robinson’s latest well-researched novel exposes the fundamental flaws in one of science fiction’s most beloved tropes: the multigenerational space ark traveling at sub–light speed to colonize a planet around a distant star.
In the 26th century, a ship departs our solar system, bound for the Tau Ceti system and carrying 2,000 humans who live within a series of miniecosystems. Nearly 200 years later, the descendants of the original crew are preparing to reach their destination—and it’s none too soon, because the detrimental aspects of living in a closed (but leaking) system without recourse to fresh chemical, biological, and material supplies have begun to multiply. The ship and the biomes within it (including the people living there) are breaking down. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that the planets and satellites of Tau Ceti may not be suitable for colonization. Science fiction from previous decades has nearly always assumed that humanity’s spreading out among the stars was not only possible, it was probable or maybe even inevitable. Current scientific research, as well as prevailing social, political, and economic conditions, makes that seem less sure. Again, most SF imagines we’ll be able to overcome those challenges over the centuries; Robinson (Shaman, 2013, etc.) builds a fairly convincing case that we might not and vividly describes the biological and psychological damage that long-term space travel might cause. Allowing the ship’s artificial intelligence to serve as the novel’s primary omniscient narrator gives Robinson the excuse to deliver a multitude of mini science lectures (which do border on the pedantic at times, a frequent hazard of hard SF). It would have been nice if, among all the detailed explanation, the author had explained why the starship has no formal command structure (no captain, no navigator, no formally titled chief engineer).
A compelling (if depressing) argument against those who still dream of an interstellar manifest destiny.