Monday, November 30, 2009

Thoughts On Generation Ship Societies

This entry is an informal response of sorts to a blog written by Charles Stross, which you can find HERE. Not that I think he'll read this, but I thought this might be something people reading the OV blog here might find interesting. I also touched upon this subject in one of the first articles I did for OV, Generations Ships.

In the original article, Stross postulates the difficulty in designing a society that could be stable enough to last through the centuries or millennia of the voyage. I think he was approaching the problem from the wrong angle.

You simply can't build a completely stable human society. Human history has proven that any institution established either mutates profoundly, dies off, or is absorbed by a newer one as the decades and centuries slip by. Human societies cannot be stable for long periods of time, its just not in our nature. Human culture is ultimately dynamic, not static, and that seems to be built right into our base psychology, if not our DNA.

Rather, you have to assume the human society on a generation ship is going to go through numerous upheavals and changes throughout its voyage. Its an inevitability. In fact, I'd even go so far to say that IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT THE ORIGINATING GOVERNMENT OR SOCIETY IS. Its not going to last in recognizable form for more than a small fraction of any truly long-term voyage.

Realistically, the originating society on a gen ship will just be the builder society in microcosm. If the US built one tomorrow, the society would be the current US society in miniature. If China built one, it would be a mini-China, and so on. Its what the people starting the voyage would be most comfortable with, and imposing something radically different would lead to potentially a lot of trouble early on.

In fact, it seems an exercise in hubris by the designers, in assuming the generation ship crew will somehow be too stupid or inflexible to handle their own affairs, to the point that the builders have to impose excessively rigid societal restraints. It is true that a series of poor political decisions could have potentially disastrous effects on the environment or operation of the ship, but the same can be said of just about any government and its environs on Earth as well. Rather, we're just going to have to assume that the crew will adapt and grow to their environment on board in their own way, as our own societies have adapted and grown in unique ways to the world around us.

Instead of trying to impose rigid societal restraints that will just break down anyway, you need to provide the evolving society with one or more safety valves that will allow them to resolve conflicts with minimal threat to the ship as a whole. I think one of the most valuable of these would be living space.

Given the technology level needed to build a gen ship (which I estimate may come online at least 50 years from now, or at Tech Level 13 on the OV scale) how many crew do you really need to maintain it, given future advances in automata and AI? Probably not that many. So you leave most of the habitable space in your gen ship uninhabited; start with a small population, just big enough to ensure healthy genetic diversity, say a few hundred to a thousand. Concentrate them in one small town, and leave the rest of the habitat fallow. Depending on the size and design of the generations ship(Stross quotes an O'Neill-style hollowed asteroid design; it could also have many different levels or separate habitats), that could be from a few to maybe hundreds of square kilometers.

Over the course of the voyage, the crew will expand and 'colonize' the rest of the ship, giving them an added endeavor they can concentrate their energy on. Plus, when schisms and conflicts inevitably arise, the bereaved section of the society can just leave for 'new lands' elsewhere in the ship, giving them a hopefully better alternative to outright conflict.

The amount of fallow space you need to help mitigate potential conflicts would depend on a lot of variables, such as the size and design of the ship, the length of the voyage, and the size of the seed population. If planned out properly, the ship will reach its destination before all the internal space is used up. I do think this approach is the best way for a crew to mitigate the pitfalls of the inevitable ebb and flow of human societies on board a generation ship over the centuries.


rixshep said...

Good article! I always appreciate well thought out ideas regarding what it will take to get us to the stars.

Now, here is something for you to think about. I don't put a lot of stock in alien abduction stories, but I HAVE noticed one recurrent theme, and a possible explanation.

Often, descriptions of any mother ship where the abductees get taken to, seems to be in great disrepair, or other indications of a breakdown of their equipment, and even filthy as if not kept up properly for a long period of time.

If one assumes the alien craft (if it actually real, and not a hoax or the result of fevered imagination) was a generational ship, and the society broke down, including loss of knowledge of some of the craft's workings, this would nicely explain the state of the ship.

Just a stray thought of mine. It came to me, while watching the movie, "Fire in the Sky", which details a supposed alien abduction. I found it interesting that the state of the ship, if one assumed a dystopian generation ship, actually gave credence to the victim's claims.

Again, thanks for the article!


Lobo7922 said...

Very interesting post, but I wonder if the concept of generation ships is still valid.

Perhaps in the future would be better to just send AI's sort of Bracewell probes. Then the robots could manufacture bodies and upload our minds in those robots.

Of course the technology for that doesn't exist yet, but the technology to build generations ships doesn't exist either :D

Zot said...

Great article (and website!). While rigid societal constraints could never work, there crew would likely be a military-like chain of command (and the discipline that comes with it) for the people directly responsible for running the ship, especially if the crew is taken from the ranks of the military as they are now. Operating any very large vehicle requires coordination and teamwork and everyone has their duty. Cross training would be very important to deal with casualties or fatalities. Some aspects of life on board a generation ship could be a lot like life on a Navy warship.

I personally lean more toward the sleeper ship concept, not only because a stable and conflict-free human society is impossible (I believe the right word for this is 'Utopia'), but also because there is no way to make a completely closed loop where everything gets recycled. Parts wear out, spares will run out unless the generation ship has some kind of factory and even then that would require recycled materials and that brings us back to the point that no system is totally closed.

By the same token, machinery cannot run forever by itself so some crew might be awake in certain 'shifts.' The recent movie Pandorum explored this concept though it was more about the horror than the spaceflight.

frgough said...

Excellent article. The idea that long-term stable human societies is impossible has been proven incorrect historically. Great Britain has existed as a nation for over a thousand years. Rome existed as a nation for over a thousand years. Constantinople for almost 1500 years.

If by stable, you mean no conflict at all, then yes, it is impossible. If by stable you mean maintaining civilization, culture and education, then history has shown that thousand-year long civilizations are possible.

Lobo7922 said...

Very interesting answer frgough, what do you think made those societies, to last that long? what did they have in common?

Paul Lucas said...

Wow, I wasn't expecting so many responses, I usually just get one or two.

Rixshep: the idea of a central multi-generational 'mothership' in UFO mythology actually goes back quite a few years. That's what the big ship at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was supposed to be. of course, it was quite a bit shinier than what you were proposing.

Lobo7922: While we'll definitely use advanced probes to do a lot of the exploration of space for us, I do think its inevitable that humans will eventually follow--it might not be for a century or much more from now, but I do think we will expand to other worlds. Generation ships in one form or another I think will be one of the primary means of doing so.

Zot: I'm not so sure you would need a military-style crew structure. Its possible to use less rigid command structures, like the kind you have with corporations or private companies, the same you have aboard privately-owned ships. Not that the military-style structure would be a bad choice at all, I'm just saying there are other workable options.

Sleeper ships would be the most preferable type of slow interstellar travel, but a truly reliable means of human suspended animation has yet to be worked out, so they might never become truly feasible.

frgough: i was using your latter, no-conflict definition of 'stable' for a society. And I will say that though institutions can last centuries or even millennia, they always inevitably change profoundly as more time goes by. The people of Constantinople in its heyday in teh Roman Empire would hardly recognize the Instanbul (not Constantinople) of today. the same with the founders of Britain if they were to suddenly find them,selves in the Britain of today. Even our hoariest institutions are in a constant state of flux, when viewed across decades and centuries. So even though a generation ship's crew ill make sure the ship remains operational, the very institutions set up to endure that will also change and transform if given enough time.

Lobo7922 said...

All this responses are comming from Reddit scifi ;)

Paul Lucas said...

Well, that explains it then. guess I should visit Reddit more often...

Lobo7922 said...

Yes, we look forward to your great quality posts :)