The Outrigger Diaspora

Paul Raven @ 04-10-2011

I’ve filed the 100 Year Starship symposium in the steadily swelling folder of “events that make me wish I was located in the States, or that telepresence was a bit more stable and functional”. Athena Andreadis was one of the many speakers, and I’ll look forward to the full version of her talk appearing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, an organisation I should really get round to joining. In the meantime, here’s a few snippets from her post-mortem blog post that sum up why I pay attention to her:

… there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations.  This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF.

Yes, this. Look, I’m as much a sucker for the macroarchitectural fantasies of high space opera as the next person, but it only takes a cursory knowledge of the space programs we’ve had so far to know that the universe beyond the gravity well is, to quote Phil Anselmo, fucking hostile. And that’s before you even start thinking about agressive (or simply defensive) alien civilisations or dangerous new biomes inimical to human life-chemistry. We live on a merest mere speck in an ocean of infinite breadth and depth; to set out without a respectful fear of that infinitude is pure hubris.

Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship.  It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success.  Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably.

This is pretty much how I’m looking at transhumanism these days; long-range goals are great things to have, but they’re no substitute for realistic and achievable steps along the route of progress. And I’m not sure that we can simply focus on the technological side of things and assume that great strides there will solve our social and economic issues as a by-product; technology and science cannot be discretely set aside from our other projects. The out-bound diaspora of humanity is dependent on its surviving the next handful of decades, and most of the hazards attendant on that timeframe will not be solved by technology alone.

In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet.  Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.

I read the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic earlier this year, and it struck me then that the planet is already spattered with Zones. But they’re Zones where the Other that left them is Us: they’re the squatter shanties and favelas that have accreted around big cities in the developing world, where the people pick over the stuff we’ve just tossed aside in favour of the next new shiny, where they make do with the cast-offs of yesteryear, and where the street finds new uses for things. A world full of aliens biologically identical to us: plenty of opportunities to practice – if we’re willing – the diplomacy skill-sets we’ll need, should we ever happen across another species on the infinite ocean.

 

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3 Responses to “The Outrigger Diaspora”

  1. Brian Dunbar says:

    Yes, this. Look, I’m as much a sucker for the macroarchitectural fantasies of high space opera as the next person, but it only takes a cursory knowledge of the space programs we’ve had so far to know that the universe beyond the gravity well is, to quote Phil Anselmo, fucking hostile.

    I get that. But I don’t think it’s a show stopper.

    It better not be: long term the Earth is, to paraphrase Phil Anselmo, fucking hostile. Environmental changes, meteors, volcano eruptions – all deadly. Some of the hazards are civilization killers, some can kill all of us dead.

    Put it this way: take the first humans, living in Africa. Drop them in Wisconsin, in November. They’ve got to contend with snow, freezing rain, temperatures that rarely climb above freezing, prey animals die off, vegetation is dormant until spring. By March they’ll be dead.

    But people adjusted to the deadly weather, moving into it gradually. Finally the Europeans showed up and brought central heating and you could have a civilization up here.

    It’s deadly Out There but we’ll get used to it. Adapt. Our nth great-grandchildren may wonder what the big fuss was.

    Not arguing with you – more thinking aloud.

  2. Athena Andreadis says:

    Paul, thank you for the signal boost! And if I came back with one firm conclusion from this gathering, it is that we will go nowhere unless we really, really question our assumptions — and we’d better do it soon, because the window is closing fast.

    Brian, the Earth was hostile to humans before our technology made us (think we are) independent of context. We are here by sheer luck — the rest of our cousins didn’t make it and we’re down from about half a dozen hominin to a single sample.

    Also, we evolved on this planet, which means we’re equipped to live on it, as long as we’re not overtaken by a fast shift (or overspecialize for a niche that vanishes). Space is deadlier by several orders more magnitude, just like the Earth’s oceans. Have we settled those, even with our Kardashev I tech?

  3. Athena Andreadis says:

    P.S. I also love the expression Outrigger Diaspora (*happy sigh*).