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.