Charlie Stross: we’re probably never going to build starships

an unlikely spaceshipHere’s a second piece of punditry for your Monday morning, this time from the inimitable Charlie Stross. He’s been poking the traditional sf mythology of the starship with a sharp stick over the last few months, and the end result is a suggestion that – as far as realistic speculation about the future is concerned – we need to recognise the starship as the nautical metaphor it really is, and face up to the fact that the only plausible way we could reach other stars is through tiny “starwisp” probes made of memory diamond substrate. [image by Brenda Starr]

Again, the whole piece is well worth your time (if only to see that Stross has sat down and run the numbers on it), but here’s the coup de grace:

… yes, I think human interstellar exploration (and yes, maybe even colonization) might be possible, after a fashion. But to get there, we’re going to have to master at least two entire technological fields that don’t yet exist, even before we start trying to blast compact disc sized machines up to relativistic velocities. And that’s without considering the difficulty of how to cram an industrial infrastructure capable of building more of itself, of a machine capable of surviving in deep space — the equivalent of those 300,000 NASA technicians and engineers — into the aforementioned CD-sized machine …

If we succeed in doing it, it’s going to look nothing like the Starship Enterprise. Or even New Horizons. The whole reference frame we instinctively assume when we hear the word “ship” is just so wrong it’s beyond wrong-ness: it’s on a par with Baron Munchausen’s lunar exploits as seen in light of the Apollo Program. We need a new handle for discussing and analyzing such a venture. And the sooner we consign the “-ship” suffix to the dustbin of failed ideas, the better.

If Stross is right, then the only sf writer of my experience who has written truly plausible descriptions of post-human exploration beyond the solar system is Greg Egan… can anyone suggest any others?

But just in case Stross has put you on a downer with his debunking, here’s a potential antidote in the form of scientists speculating about using the Hawking radiation from small man-made black holes as a power source for interstellar propulsion. One of them even goes so far as to suggest that the sweet-spot in the physics that informs the theory implies that we live in “a universe optimised for building starships”…

7 thoughts on “Charlie Stross: we’re probably never going to build starships”

  1. The Orphans of Earth trilogy, by Sean Williams & Shane Dix, in which “engrams”, recorded personalities, are sent out on space probes, and eventually end up settling a number of worlds and meeting mysterious aliens.

  2. Charlie Stross has got some useful points but he’s having a failure of imagination.

    – into the aforementioned CD-sized machine
    – a machine capable of surviving in deep space
    The problem is that he assumes that we must travel at relativistic velocities. But if we choose to go considerably slower then we don’t have to be down to CD-sized machines and we don’t need to worry about relativistic dust particles. Cosmic radiation is much reduced in interstellar space than near our sun. We have superconductors requiring minimal energy input which would need no cooling beyond Jupiter with strengths tens of thousands greater than the Earth’s magnetic field. Pioneer 10 still functions after 37 years. If designed with a longer-term power source we could design a craft that could power up after hundreds of years of being in the deep freeze.

    – industrial infrastructure capable of building more of itself
    – the equivalent of those 300,000 NASA technicians and engineers
    200 years of more progress should be enough for us to produce self-replicating nanotechnology and universal assemblers. Provide those with the blueprints for industrial machines of increasing size and various purposes and they should be able to produce an industrial base.

    As for the “the equivalent of those 300,000 NASA technicians and engineers” the key here is not to produce a system with that much ability but to produce that many people and then provide them with aerospace education. The information for the education itself can be stored in very little mass. 10^20 atoms should be more than enough. 100 million gigaatoms = 1 milligram +/1.

    The challenge is to produce the people. But, surprisingly we’re not actually that from from being able to do this. See: (11th paragraph).

    For a more extensive write-up of such a mission see:

  3. I’m nearing the end of Vast by Linda Nagata – not exactly CD-sized wisps, but the basic principle is there, with multicentury travel times at tiny percentages of lightspeed of and self-regenerating and selfaware nano-based ships that can backup/reconstruct the crew as needed. Recommended, though with a caveat – I have not reached the very end, so that may still be a letdown. 🙂

  4. Paul, Williams might not have been published in the UK until his (solo) Astropolis trilogy, but his earlier works with Dix are pretty good. From what I remember, Echoes of Earth, Orphans of Earth and Heirs of Earth all suffered a little because it was populated by multiple copies of the same small cast. Definitely worth trying, I think.

  5. I have run the numbers. An Antimatter craft could do 50% c with very believable technology. The hard part is the antimatter that may have a efficiency bound well below .001% in energy. But even pretty low figures for that –a 1000km plant inside the orbit of mercury could generate a enough antimatter to… well matter.

    But i could not agree more on the “ship” thing. Its like this with just plain LEO access. Everyone seems to think it should look like a plane (space planes). Well trains don’t look like ships or planes. Why do space access vehicles need to look like planes?

  6. John, Charlie is most definitely not having a failure of imagination. I’d suggest going through the last few posts on his blog (and, time permitting, delve into the enormous amount of comments) where he explores each avenue of potential interstellar travel, including giant generation ships moving very slowly. There is quite a number of (sometimes counterintuitive) problems that appear there, not the least of which is stability of human societies on millenial timescales required for interstellar voyages.

    Also, building a human from a sperm and egg is quite feasible on earth, where we are immersed in a “soup” of microbes and the rest of the biosphere required to produce a complete human. But building one from a fertilized egg and basic nutrients in a sterile environment equals not building one at all (just count the tiny critters happily keeping your gut working properly and then expand that number across the entire human body).

    Also, much of general “handwavium” such as antimatter (where both production and storage were huge impracticalities) has been thoroughly shot down, especially in the comments.

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