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Review: Going Interstellar: Build Starships Now!


Book Review:

Going Interstellar, edited by Jack McDevitt and Les Johnson.

ISBN-13: 9781451637786

Publisher: Baen Books

Publication date: 5/29/2012

Writing a book about humans colonizing space, I’ve recently learned, is a difficult thing; it takes a real effort to imagine humanity flourishing--or at least surviving in something other than a quasi-Medieval, post-Collapse form--some centuries in the future. But while it feels callous to rake aside current conflagrations to examine the embers of a better future, we need only look out our window to see the consequences of acting without thought for the future. One of anthropology’s greatest contributions to humanity is that it has revealed our species’ time depth, that we have not popped up from nowhere, but that we have a past. And if the future is built from the past, and if we are to have a tolerable future—including the colonization of space as an insurance policy for the genus Homo—we better start to think about that future, starting now.

Thinking about distant futures has often been categorized as ‘science fiction’ or the now more-popular ‘speculative fiction.’ Either way, this body of literature has faced twin perils. On the one hand, stories focusing on the technologies of human space colonization feel detached and inhuman because, of course, those technologies are only tools for the larger project of dispersing humanity from Earth. On the other hand, stories focusing on the human domain of space colonization can feel like a cop-out, ignoring the massive technical issues to replay ancient dramas of human relationships. Combining both elements to make a story that feels technically realistic but does not ‘lose’ humanity is a tall order.

Many of the stories in Going Interstellar fill that order. And as a bonus, the volume includes a number of exciting and clarifying popular-science essays on the technologies needed for dispersing humanity far out from Earth. As an anthropologist with an interest in the long-term human future, my focus is on the human dimensions of space colonization (though I am fascinated by the technologies involved; they’re as fundamental to human adaptation as any artifact, including chipped stone tools over 2.5 million years old). It is from that perspective that I review Going Interstellar; what does it have to offer about the human dimensions of adaptation to the universe beyond Earth?


Choices tackles the reality that human colonists arriving at a prospect world after long hibernation might in many ways live, at first, with many 19th century technologies, and that the mindset they bring will have to be amenable to that situation. The story highlights the fact that off-Earth people will not be replicating suburban American life, and that we should be prepared to change our expectations. This story is by Les Johnson, Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.

A Country for Old Men, by science fiction titan Ben Bova, plays out the familiar theme of humanity’s struggle with its own creations, in this case an artificial intelligence that might endanger space colonists due to its entrenched rules of action. The struggle here is as compelling as that of Bowman –vs- HAL in the science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps because artificial intelligences are closer to reality today than interstellar starships, this scenario has a particularly immediate feel.

Lucy, by the volume’s co-editor, the Nebula-winning Jack McDevitt, engagingly suggests that the human predilection for craft, intrigue and even rebellion might well--even if incidentally--be programmed into our coming artificial intelligences, with unexpected results. Some of those results might be beneficial. The idea of artificial intelligences choosing to voyage into deep space on their own is both unsettling and enchanting.

Lesser Beings, by science fiction author Charles E. Gannon, imagines interstellar voyaging in the distant future, when humanity has spread so wide in the universe that Earth is consigned to myth, and voyages to distant star systems and planets is used to exile clans vanquished in endless wars of conquest. The story brings up an interesting case of the deliberate destruction of technology in order to force humanity to bring its wisdom in line with its technical intelligence.

Louise Marley’s Design Flaw reminds us that whatever our technologies, we can’t wait around on Earth for humans to ‘perfect themselves’ before heading for the stars; we are social primates and should expect a degree of proclivity towards social ranking, self-aggrandizement and exploitation in our species. But we also have a capacity for compassion and cooperation, and some of our cultures have encoded these inclinations in important cultural principles of behavior. I am optimistic that our better natures will always prevail, despite occasional darkness, and that the Enlightenment will not easily be put back into a bottle.

Hugo, Nebula and Locus award winner Michael Bishop contributes Twenty Lights to ‘The Land of the Snow’ , imagining the fascinating scenario of a non-Western culture taking to the stars; we find that however different their philosophies might be on the surface, all cultures must grapple with material realities of existence—for example, trajectories and fuel expenditures. An important element of this story is at the end, when an ancient tradition—dispersal of mandala sand—is altered by the Dalai Lama to mark a certain, new occasion. This reminds me that the adaptive power of ritual and symbolism are not restricted to their value as invariant reminders of tradition, but is also found in their mutability, with the act of ritual alteration itself taking on significance because it ‘breaks tradition’ but in a culturally accepted way. Off-Earth colonists will do well to understand what anthropology has learned about what culture is, and how it works by adapting our behavior to new circumstances.

In Sarah A. Hoyt’s The Big Ship and the Wise Old Owl we encounter another familiar trope in space-colonization fiction, that of a titanic interstellar vessel on a multigenerational voyage in which the inhabitants have all but forgotten both their origin—Earth—and their destination. Robert Heinlein’s classic 1941 story of the same theme, Universe, examined how heretics might break through unquestioned tradition of the ship to reveal that it was not its own universe, but actually a giant craft hurtling through the immensity of space…from somewhere, and to somewhere. In The Big Ship and the Wise Old, inhabitants of the starship make similarly startling discoveries, this time because their ancestors predicted such dilemmas and encoded instructions for solving them in nursery rhymes.

Siren Song, by five-time Hugo award winner (and 35-time Hugo nominee!) Mike Resnick sketches out the origin of future myths about space travel, perhaps the more mysterious of which will serve as motivation for future explorers. Currently we have a small stock of matter for building such myths, including the astounding salvaging of Apollo 13, the terrifying last moments of the space shuttle Columbia, and people walking and even sleeping and dreaming on the moon, as related in Al Reinart’s dreamy video documentary on the Apollo missions, For All Mankind (1989). Reading Siren Song reminded me of the Reinart film, and its humanization of the astounding early exploration of space.


Antimatter Starships--the first of two essays by Dr. Gregory Matloff, a former professor of astronomy, NASA consultant and the author of several books on the technologies of space exploration—clearly describes what antimatter is, how it can be manufactured, and why, if it can be harnessed, it has significant prospects for use as propulsion for interstellar craft. While antimatter manufacture and control on the scales needed are beyond our current technology, they hold promise for the enormous energy demands of interstellar flight at high speeds, and remind us of the importance of fundamental research in physics. Dr. Matloff’s second essay, Fusion Starships, clarifies how fusion power works and demonstrates that it is the most likely energy source for the near future of interstellar drives, considering that it produces roughly a million times more energy per unit of fuel than any chemical (e.g. liquid rocket) engine. Future fusion drives could derive thrust from tiny amounts of mass processed at the rear of heavily-shielded interstellar craft—an idea studied for decades, now—or by scooping up interstellar hydrogen to process as one moves forward, like a whale filtering phytoplankton from seawater. Both ideas have their problems, but continue to be studied, with fusion as the common ground. As a side note, this is the first essay I’ve ever read that allows me a clear, visceral understanding of the significance of Einstein’s equation, e=mc^2.

In Solar and Beamed Energy Sails Dr. Les Johnson (Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center) introduces the fascinating concept of solar sails, an idea most of us have heard about or least glimpsed in one science-fiction film or another. The idea is simple; use the solar wind—energy that radiates from the sun, and which pushes on everything it encounters (though comparatively lightly)—to push starships equipped with giant, lightweight sails, just as wind pushes ships on Earth. As usual, there are technical problems to overcome, but the concept is mathematically sound and has even been proved in space with test models, such as the Japanese IKAROS probe that flew past Venus in 2010; several other tests in the works will continue to refine the principle.

Richard Obousy’s Project Icarus provides the history of, and describes, his engagement in a team of researchers designing a manned spacecraft, with modern or near-modern technologies, capable of reaching a number of specific targets beyond our solar system. Obousy, a consulting physicist and associate editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, reveals that this fascinating project is currently reviewing nearly 20 possible fusion drives. Interestingly, Obousy writes “…a quick glance at the Icarus designers reveals an average age of close to thirty. Thus, one hope is that, upon completion of the project, an adept team of competent interstellar engineers will have been created, and that this team will continue to kindle the dream of interstellar flight…”

This statement reminds me of emphasis on long-term futures that will be required to plan, and successfully carry out, the human dispersal from Earth.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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