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Posts Tagged ‘generation ship’

Giving The Far Future The Blues

When writers build worlds, we [are supposed to] give at least a passing thought to water supplies and waste management, and all the handy physical infrastructures that support our characters. We also [are supposed to] spare a thought for social infrastructures like bureaucracies, economies, families, and so on. It’s usually possible to gloss over most of these things – much exposition can be safely left to the readers’ assumptions – and when that’s impossible, it’s usually still wise to attend primarily to the details of the setting that lend context and veracity to the plot.

That said, there is a tendency to retreat the setting to the background to such a degree that characters merely strut their half-hour upon a stage; a practice that leaves many stories reading like the pilot episodes of failed sitcoms.

Then again, there is an equally unfortunate habit – particularly in epic fiction – of elevating the setting to the point that it upstages the players. In examples of this, readers must follow puppets along the three-hour tour demanded by too-formidable scenery.

In stories with depth, there is an interplay between agents and their environment. This repartee is best carried out in the middle ground: Yes, there is political intrigue on our generation ship, and yes our happenstance main character must expose the villainous parties before Voting Day, but what about the music? What earworms has she been enjoying or suffering, lately? What’s the current musical controversy? What’s losing traction on the playlists? Musical divergences reflect broader social shifts, and signs of the times tend to be broadcast in popular music. Generally speaking, party music is big while the populace is happy with the course their ship is on. But if everyone’s singing the blues? Expect change.

Nuancing the middle ground – the field of play between foreground and background – is the technical equivalent of granting that even futuristic cities (and generation ships) must include alleys and graymarkets in their design to function believably. For the writers among us who particularly enjoy devilling with the details, this layering approach to story-building may sound like child’s play. For everyone else, it may seem like a shortcut, a hack, or a magic trick. Better yet: Music to their ears.

Spiders In Space: Our Constant Companions

Last week, I suggested a few likely inspirations for Science in My Fiction Contest entries:

  • Far-future fabrics that block radiation, clean the air and water, and deflect meteors.
  • Replacing personal items on spaceships with virtual possessions.
  • And the inevitability of man-made mischief during long journeys through space.

Here are a few more fun scientific sparks for all you Science in My Fiction contestants:

I don’t know about everyone else, but I like to get out of the city once in a while. The same will certainly be true about at least some of our space-faring descendants, and we will need systems in place to accommodate that impulse. Specifically, ecosystems. In fact, there is nothing to indicate that humans can survive in the absence of earthly ecosystems. Sure, we may travel in tin cans to the moon, asteroids, and maybe even Mars, but it’s bad for our physical and mental health. Extrapolate that over the course of generations, and the absence of natural cycles bodes ill for our chances of surviving past the edges of our original solar system, let alone reaching new stars.

Because the boundaries between different ecosystems are blurry and interdependent, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to just select one living system to pack up and take with us. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill in the natural gaps technologically by that time, and while we’re at it, we should take care to remember that all terrestrial environments possess a soundtrack. Different species move through a given territories at different times of day and year; they have mating calls and warning cries, and those sounds have an effect on their environments. The absence of a natural soundtrack has an adverse impact on an ecosystem, including its humans, so we’d better not omit it from our packing list when the time comes to prepare for lift-off.

In spite of how often writers portray spaceships and space stations as austere, hyper-sanitary environments, they’re not. Real astronauts must take their cleaning duties very seriously, or else everyone might get sick and their instruments could fail. Part of the problem is the absence of the sort of biological checks and balances that exist on earth. It’s a bit harder for microbes and other species to run rampant on Earth because everything on the planet undergoes population control, mainly in the form of predation (with the notable exception of humans, and we’ve spread so far we’re trying to swarm new planets). Which means that as part of the ecosystems we’ll need in order to survive long space missions, we will need to bring some predators with us. Spiders are likely candidates because they have already adapted to live everywhere humans do – and many places we don’t – and depending on the species of arachnid aboard, they can prey upon pests ranging in size from gnats to sparrows.

There will be more suggestions like these as we approach the contest deadline. In the mean time, what are some of your ideas for good-but-overlooked ideas for humans making their way in the far future?