Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Multi-Generation Con

Back in the comments on "St. Ponzi and The Parable of The Cellphones", Athor Pel asked a few of my favorite questions:
I've been pondering some questions lately.

Why are we willing to pay taxes?

1) that we didn't vote into existence

2) to a government that we didn't have any say in creating originally

It was all in place before we were born.

Why should we play the game?
These are some of my favorite questions, and not because I'm advocating a tax revolt — although I do believe that if we did not have automatic income tax withholding, and if all gainfully employed Americans therefore had to write a check to the government quarterly, as the gainfully self-employed do, then we would have one very angry tax revolt in very hot progress in very short order —

No, these questions fascinate me because of one of the hoary old mainstays of hard science fiction: the generation ship.

The idea, if you're not familiar with it, goes like this. Since we know that the speed of light in a vacuum, c, is not just the law, it's the absolute limit, and we know that hyperdrive, warp drive, jump drive, and all the other variously named ways of getting beyond c are merely convenient fictional gimmicks with no basis in reality, the other obvious way for humans to cross the vast interstellar distances is by building ships so big they're self-contained ecologies, and then launching them out with the assumption that the crew will breed, and it will be their many-generations-removed descendants who will actually arrive at wherever it is that the ship is going.

Heinlein got a lot of mileage out of this idea. I grew up on his Starship Magellan juveniles and loved 'em. The problem came when I, as an adult writer, started looking at the idea afresh with the intention of using it in a story, and I started running into the same sorts of questions that Athor Pel posed.

What is a generation ship? Pared down to its nub, it's a closed, utopian society, on a mission to some goal that was defined long before the current occupants were born. So what's the problem?

The problem is that in all my readings of history, I have been unable to find a single example of a closed, utopian society that lasted more than five generations — and that's using a very lax definition of "utopian." For example, the Soviet Union was supposed to be a utopian society, and yet even the Soviet Union, with all its formidable power, didn't make it five generations.

Five generations seems to be the outside limit. Three generations is when things start falling apart. The founders of the utopia usually manage okay, if they're not complete blithering idiots (see, "The Great Hippie Commune Disaster," 1968) and the founders can usually do a decent job of indoctrinating most of their children and controlling the few nonconformists. But by the time the grandchildren of the founders come along a lot more people are asking Athor's questions, and by the time the great-grandchildren reach adulthood the pressure to either radically change the terms of the mission or else to just tear the whole thing down and start over become nearly irresistible.

This does not bode well for the prospects of a successful generation ship on its way to Proximi Centauri.

Which led to a different line of thought: if you have a ship so large it's a self-contained ecology, why bother leaving Sol system at all? It's not like there's a shortage of room here. Why not just park the thing, say, three months ahead or behind of Earth's position in solar orbit, and con the poor buggers on-board into thinking they're on a centuries-long multi-generational voyage to Farfnargle IV? Or if you want to get really tricky, just shoot it into a long orbit out to the Kuiper Belt and back, so that the "colonists" think they're arriving on Epison Whachacallit when all they're doing is finally returning to Earth?

So that's the root idea. Now: where's the story in this?