The Warm Equations

By Gerry CanavanJune 23, 2015

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

STAR TREK makes it look easy. Warp drive eliminates all that unhappy fussing with fuel, mass, and acceleration: the Enterprise, traveling orders of magnitude faster than current science tells us is possible, turns and stops and reverses course on a dime, and the dilithium crystals that make this possible are only in short supply when the plot temporarily demands it. Replicator technology that can effortlessly change energy into matter and back again (without explosions or pollution or toxic radiation) eliminates the need to manage supplies or carefully recycle materials; a related technology, the transporter, allows people to hop back and forth between ships and planetary surfaces without worrying about gravity wells or delta-v calculations (and transporters even filter out diseases and harmful chemicals in the bargain). The ship generates its own gravity (somehow); the shields offer protection from space debris; inertial dampeners make the ride smoother and more comfortable than any of our cars, planes, or trains; keeping everybody warm is never even posed as a problem — the list goes on and on and on. Magical future technologies lubricate any potential stumbling block at every stage on the road to galactic glory.

New novels out this summer from Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora) and Neal Stephenson (Seveneves) dismantle the fantastic Star Trek vision of space travel in favor of a portrayal of space exploration with more vertigo, more friction, more weight, and more gravity. Their ships don’t just turn and can’t just go; fuel is a constant consideration, as is velocity and acceleration, with both novels devoting long (but fascinating!) sequences to various complicated physical problems of orbital mechanics. There are no replicators — in fact, there’s crushing scarcity, with overawing recycling programs that seek to recover every last drop of oxygen, water, and nutrient and return these back into the system. There are no transporters: if you want to get from the ship to the ground, or from a lower orbit to a higher orbit, you’ve got to pay for it. If you want to have any sort of internal gravity at all, you’ve got to get your ship to spin. And there are no shields, no force fields for safety: this is dangerous work, with only the too-thin walls of your spacecraft to protect you from immediate death in the impossibly cold vacuum outside.

In both novels, the reintroduction of actual physics into narratives about human beings in outer space seems to slide away from happy fantasy toward something that looks more like gruesome survival horror. These novels are closer to The Walking Dead than Star Trek: accidents, shortages, suicides, murders, starvation, asphyxiation, and disease take center stage. For someone raised (as I was) on dreams of spaceflight, these novels are simultaneously exhilarating and completely horrifying. The fact is that we just shouldn’t live in space, but we want to anyway — these novels envision the start, the wonderful and terrible start, of what it would take to even begin to manage living up there permanently.


Aurora and Seveneves, coming out so near to one another and so strongly reconsidering the idea (or fantasy) of the outer-space colony, almost demand to be taken up together; at the same time, however, these are very different novels from two very different writers. Although his imaginings have grown progressively darker in tone since the Mars books, Robinson remains our great utopian science fiction writer, even as his work has argued in favor of a more limited vision of technological futurity that works with nature rather than in opposition to it. (Robinson would say that this is not pessimism so much as realism, a taking seriously of the fact that we are biological entities living in an ecological niche upon which we are entirely dependent for survival.) Stephenson (perhaps especially in Seveneves) comes from almost the exactly opposite orientation: his skepticism about the ability of human beings to behave intelligently and decently borders at times on the radically anti-utopian, while his trust in the ability of technology to transcend apparently hard and insurmountable limits is almost boundless. What is fascinating, in reading the two books together (as, I submit, one should!), is how these two diametrically opposed perspectives collide somewhere in the middle, as their separate premises each begin to unspool.

These books are exceptionally long — nearly 500 pages for Aurora, almost 900 for Seveneves — and they are both structured around significant plot twists that I was very pleased to be surprised by and do not wish to spoil. And the books are, I find, truly structured by these twists: the novels are nearly impossible to discuss with any seriousness and depth without discussing the twists. With regard to Stephenson’s book, at least, the promotional material (including the plot summary on the first page) makes clear that at some unknown point as you read you are going to encounter, in stark defiance of any notion of Aristotelian formal unity, the words “FIVE THOUSAND YEARS LATER …” (Don’t worry. Somehow it works.) But in the case of Robinson’s book, the decision has been made to market Aurora without any reference to the two central twists in the plot that utterly (and, I found, delightfully) transform the narrative.

I believe that our culture has, in general, become much too spoilerphobic; I’m sure there are those who feel that even granting a “spoiler alert” is itself a kind of spoiler, if only at a zero-level, insofar as I’m telling you there is something here to be spoiled in the first place. Not every pleasure of reading is reducible to or swamped by suspense. But in this case I find I really do have to tread carefully: I’m going to endeavor, as best I can, to talk about what I find interesting about each of these two books without saying exactly what happens or why it’s so very great when it does. Follow me, please, if you dare.


Robinson is very at home in space, with many of his best-loved novels revolving around a more-utopian or less-utopian future for humanity in the larger solar system (the Mars trilogy, 2312, Galileos Dream, the early novels Icehenge and The Memory of Whiteness — even his wonderful alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt ends on the image of a space launch). In fact, many of Robinson’s stories seem to be alternate-universe versions of each other, with the same future-historical events occurring in different order or in different ways, or with better or worse results. Aurora is no exception: it traces the story of one of the generation starships flung out from the solar system during the Accelerando, Robinson’s alternative name for the prophesied technological Singularity. In previous books these launches have always been something of a dead end: those explorers journey (as he says in 2312) “beyond human time, beyond human reach” into “a vastness beyond comprehension,” outside history itself. In the Mars books and 2312, the narrative point of view stayed in the solar system as those hollowed-out asteroids left us behind in search of some other possible home; this time, we leave Earth behind and stick with one of the asteroids.

In this novel’s version of the Accelerando, the intergenerational starships are launched in 2545, and we check back in with the group over 150 years later as the 2,122 descendants of the original explorers approach Tau Ceti, where probes have indicated Earthlike planets that can support terrestrial plant and animal life. The spaceship has always been an attractive figure for ecological thinking, and Robinson dives into the metaphor with verve, showing how the fantasy of outer-space colonization is not some suspension of ecological rationality but instead requires total commitment to it. Everything on the ship is part of a biological-ecological machine that has been constructed inside a space that is simply too small and too overdetermined to work properly, with essentially zero external inputs; it functions, but only just barely, and with constant corrective intervention from its human caretakers. The imminent arrival on Tau Ceti offers a new horizon for exploration, but not really a significant escape from these constraints: there’s no reason to expect any extrasolar planet to be especially hospitable to terrestrial life, which evolved precisely here, at precisely this distance from precisely our sun at this precise moment between ice ages. The surface of another planet won’t look like a California studio backlot or the Vasquez Rock formations where the original Star Trek shot so often on location — it will look to us like Antarctica, or the pock-marked surface of the moon, or the Mariana Trench, or Hell. The Tau Ceti colonists are undertaking a task that will be almost unthinkably, unfathomably difficult — a lunatic task, which Western civilization has not only convinced itself is its destiny but which has been used to justify all manner of short-sighted, anti-ecological behaviors in the meantime. We’re gleefully destroying our only good home, pretending we’ve got someplace else to go.

Seveneves, for all its myriad differences from Aurora, operates on much the same premise concerning the practicality and desirability of significant numbers of human beings living in outer space: it might be possible, but it’s certainly not a good idea, not something you’d do if you had a ton of better options. In Seveneves, we don’t have better options — as evidenced by the novel’s transcendent first line (sure to enter the canon of legendary first lines in science fiction novels): “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” At first this is just an astronomical curiosity — how? why? Dare we ask, who? — but the news very quickly turns apocalyptically grim. The seven giant boulders that are all that remain of the moon are in unstable orbit, splitting and pulverizing each other; scientists soon recognize that within two years the pieces will begin hurtling down to Earth in what they call the “Hard Rain.” This will be a mass extinction event on par with anything that has ever occurred in geologic history; the planet will be uninhabitable for 5,000 years, and nothing on the surface will survive.

For nearly everyone alive, there is simply nothing to be done. Seven billion will die. But plans are put into motion to bootstrap an ark into space from the International Space Station, on which a tiny number of human beings might survive; a similar project, considered much less likely to succeed, is developed for bunkers deep underground. The entire industrial capacity of human civilization is suddenly and immediately devoted, for these two years, toward the rapid development and manufacture of the devices the “Cloud Ark” will need to create a self-sustaining community in high orbit to wait out the Hard Rain, so that the descendants of the few thousand humans chosen to survive might someday (in the unfathomably distant future) make a return to the planet. The clock is ticking: 700 days.


These are both, I should say, genuinely great reads, especially as the initial premises described above give way (via those undiscussable twists) to fascinating new decision-points without clear or easy resolutions. I think Aurora may well be Robinson’s best novel (and I’ve heard other fans of his say the same thing), and Seveneves is certainly in the same ballpark as Anathem, Cryptonomicon, and Snow Crash (my favorites of Stephenson’s books). They’re both terrific.

What I find best about the two books — and better together, in some sense, than simply taking up either one in isolation — is their examination and reevaluation of our current cultural preoccupation with the end of the world, a collapse which seems at once imminent, unavoidable, and our own fault, a result of social, political, and economic decisions we have made and now refuse to unmake, no matter how obviously unsuitable they are to our new global and ecological context. What both Aurora and Seveneves examine is that new value alternatively called adaptability or sustainability or resilience — the capacity of human societies to survive what would otherwise appear to be insurmountable disasters, whether through their willingness to murder other people to get ahead (call that one bad resilience) or else through the happy intersection of ingenuity, solidarity, and hope.

I was reminded last year of Tom Godwin’s well-known 1954 short story “The Cold Equations” by a great Locus Magazine column by Cory Doctorow. In the story, the captain of a space freighter loaded with medicine for a deep-space colony discovers that a young girl has stowed away on his ship. The “cold equations” are the laws of mass and acceleration that govern this transport: the ship doesn’t have enough fuel to get to the colony with the girl’s added mass, they can’t jettison any of the medicine, and the captain can’t sacrifice himself because the stowaway lacks the expertise necessary to successfully land the ship. So there’s just one option: the girl needs to be thrown out of the airlock to die horribly in space in order to preserve the larger mission.

Doctorow sees the story, rightly I think, as exemplary of a large-scale problem in contemporary SF: the story delicately and deliberately constructs an emergency lifeboat scenario in which there seems to be no choice but to hurt someone, training its reader to see the world in terms of forced, miserable choices and no-one-could-have-predicted crises that always scale up to shove more and more victims into that airlock. We can’t stop telling this story: even in our fantasies we keep constructing worlds of death, reveling in the nightmare choices they foist upon us. This brand of “lifeboat ethics” is the imaginative standpoint of a tremendous amount of science fiction today, which focuses on dead, ruined, zombie worlds, hopeless worlds, worlds without futures, populated by battered, broken, and brutal survivors who have lost the will to care about anyone besides themselves. There’s a politics to this fad — a bad one. “Stories about how we can’t afford to hew to our values in time of crisis,” Doctorow writes, “are a handy addition to every authoritarian’s playbook, a fine friend of plutocrats, and they reek of self-serving bullshit every time they’re deployed.”

The shift in narrative situation from zombie wasteland to fragile spaceship in Aurora and Seveneves breaks us out of our well-ingrained, supremely well-rehearsed habits of apocalypse — and lets us see the option of a different future than permanent, hopeless standoff. What makes both Aurora and Seveneves more Star Trek than The Walking Dead, despite everything I have said, is their ultimate refusal of the brutal zombie logic of the contemporary moment in favor of an ethical demand that is, if not always exactly utopian, getting somewhere very close to it. Here disaster is an opportunity for inspiring nobility, for a coming together, whether or not we always answer that call. The truly radical kernel in both of these books is the notion that as we drift through space in our tiny pocket of air and water and warmth, much too small and much too fragile, leaping together into an unknown and frightening future, maybe the best choice we can make is to try to take care of one another as best we can.


Gerry Canavan teaches 20th- and 21st-century literature and culture at Marquette University.

LARB Contributor

Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. His research projects include Science Fiction and Totality, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction and the journal Science Fiction Film and Television. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is available from Wesleyan University Press. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler from the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.


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