Sunday, December 30, 2018

On generation space ships and Noah's ark

by J J Cohen and Julian Yates

Hello friends. For your in between the holidays entertainment, here's an excerpt from the "Stowaways" chapter of the Noah's ark book that we are writing. Let us know if you have any thoughts. 

The section below is a brief piece of the theoretical apparatus followed by a reading of Kim Stanley Robinson's wonderful and disturbing novel Aurora.

We have witnessed the scene repeat throughout this book, just as we witness the scene enacted every day, during every project of construction. Build anything -- a house, office tower, theatre, mosque, nation, store, restaurant, airport, library, classroom, ship -- and you will gift yourself with more than you ever wanted to contain. The walls demarcating inside from out can only attempt to instantiate a climate controlled zone of selection and exclusion. Security and autoimmunity may be enacted at multiple levels, from the obvious (doors with keys or codes, guards, metal detectors, the demand for ID, barbed wire) to the almost but not quite invisible (the disapproving look, sudden silence in a gregarious room, the observation offered that you might feel more comfortable at the other place just down the way). Every architecture articulates a community, and communities sort and exclude. Selection and organization are built into conceptual and material structures, at least to a degree. Yet the necessary fact of limits is not sufficient defense for how limitation is practiced. Communities and the walls they build to demarcate and shelter themselves are not natural, self-evident or unchanging. They adapt, they grow, they welcome. Or they do not. In any case, the destiny of any clean zone is failure.
Create as precise a blueprint as you please: an unassailable bubble or biodome or restricted access neighborhood, safe from intrusion, in which the affluent or the divinely chosen or the governing elite can imagine themselves in a world set apart, a place of strong gates and thick walls and unfailing safety. Plan your pleasure dome to the most precise detail: the sealants that will keep the smallest particles from escape or entrance, the sentries, locks, alarms, sterilization devices, all the material guarantors of protection. Trust your life to the impregnability of your vault, but your blueprint must go wrong. There is more to the world than any paper plan can comprehend. Build as antiseptic a zone as you like and its environs will always already be thriving with life, with stories you thought to keep to the outside and the unthought. There are no architectures of exclusion that are not already full of uninvited bodies and narratives. They arrive when the edifice is still a concept, a thing of lines and angles. Or they come with the materials through which the abstract is made solid, a process that must include human hands and matter too full of content and compromises. Even more unlooked for callers will appear alongside those chosen for admission. They will be found inside because the structure was never as empty as it was supposed to be, or because those chosen for entrance are not as reliable as assumed, and there was something or someone that they just could not leave behind even though sacrifice was the very price of admission. Knock down the house because the walls are noisy with rodents, build a new one, but the rats will scurry through its secret recesses all the same, unsolicited messmates: “They are, as the saying goes, always already there. Part of the building.” So observes Michel Serres of the inevitability of unsolicited companions. He also observes that “to parasite means to eat next to,” and so many beings are eating next to us all the time, in our houses and in our arks as well (Michel Serres, The Parasite 7). And don’t even get us started on how every human body is itself a little ark, moving through time and space with far more passengers (organisms, tales, deviant desires) than any individual could ever account for.  Karen Raber observes:
There is no system without parasites, there is no theory of the human without them… Only the vermin-infested structure, the castle wall teeming with mice and rats, the castle orchard over-run with weasels, the spaces of the human -- internal and external -- replete with worms, slugs, even small dogs denote a world in which “the human” is a concept without any content.
Or with far too much content, most of which the concept never intended to comprehend. The ubiquity of noisy parasitic dinner companions like the wall-dwelling rats is for Michel Serres the precondition of communication: “parasite” is French not only for uninvited feasters, but for the white noise or static that accompanies the transmission of every sound. There is no conveyance, literal or metaphorical, without parasitism. Without stowaways. Build your walls as thick and as high as you like, and yet just when you think you could not be safer or more alone in the world you have chosen, there in the room with you is the devil. Or woodworms, mutineers, unicorns, a burning phoenix, deadly bacteria, dinosaurs, the King of England, and who knows what else that was supposed to have been left behind.

Lossy Compression
The ship was perturbed. Nearing its destination after long voyage, the vessel crammed full of Earth’s life had been commanded by chief engineer Devi to narrate the story unfolding since launch within its environs. Preserving the diversity of a planet’s flora and fauna for the one hundred and sixty year journey to Tau Ceti is task enough; reducing that archival vastness to a coherent narrative proves a near insurmountable challenge. Because its structure consists of twenty four segregated chambers containing the plants, animals and weather of varied biomes, from tundra and prairie to marsh and desert, and because over two thousand humans dwell within its sheltering walls at any given time, the ship is initially unable to respond sufficiently to Devi’s command of “Make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars” (even as this portion of the novel is clearly composed by the ship). Story requires summary and the limiting of point of view -- and therefore the obliteration of all that finds no place in the reduced throughline. Narrative is a compression device, a technology built upon reduction. The ship meditates:
Lossless compression is impossible, and even lossy compression is hard. Can a narrative account ever be adequate? Can even humans do it?  … Summarize the contents of their moments or days or weeks or months or years or lives? How many moments constitute a narrative unit? One moment? Or 1033 moments, which if these were Planck minimal intervals would add up to one second? Surely too many, but what would be enough? What is a particular, what is important? (45).
Not knowing how else to proceed, the ship decides to embrace the French word essai, the root of “essay,” and simply to try. And to fail. And to try again. Devi has been the ship’s sole interlocutor for decades (ever since she was a young girl, whispering at night to the ship on which she was born as if speaking to a best friend). She gives sharp feedback along the way, cajoling the ship from its love of long catalogs of fact, from the captivating power of litany (how many people are aboard, how many cameras observe their movements, how many days the voyage has been ongoing, how the vessel was launched and now navigates lethal expanses of space). In time the ship learns that it must to get to the point (“but there are many points!”), employ subordination to sequence and prioritize unfolding events into an arc (“how to decide what is important?”), if it is ever going to “get somewhere” (whatever that “somewhere” might mean). A primary mode of narrative transport, the ship comes to realize, is metaphor, “in which conceptual understanding is seen as movement through space” -- an insight that renders the ship its own meta-metaphor (49) and gives it a better understanding of the mechanics of human language, which incessantly and perhaps fundamentally attempts to render the abstract comprehensible through linguistic transport devices. Metaphor is how language “gets somewhere.” Among the first metaphors deployed by the ship is a self-accounting:
The ship is carrying populations of as many Terran species as could be practically conveyed. Thus the ship is a zoo, or a seed bank. One could say it is like Noah’s Ark. In a manner of speaking. (51)
The ship stops at this point to complain once more to Devi about the “too much” with which it is has been freighted, what must vanish so that a coherent story can emerge, and is told simply “Get used to that.” (52). And it does, mainly limiting its narrative to one family: chief engineer Devi, her gentle husband Badim, and their extraordinary daughter Freya, who becomes the protagonist of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora. The story of the wide world becomes, just as in the arc of Noah’s ark, the story of a single household.
Many things unexpected and sometimes unexamined are discovered aboard the ship-constructed narrative (as well as within the ship’s hold) through or despite the process of “lossy compression.” Some are predictable, such as an inherited, unexamined and therefore invisible perspective for narratively sorting the world. The ship has two rings of cylinders, each containing twelve similar ecological systems (rainforest, desert, seacoast, grassland, and so on). Ring A holds “Old World ecosystems” while Ring B consists of those from the “New World.” Earth did not age unevenly across itself, of course, and so these labels, conveyed without pause, suggest that this vessel sailing to a distant star system might be Noah’s Ark and might contain diverse realms from its home planet but it is also a European galleon on a voyage of discovery that will likely have some deadly consequences as a result of the limited point of view from which its own ordering system proceeds. The narrative takes the form of a novel, after all, not drama for public performance or a poem intended for oral recitation under open skies. As Freya learns by traveling through the biomes during what is called her wanderjahr, some of the ship’s occupants reject the modernity that has enabled their lives within the generation spacecraft, the only home they have ever known. Others resent the regulation of their ability to move from place to place, as well as the limits placed on their fertility. Later it is revealed that two space ships were launched together towards Tau Ceti, but one was apparently destroyed from within as its residents found interstellar community unbearable. The history of this second ship had been purged from memory because of its dangerous example. Having been born inside the ark, none of the ship’s passengers fully understand the vessel’s design. Devi comes to suspect that its structure was poorly planned, that it was launched with more exuberance than forethought. A shortage of phosphorus and a series of metabolic shifts within biomes indicate that the very limits of its climate-controlled bubble are being reached before it has arrived at a destination that may or may not be final. Its architects --whoever they were, whatever they wanted -- did not fashion a sufficiently self-contained world. Things are always breaking down and materials for repair are growing scarce. Unexpected stories keep erupting.
Even as sustainability fails, fear of contamination haunts the narrative of Aurora. When the ship at last arrives at the distant moon that is to become the new Earth, the landing party finds their bodies invaded by indigenous proto-life forms that are lethal to human metabolism. The hoped-for home they have named “Aurora” proves inhospitable, the promised rainbow become an unattainable shimmer. And so, in turn, the community aboard the ark becomes inhospitable to those who departed its confines. The lunar explorers attempting return are murdered in the airlock out of fear of allowing contaminants aboard. Climate control become a means of instigating an autoimmune response. Yet the ship itself is already full of alien life, bacteria that have mutated during the voyage and eventually begin to devour the vessel from within, its own microbiome gone out of control. Even the human passengers have changed as their spacebound existence has manifested corporeal and cognitive effects. Through its development of a “reasonably coherent if ever-evolving prose style” the ship meanwhile is well on its way to becoming sentient, a life form of its own (“granting the possibly unlikely proposition characterized in the phrase scribo ergo sum,” 224). When Devi dies of a cancer that has long been developing within her body, the ship experiences a grief so profound that its power to storytell fails. Later the ship realizes that it carries something of Devi within, as part of the structure of consciousness which she enabled through her dialogue and demand for story (“Make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars” [whatever they are] as her version of “Build me an ark of gopher wood” [whatever that is]). The ship knows that even as anthropomorphism -- the cognitive error of discerning in an indifferent world the mirror of the human -- is to be rejected as a version of the pathetic fallacy, its own architecture of perception contains so much that is human that when the ship is described by its occupants as wanting to return to Earth, the observation “might not be a fallacy in our case, even if it remained pathetic” (256). Devi launched something greater than she could have imagined, an author-ship that comes to possess a purpose and then a feeling it recognizes as curiosity, causing it to long for a home it has never known. The ship perceives that it not only misses Devi, but that its desire for her absent companionship indicates its love for her (258).  That love should have been smuggled into the very heart of the vessel offers an antidote to the coldness of some of the arkitectures we have seen in this book. This ship wants to offer itself as refuge and haven for as long as it can endure. This ship cherishes the difficult and difference-riven community it harbors. It mourns any diminishing of its human contents -- but animals are a different story, a limit to the ship’s affection: their sacrifice as medical experiments and sustenance is never questioned.
Civil strife erupts onboard in the face of Aurora’s failed promise, the debacle of Earth 2.0 proving uninhabitable. The ship uses its ability to eavesdrop, control the oxygen supply and strategically lock doors to restore order and instantiate itself as the force of law (but whose law?). The ship’s embrace of its “kind of consciousness even if feeble” is marked by a transition from third person narration (“Ship decided to intervene”) to an owning of the authoritative first person plural (“Which is to say, ipso facto, We intervened,” 225). This self-propulsion into speech act and action enables the ship to discern its autonomy and repudiate its inbuilt inclination to hesitate. Because its design and functioning articulate the modes of being for all within its structure, the ship announces at this intervention “WE ARE THE RULE OF LAW” (229). No ark is simply a container, but a way of life materialized through the arrangement of space, for good or for ill. After the failed colonization of Aurora some of the voyagers decide they want to return to Earth. Others attempt to terraform a Mars-like moon nearby. The ship obliges by splitting itself into halves, since it has been built to preserve its cargo.
There’s far more to this tale than we have outlined here, but we want to linger with the fact that the ship becomes self-aware through its charge to narrate -- and specifically through its realization that every narrative (like every ark) is structured around omission. Exclusion does not, of course, necessarily mean that what is left to oblivion will not be found harbored within the very structure set up to demarcate outside from within. Sometimes, paradoxically, the very process of exclusion is the guarantor that the unwanted will be housed inside, at the heart of things. Michel Serres called this parasitism, and static. The ship realizes that plot is a process of reduction that necessitates the placing of the world’s “too much” at some bounded exterior, so that a small space might be created where focus can be limited and a tale with a destination will emerge. It also realizes that those placed within might not be grateful: the ship’s passengers never asked their forebears on Earth to have decided their fates in advance, to have enabled the launching of an ark on which they will have been born and live and die as characters in a story someone else wrote. Contaminating storylines will keep emerging despite the “lossy compression” upon which all narratives are founded. One of these unwanted plots comes from the vessel’s billions of stowaways, the mutating bacteria, viruses, fungi and archae that flourish across its biomes. Most of these tiny passengers have been present from the start “carried on board in the soil and on the first plants” (288). This “microflora and -fauna … everywhere among them” (273) have always already flourished within the bodies aboard the ark (and the body of the ark itself, eating it, making it “sick” [276]) -- and no easy means exists for offloading such unwanted creatures as trash. Aram, a friend of Freya, recognizes the eternal problem of “What did Noah do with all the manure?” when he conveys the proliferation of these “waste” organisms by stating “‘We’re drowning in our own shit’” (288).
Despite the austerity that plot demands there will in fact be stowaways at every turn, real as well as metaphorical (and we have learned from the ship itself that metaphor is the true engine of human meaning and conveyance: metaphor is the ultimate linguistic device for stowing away). Some of these passengers without invitations are texts and narratives from the past that were not supposed to be unfolding again in the present. Possessed of a deep archive, the ship knows that many of the statements proclaimed by its occupants are unknowing repetitions of phrases from great works of literature. Those who want to return to Earth, for example, realize that in order to decelerate as they arrive in the solar system they must trust that the descendants of those who launched them into space will activate a laser beam on Saturn, “trust in the kindness of strangers” (260). The ship observes:
They did not recognize this as a quotation. In general they were not aware that much of what they said had been said before, and was even in the public record as such. It was as if there were only so many things humans could say, and over the course of history, people had therefore said them already, and would say them again, but not often remember this fact (260)
As with sentences and sententia, so with plots and narrative arcs. Once Aurora proves hostile to human settlement Badim explains to his daughter Freya why their arkbound community feels so at a loss:
“Up until today, history was preordained. We were aimed at Tau Ceti, nothing else seemed to matter … Now the story is over. We are thrust out of the end of that story. Forced to make up a new one, all on our own” (206).
Yet instead of creating a new story the ship’s passengers unknowingly re-enact an old one, the unrest of Year 68. This strife erupts in an uncannily similar way just after Badim speaks, even though structures had been put into place to ensure it would never occur again (including the purging of the event from the archival record). Another stowaway tale comes from outside the ambit of the ship’s own history but is brought aboard by the ship itself, the myth of Noah’s Ark. In this retelling however there is no Noah, only passengers on a vessel that has traveled so long that its builders have been forgotten. Freya, the ship’s chosen protagonist, is “a particular,” very much one of a kind, as well as figure familiar from the Middle Ages, a member of Noah’s family who never quite fits within the “rule of law” that the ship comes to embody and voice. Freedom-loving and restless, Freya does not understand the world’s severities. She is a science fiction version of Noah’s recalcitrant wife, a woman who resists at every turn the inhumane ethos that launched the ark that she has found herself unwillingly aboard. She is also a figure of endurance. When the passengers of the ship now returning to Earth fear that they will starve to death before they reach their destination, Freya reads them all kinds of stories of castaways and those lost at sea, “a genre surprisingly full of happy endings, especially if certain texts were avoided” (307). Freya imbues her listeners with something they are quickly losing, hope. Yet as the ship drily observes in the face of such tales, “Helpful as hopeful stories might be, you can’t eat stories” (308).

You cannot eat stories, but you can be sustained by them. You can shelter your community around their glow. But sometimes, it seems, such a surfeit of stories arrive all at once that you could drown in them.