Searching for Purpose

N. Katherine Hayles

Near-extinction stories are nearly as old as the human species, from Noah’s flood to 20th-century narratives about nuclear holocaust (1950s–60s) and pandemics (1970s–80s), to the current spate of novels and films about environmental disaster. Inevitably, they motivate big questions. Why did this happen? Is there a lesson here? Aside from survival, is there a purpose to (human) life?

Science fiction, with its epic time scales and cosmic vistas, is uniquely positioned to speculate about such questions. In the latest books from accomplished SF writers Neal Stephenson and Kim Stanley Robinson, the possibility of utter annihilation looms like the extinguishing winter from the huge meteorite strike that doomed the dinosaurs. In the background are contemporary concerns about the sixth mass extinction, global warming, and the prospect that we may be approaching, or have already passed, an irreversible tipping point of environmental damage.

What’s so refreshing about Stephenson’s Seveneves and Robinson’s Aurora, however, is the thoughtfulness with which they approach the question of human extinction. In much contemporary discourse, one hears an undertone of gloating when the subject is raised. In brutally simplified terms, it parses like this: “Humans have been bad, so they deserve whatever they get,” a sentiment that strikes me as disturbingly counterproductive. To their credit, Stephenson and Robinson avoid that temptation, preferring to approach environmental concerns obliquely. One test of their power and durability, then, becomes how well, and at what depth, they nevertheless take on the ultimate questions extinction raises—and what answers they implicitly offer.

Robinson’s Aurora follows the terraforming adventures of the Mars trilogy, a series of environmentally conscious fictions that led Time magazine to dub the author a “Hero of the Environment.” Aurora, however, tells the other side of the story: not the heroic deeds of Martian pioneers but the quiet fortitude of those who made a terraforming attempt but then chose to return to earth. For Stephenson, Seveneves also represents a departure of sorts, in this case from such works as Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Reamde, exhibiting a turn away from the computer knowledge that has been his bread and butter to a new interest in orbital mechanics, long-term survival in space habitats, and a humanity engaged in the deeply ironic project of terraforming, not Mars or other planets, but earth itself.

In addition to their focus on human extinction/survival, these two works share another similarity: an epic ambition, with massive page counts and plots spanning hundreds or thousands of years. Despite this range, they remain resolutely human-centered: these are not stories about encounters with aliens (though one microorganism makes an appearance) but about the dynamics of human cultures struggling with forbidding environments and internal conflicts.

Such parallels notwithstanding, the works show distinctive differences. Whereas Robinson is primarily interested in how artificial environments in space can be sustained over long periods, a focus that necessarily involves a certain emphasis on biotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence, Stephenson is fascinated by the technology itself, apart from its role in supporting and fostering human life. Because of the time scales involved, both engage with human evolution, but again with characteristically different priorities: Robinson focuses on codevolution or “reversion to the mean,” the tendency of isolated populations such as island peoples to decline in robustness and vitality over time due to a lack of genetic diversity. Stephenson grapples briefly with the same problem but, after a few pages, dispels the specter of long-term decline with bioengineering and genetic tweaking that results in the seven “races” repopulating a new earth, terraformed back to habitability after five thousand years of desolation.

In brutally simplified terms, the question of human extinction often parses like this: “Humans have been bad, so they deserve whatever they get.”

Although both books have their virtues and will surely attract masses of readers, Aurora strikes me as the more skillfully crafted and thoughtful of the two. Its human protagonist is Freya, whom we first meet as an awkward and uncommonly tall teenager so slow that her parents fear she may have severe mental deficits. She lives on a spaceship—the nonhuman and eventually heroic narrator simply called Ship—traveling to Tau Ceti, the first human attempt to establish settlements beyond earth’s solar system. Ship is huge, supporting in its two tori (geometrical doughnuts) twelve different biomes, ranging from equatorial cultures to near-Arctic environments and supporting over two thousand humans, hundreds of animals, and innumerable microorganisms.

Why back to earth? When the space travelers arrive at their destination, a moon that, with its earth-like oceans and oxygen atmosphere, promises to be habitable, they begin building a settlement, only to discover a fatal flaw in the environment. They are then faced with a wrenching choice that divides the population: to try another planet or moon in the Tau Ceti system, fly onward to the nearest other solar system, or, in a solution suggested by a now-mature Freya, return to earth. “I mean it’s obvious any new place is going to be either alive or dead,” Euan, Freya’s friend, observes. “If it’s alive it’s going to be poisonous, if it’s dead you’re going to have to work it up from scratch … So what’s the point? Why do it at all? Why not be content with what you’ve got?”

Euan’s rebuke is not to the explorer ethos per se, but rather to the drive to colonize, to reshape the universe in our own image. As he later comments, “Life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet … it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home … by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. … It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back.” Startling words from an author who has so deeply imagined terraforming Mars—should we interpret this as a change of heart? Or perhaps this reflects Robinson’s desire to dramatize the other side of the story, to emphasize the irreplaceability of earth as our home and consequently the need not to despoil our one and only environment?

There is also a political dynamic at work, emerging in the desperate conflict between the “stayers” (those who want to proceed) and “backers” (those who want to return to earth). Here the ideologies that underwrite national missions such as NASA and innumerable SF narratives break into the open: it is our human destiny to reach the stars, one side proclaims, and we would betray our greatest ambitions if we turned tail and ran home. Balanced against this is the very real possibility of extinction. The vast majority of the simulations run by the voyagers indicate that the colonizing populations will dwindle and die; only about one in a hundred indicate they will succeed. It may be a sign of the times that return becomes the option Robinson chooses to narrate. Although we never definitely learn the fate of those who chose to stay, their ensuing silence suggests they did indeed die out.

Whereas Robinson is primarily interested in how artificial environments in space can be sustained over long periods, Stephenson is fascinated by the technology itself.

The narrative turns, finally, to the long trip back home. Here Robinson faces a choice: skip over the two hundred years it takes to return, or, since all of the humans have been put into hibernation, turn to a nonhuman narrator. At this point Ship comes into its own, having been urged by Devi, Freya’s mother, to engage with human language to enrich its understanding of ambiguity and to overcome the halting problem (the inability of an algorithm to conclude its calculations). We follow its first stumbling attempts at narration and its meditations on emerging consciousness as it adopts the pronoun “we” for its self-designated identity.

As Ship begins the enormous task of decelerating enough so that it does not simply shoot out the other side of earth’s solar system, it realizes that the chances for successful deceleration are infinitesimal. As the years progress, Ship becomes more conscious of the love that humans have shown it, and that it now returns, with interest, to its inhabitants. The project of protecting its humans and enabling them to return to earth, Ship realizes, consolidates its consciousness and bestows those most elusive gifts: purpose and a sense of meaning.

The writing in this portion is finely wrought. Indeed, without appearing precious, the writing throughout is crafted with subtle touches that work their magic upon readers. For example, the opening scene shows Freya and her father, Badim, sailing exuberantly over a large lake, filled with joy; mid-narrative is another water scene, with Aurora’s ocean extending its cool embrace to a doomed figure; and the watery ending combines fear and exultation both, as an agoraphobic Freya ventures out into earth’s ocean, as likely to drown as to survive. Toward the end, Freya attends an event at which the moderator, a hack with a nasty “smirk,” suggests it is humanity’s destiny to reach for the stars. Freya has experienced first-hand what sacrifices exploration entail, and for her the victims are not anonymous pawns to be sent causally to their deaths but her family, friends, and community. She makes the only response she deems adequate to the suggestion’s infamy; she punches him in the nose.

Robinson’s strategy here is obviously not to give a “balanced” account (the news media approach) of the pros and cons of space exploration. The goal is instead to show, vividly and dramatically, how exploration looks from the perspective of those who, although once persuaded, have come to appreciate the human toll and judged the game not worth playing. For Robinson, avoiding extinction is more urgent than any abstract “destiny” devised supposedly to give human life meaning; rather, life itself is the meaning.

In Seveneves, Stephenson takes on environmental catastrophe indirectly, by having it initiated not through human activity but by a nonhuman Agent—perhaps a small black hole—that hits the moon with enough energy that the orb breaks apart. Doctor Dubois, a popularizer who explains scientific news to the public, calculates that the moon fragments will pulverize each other, leave lunar orbit, and crash into earth, an event called the Hard Rain. Enough of these huge bolides (fireballs) will hit at once to create global firestorms that will turn the blue planet into an angry orange globe and then a burnt black rock. Every living thing, scientists predict, will be destroyed.

Environmentalists are likely to cry foul, because this narrative ploy leaves humans off the hook. The author creates a global community dedicated to preserving “Our Heritage”—the plural pronoun papering over the fact that extinction is now the fate of every living thing on earth.

Unlike Aurora, with its intimate focus on Freya and her family, Seveneves employs a diverse cast of characters. Stephenson follows the “General Population” (GP) of the International Space Station Izzy, as well as the young people chosen in the Casting of Lots, who populate the arklets (small space capsules that reconfigure in a swarm known as the Cloud Ark); together these comprise the last human refuge. As in his other books, Stephenson creates a problematic division between characters who see problems and immediately take action to solve them, like Bobby Shaftoe in Cryptonomicon, and others who excel in political manipulation, often interfering with the actions of the doers.

The probability that the Izzy, renamed the Endurance in homage to Shackleton’s heroic voyage to the Antarctic, and the Cloud Ark will survive in the long run is minuscule. The likelihood is so small, in fact, that the space station’s inhabitants suspect the politicians have crafted a fairy tale to pacify earth’s populations as the end approaches, holding out a shred of hope that eventually the earth can be repopulated. To that end, samples of genetic material have been flown to the Izzy/Endurance and kept frozen, including eggs, sperm, and embryos. Meanwhile, the physical challenges of avoiding bolides, repairing systems, and surviving in the forbidding conditions of space are so significant that the station lurches from crisis to crisis.

As in Aurora, the survivors split into factions, in this case between those opting for the “Big Ride,” slicing right through the debris field to find shelter in a fragment of the moon’s iron core, and those who want to try to establish a community on Mars. In the ensuing conflict, accidents, war, and attrition so depopulate the space community that finally only eight women are left, of whom seven are able to bear children. These “Seven Eves” include the heroic and the craven, the virtuous and the manipulative, bringing forth offspring that increase over five millennia to three billion humans, enough to build durable space habitats and “TerReForm” the earth. In their negotiations about how their children will be genetically engineered, the Seven Eves agree that after obvious genetic defeats are fixed, each woman will be allowed one additional “tweak” per child to accentuate a certain trait, and these genetic modifications crystallize in the seven races of the New Earth.

<i>Sunset on Mars</i> (2005). Photograph by NASA

Taking a route different from that of Robinson’s Ship narrative, Stephenson’s tale fast-forwards five thousand years, to the point where the New Earth is now habitable. The seven races have built the Great Chain, an orbital habitat that encircles the earth. Stephenson comes into his own describing how the orbital habitats work, how one can fly a portable glider into the stratosphere using wind power alone, how nanobots can form a skin-tight covering that adjusts automatically as the user shifts, how semi-smart bullets or “ambots” can, when they strike an enemy, worm their way through tissue to create maximum damage.

But his is not an unthinking technophilic jaunt. Indeed, Stephenson imagines an entire field of social science, “Amistics” (named after the Amish on Old Earth), the anthropological study of the choices a culture makes about the technologies they adopt and those they leave aside. Stephenson’s own preferences likely surface here in “Tav’s mistake.” Studying the now-historical artifacts and videotape of what happened on the Izzy/Endurance and how things went so terribly wrong, historians pinpoint one of the causes as the blog posts and social media interventions created by Tav, a journalist who foments strife. What strikes them is the casual way in which he sends out inflammatory messages, without apparently considering what the long-term effects are likely to be, no doubt a comment on contemporary blog wars and Twitter tiffs.

The terrestrial globe may be called “New Earth,” but this Eden starts its history already fallen. Political conflicts are brewing as the seven races square off into two conflicting blocks, the Blue and the Red, reminiscent of Cold War–era strife between the Soviets and the West. The ultimate prize for which they contend is, of course, the territory of New Earth, now almost ready for habitation. The picture becomes more complicated with the discovery of “indigens”—“rootstock” humans who were somehow able to survive the Hard Rain and resulting firestorms. The implicit pun (indigene/Indian) already suggests that they survived the Great Extinction only to become pawns as much larger powers divide up the territories the indigenes claim. Politics, it seems, is a disease endemic to the human species, an inconvenient truth Stephenson accepts reluctantly.

Stephenson imagines an entire field of social science, “Amistics,” the anthropological study of the choices a culture makes about the technologies they adopt and those they leave aside.

As the narrative draws to a close, the suspicion dawns that we are being set up for a sequel. Not only does the plot end inconclusively, but there are hints that unseen forces have been pulling strings behind the scene to achieve “the Purpose,” a mysterious goal that remains out of sight even though its effects are felt. One character muses on those effects: “It’s a way—the Purpose is a way—of saying there’s something bigger than this crap [that is, politics] we’ve spent the last week of our lives dealing with … and even though no one is sharing anything with me—yet—I like the feeling of that. People who claim they are motivated by the Purpose end up behaving differently—and generally better—than people who serve other masters.” The alternative to the Purpose, it would seem, is to remain mired in the swamp of politics, where heroic deeds are dragged down and only snakes are able to slither along the surface.

What Purpose, then, do these two books serve? In an interview, William Gibson commented that the art of science fiction is to write about the present through the veil of technology and speculation. In these terms, both books speak to present-day anxieties about extinction. For Robinson, the point is to emphasize the fragility of complex environments, the tendency of artificial ones to devolve, and the scrupulous care we should therefore take to preserve and protect our inheritance. For Stephenson, the Purpose is murkier. It consists of an acknowledgement that politics will always be with us, that it will always be associated with manipulation, conflict, and strife, and that it will always be a thorn in the side of those competent, gifted, and heroic individuals who simply wish to get on with the job. Extinction for him arrives through the proverbial “act of God” rather than human desecration, but it serves the Purpose of driving humans to the point where they cannot help but recognize they must work together and somehow get along, politics or no. Paradoxically, extinction for both works is the only prospect scary enough to ensure the survival of earth’s inhabitants, human and nonhuman. Whatever this insight’s limitations, it sure beats gloating.