Over the last day or so I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora, which I’d highly recommend. Robinson is one of the better hard science fiction writers of the last 20 or so years, and I read his Mars trilogy back when I was in college. I haven’t read much of his since then, but Aurora is fantastic. It’s the story of a generation ship 1 launched from Earth and headed to Tau Ceti, where at least one world similar to Earth has been detected. Although science fiction has explored the concepts of generation ships before, I have a hard time imagining an author better suited for tackling this than Robinson, who takes the opportunity to explore the complications that might result from having people aboard a generation ship.
One of the issues that’s Robinson discusses is the complication of eventually having the ship populated entirely by people that did not choose to be on board. For a substantial number of the crew on a voyage like Robinson describes, they will be born after the ship departs our solar system, and die before the ship ever arrives at its destination; because of this, a large number of options are closed to them. No one would really have the option to not be a productive member of society, when society is only 2,000 people.
It makes sense that this would lead to practical problems on board the ship – as it does – but it also raises some interesting questions as to whether or not it is a moral decision to forcibly choose such a specific path for one’s children. A substantial number of the people on board do not want to be there, and the specific differences between serving on such a ship and being shanghaied may seem more clear to those of us who still have our feet safely on a planet.
Robinson doesn’t offer a simple solution to this, which seems honest: there isn’t one. But it’s something that humanity will probably have to start thinking about as soon as the first person is born on Mars.