Have a look at Our Generation Ships Will Sink over at Boing Boing, in which Kim Stanley Robinson tells us why, as a living, thriving species, we’ll never get off this planet (and therefore should look after it better).
We are always teamed with many other living creatures. Eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, and this relatively new discovery is startling, because it forces us to realize that we are not discrete individuals, but biomes, like little forests or swamps. Most of the creatures inside us have to be functioning well for the system as a whole to be healthy. This is a difficult balancing act, and does not work perfectly even on Earth; but divorced from Earth’s bacterial load, and thus never able to get infusions of new bacteria, the chances of suffering various immune problems similar to those observed in over-sterile Terran environments will rise markedly.
Because we need a broad array of bacterial companions, one would want to bring along as much of Earth as you could fit into a starship. But even the largest starship would be about one-trillionth the size of Earth, and this necessary miniaturization would almost certainly lead to unknown effects in our bodies.
I wrote this story in early 2010. It’s based on a true story, inasmuch as my then-partner had told me she needed space, and I twisted those words (in perhaps an obvious way) to come up with this story.
Five and a half years later, I don’t hate this piece. But I also see now that it’s less a story and more a slice-of-life or vignette.
“I need space,” Elisa said, her eyes steadfastly locked on the ground at her feet.
Clayton reached out to touch her side but she took half a step back; not enough to escape his reach, but enough to let him know the gesture wasn’t wanted. He dropped his arm back to his side.
“Can we talk about this?”
She shook her head slightly, a sign of both refusal and exhaustion. “I don’t know what to say, what you want me to say. I need space, I need to go, it’s as simple as that.” Her eyes were still focused on the ground.
“Okay,” he forced down the emotions that were churning inside him, “I guess it’s too late for me to change your mind.” He was surprised at how well he was keeping it together, but he knew there would be weeping later.
Somewhere a klaxon started wailing.
“They’re playing my song,” she said with a weak smile. “Goodbye.”
Elisa turned and began to walk away, her lithe figure and subtle movements somehow still visible beneath the heavily-insulated astronaut suit. He stood there on the platform watching her walk away.
In the distance behind her receding figure stood the massive rocket that was going to take her from him and give her space.
To him it was an anachronism; a pointless marriage of twentieth century science fiction, twentieth century Science, and Cold War hysteria.
To her it was everything.
He watched as she reached the shuttle’s doorway, stepped inside and disappeared into the belly of the monolithic machine.
The klaxons still wailed and the gangplank he stood on began to retract. It rattled and pitched violently beneath his feet, so he finally turned and walked away.
He put his hands in his pockets and looked up at the blue expanse of sky, with its limitless potential and the promise of infinite space beyond.
How can I compete with that?
Moments later the rocket engines fired. His ears were pounded with the thunderous noise of a billion chemical reactions and his feet tingled with pins and needles as the earth trembled.
The rocket began its ascent. He didn’t turn to watch, he just kept walking away.
Elisa floated, lost in the vast expanse of nothingness, connected to the universe – and the space shuttle – by nothing more than a long, thin, polyplastic tether. Small rocks drifted past, as though carried by a light breeze, caught up in the cosmic ballet of the galaxy’s rotation.
She reached out with an insulated glove and closed her fingers around a jellybean-shaped stone.
He always loved jellybeans, she thought, as she placed the rock inside the canister that was strapped to the side of her suit.
“Ware to Liberty; I have a sample, you can reel me back in. Over.” Elisa had to force herself to speak loudly – the incalculable reaches of space tended to awe and quiet her.
She watched as the tether began to tighten and then with a small tug she was falling back towards the space shuttle.
Inside it was far easier to work. She had taken off her gloves and was holding the miniature asteroid. Elisa turned the rock over, let it go and watched as it spun freely, before grabbing it again. She thought of him once more and this time she smiled.
The database onboard was agonisingly slow; the longer she sat there waiting for it to find a match for her sample, the more she let her mind wander.
She kicked her feet beneath the workstation she was strapped to. The motion didn’t work the same as it did on Earth, but she couldn’t stop herself from fidgeting.
The database beeped.
Zero matches found for Sample 2502. Please insert a name for New Element.
Her heart stopped, and she read the words again. Her hands shook as she typed a scientific-sounding variation of Clayton’s surname into the database.
Her index finger hovered over the Enter key as she read the name again. She let her digit drop onto the button with a clack.
She looked out the small, heavily reinforced window. She could see Earth far off in the distance – a small blue and green orb hundreds of thousands of kilometres away – and she missed him.