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This book is nominally science fiction but, unfortunately, it really fails at this genre for modern readers. The story takes place on a starship but other than that it completely fails at being science fiction. It's really more of a depressing dystopian version of Moby Dick than anything else. The debates on the Fermi Paradox feel forced and poorly researched. The author continuously chooses the most pessimistic view of the universe and then tries to salve this depressing outlook with cheap feel-good psychology and hippy logic that just doesn't work very well.
The rest of this review is a more in-depth look at the science problems (physics, medical and psychological).
Bad Spaceflight Science:
Robinson attempts to give us hard sci-fi (no FTL or 'like magic' technologies) but then completely and utterly fails at the task. The time scales described in the story would require reactionless drives, inertial dampeners and near-infinite power sources. As far as it goes, I don't really have a problem with that kind of fiction in science fiction, but either embrace the fiction or go hard sci-fi, don't take a stab at realism and then utterly fail. The ship seems to go from a relative stop at a planet to near-light relativistic speeds without ever having to accelerate or decelerate. There is no thrust inertia at multiple Gs requiring that the ship change orientation or that the crew be strapped into acceleration couches for weeks or months on end in order to reach those velocities.
There is no mention of fuel or reaction mass. There is no mention of how the shuttles go to and from a gravity well on a generational journey. There is no space mining for resources required to operate on this time scale and no allotment for long periods of time to gather the resources the author says they gather at each planet to continue their journey.
There isn't enough time, even with time dilation, to account for interstellar travel by the ship.
Genetics and Medical oversights:
The generational crew on the ship began with around 900 active and 900 crew in cold sleep. By the time of the crew in the story, there are around 200 living crew. For the sake of argument let's assume that 100 are female (half). The story expressly states that the trip back took 20 generations (500 years at 25y/g). The trip out to the edge of the spiral arm (with lots of stopping along the way) took 2000 years which the book describes as 80 generations.
This is a classic evolutionary bottleneck so recessive genes would spread through the population very quickly. Even without any new mutations being present, the shallow gene pool would ensure that each individual crew member's mutations would have many orders of magnitude more than the required time to saturate the available breeding pool long before the story takes place. On average, each human carries around 9 recessive mutations at at least one but statistically two lethal recessive mutations. When you plug this gene pool size into a Punnet Square calculator and run the series the probability of severe genetic issues in the children approach 1:4 (25% chance) by year 600 and approach 100% by year 1500. Long before the story could take place the entire crew would be unable to breed at all.
To add to this, the author makes a passing reference to radiation exposure being a serious issue for the crew. This would greatly increase the mutation problem.
Paranormal Magic Powers
Then we have the absolutely unscientific paranormal abilities being selectively bred into the crew by the mutineers. Not only is this just not science at all, but even if it were possible the book treats expression of this ability as though it is 100% dominate. The problem is that no mutation is 100% dominate until it has spread through the entire population. In order to be noticed and expressed it would have to spread through the crew enough to be statistically likely to happen twice in a generation. By this time you would have *all* mutations brought into the gene pool by the original crew equally likely to be expressed. The probability that you would get a viable expression of the paranormal mutation without getting at least 3 or 4 really really bad mutations is very nearly 0.
No bone and muscle deterioration from living 100% of their lives in 0-g.
According to the book only the two captains have been severely genetically modified for the trip. Even so, the rest of the crew never experiences the effects of going from fetus to full-grown human in zero gravity. Even when this book was written NASA knew all about this problem but Robinson just ignores it like it doesn't exist.
With the science of physics being ignored or overlooked the book's primary focus pushes the reader towards the psychological effects on the crew. The book is absolutely filled with bad psychology from the early 1900s. Everything from failing to understand the role of memory in behavior to failing to understand the nature of multiple personality disorder. The book winds up taking neither side in the nature vs. nurture argument choosing instead to flip-flop on the issue from one chapter to the next. At one moment behavior seems to flow from memory (thus nurture) and the next moment from genetics (thus nature). The author takes no consistent stand and thus leaves the entire issue confusing and irregular for the reader.
We have learned about synaptic weighting in the past few decades which helpfully explains why personality doesn't change with amnesia but does change with pathway damage to the brain (penetration damage that forces the brain to re-route around damaged areas). The book relies on the prevalent theory in psychology in the early 60s that personality derived entirely from experiences and thus could change if the subject's memories are altered. That theory was proven false through experimentation.
The author attempts to tackle the Fermi paradox without exploring most of the possible explanations. He attempts to describe morality in the most basic Freudian terms that had fallen out of favor with most psychologists by the 50s, let alone by the time that Robinson wrote this book. Robinson does a rather poor job of building straw-man arguments in order to have a debate for he reader's benefit but it comes off as a bit forced and/or staged and just doesn't make any of the points clearly. I think Robinson actually realized this as he makes later attempts in the book to cover for the poor case-building with additional plot variations. The reasoning behind the mission, precautions by the mission planners, training for crew actions and apparently pseudo-random destination planning are all juvenile at best and criminally inept wastes of resources at worst. There is only one 'scientist' on the ship which turns out to be the captains bastard. This is explained by the captain's choices, but he says the captain has been conditioned not to put the ship or mission at risk. The lack of scientists, training and procedure manage to make the entire mission a complete failure long before the story takes place. Surely a captain trained for the mission would have had to realize this fact? There is no exogeology, no astronomy, no astrophysics, no signal intelligence or processing experts, no solar spectronomy to predict exoplanet composition before expensive orbital deceleration and acceleration... all of these things would be absolutely essential for a manned exploration mission. In short, Robinson doesn't seem to have researched the subject at all but instead attempted to force contrived characters into a situation where they could have long uninformed debates on the futility of exploration and lonely condition mankind finds itself in as a part of a cold and dead universe. I've seen debates on social media with more depth (that isn't a complement of social media).
In short, I think the book's main focus on the philosophical exploration of the lone miracle of life on earth is juvenile and shallow. (also he undoes it all at the end by introducing aliens back in Sol where the poor human race has killed itself off... so the whole argument gets downgraded to the inane ramblings of the author with himself to no purpose).
I could add more on this but by this point I think I've provided enough depth for why this book has not aged well for 21st century science fiction readers.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Exceeded my expectations. Nicely done narration with a good balance between character differentiation and annoying voices :).
The story itself is outstanding. Several innovative twists on the "generation ship" concept.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I loved the sound of this book. the idea got my imagination going wild. sadly, this book has a very slow moving plot, led by an highly inactive protagonist who moans and feels a hard done by. The obvious questions are dragged out way too long, therefore making it feel very unrealistic. The characters don't have unique voices. Perhaps I feel this way since I finished The Stand by Steven King recently and it has exceptional character voice.