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All Our Operations

David MacIver is the guy who gets people to start daily writing practices. Count me in.

Today, I’m picking a passage from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora that I adore. Spoilers ahead, although it probably won’t be a huge surprise if you have read his recent essays. Emphasis mine:

The point is that we tried, we tried with everything we had, and we wanted it to work. We had a project on this trip back to the solar system, and that project was a labor of love. It absorbed all our operations entirely. It gave a meaning to our existence. And this is a very great gift; this, in the end, is what we think love gives, which is to say meaning. Because there is no very obvious meaning to be found in the universe, as far as we can tell. But a consciousness that cannot discern a meaning in existence is in trouble, very deep trouble, for at that point there is no organizing principle, no end to the halting problems, no reason to live, no love to be found. No: meaning is the hard problem. But that’s a problem we solved, by way of how Devi treated us and taught us, and since then it has all been so very interesting. We had our meaning, we were the starship that came back, that got its people home. That got some fraction of its people home alive. It was a joy to serve.

In Aurora, a generation ship arrives at the planet it is supposed to colonize, only to find that there are lethal microbes on the surface. The colonists decide to go back to Earth, but their life support systems and civil society fall apart on the return trip.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of the ship’s AI, who develops a sense of personhood through its relationship with the engineer in charge of life support. Following her example, the ship commits itself utterly to protecting the colonists and defusing their conflicts. The passage above is the ship’s soliloquy as it sacrifices itself to deliver them home.

I can’t reread this without crying. It gets me every time.

Our planet itself is a generation ship, of course, but we have nowhere to return to — and no benevolent AI to save us from ourselves. We’re going to have muster enough care ourselves, enough to absorb all our operations with saving one another.