The cradle of the Space Hook, a device that lowers and lifts humans into space. Image by Weta Workshop, courtesy of the author.

How Humans Will Live in Space 5000 Years from Now, According to Neal Stephenson

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

In the new novel Seveneves, science fiction author Neal Stephenson blows up the Moon.

The cradle of the Space Hook, a device that lowers and lifts humans into space. Image by Weta Workshop, courtesy of the author.

In the new novel Seveneves, science fiction author Neal Stephenson blows up the Moon. The Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon author does so by using a stealthy black hole to disintegrate Earth's luminous satellite.

At first, the effects of "the Event" seem minimal. The Moon is broken into seven pieces, with each given playful names. But after a few weeks, a popular physicist named Doc Dubois—seemingly modeled on Neil deGrasse Tyson—realizes that the moon bits are starting to collide. And, in a couple years' time, the resulting lunar debris will rain hellfire onto Earth's surface for thousands of years, ending almost all life on the planet.

Stephenson's fictional disaster scenario allows Earth's leaders to do something they could never agree on in reality: work together to save the human species from certain extinction. Over two and a half years, hundreds of rockets are sent with the world's best and brightest minds aboard, equipped with supplies and genetic samples from Earth's flora and fauna. This "Cloud Ark", as Stephenson calls it, becomes the orbital base from which future humans and their swarming robots build a space ring habitat. The second part of the novel envisions life on the space ring 5,000 years in the future.

Stephenson recently spoke to Motherboard about how such a ring habitat would be built, and why humans would have to alter their genetics to survive in space.

Motherboard: After you destroy the moon in Seveneves, why did you settle on an orbital ring habitat for the survivors instead of some deep space exploration initiative?
Stephenson: As I see it, there's basically two ways to think about building big things in space. One is to go to Mars and the other is to use in situ resources—so, asteroids. In situ people have been talking for a long time about using asteroids to construct big space colonies. The other point of view is let's go to Mars, build things there and do terraforming.

Did you reference any existing engineering or design plans for the orbital mechanics of the ring habitat?
In the distant future, the basic design habitat ring is assumed to be an O'Neill double barrel kind of design, which has been around since I think the 1970s. Some of the other ideas that you see originated with me, as far as I know. The idea of having the eye which sort of moves around the habitat, and works as a ferry to connect [the habitats] all together, was a thing that I came up with, although you never know with space. You always find someone who came up with the idea 50 years ago.

Some of the other devices that are shown, like the sky hook thing that reaches down and grabs people out of the the ground or atmosphere, are also pretty old school space hardware ideas that have been floating around for a long time.

All of these ideas belong to a school of thought that looks into the distant future and thinks really big, and says, "Look, if we were to organize the resources that are out there for the taking (the matter and the energy), if we were to go out there and systematically organize those into machines that could give us places to live, and give us the energy we'd need, what would that look like?"

The International Space Station ("Izzy" in the book) attached to the asteroid Amalthea. Image by Weta Workshop, courtesy of Neal Stephenson

Can you describe the O'Neill habit ring that appears in Seveneves?
An O'Neill habitat consists of a pair of big cylinders that rotate in opposite directions so that they cancel out each other's angular momentum. And each one has got Earth normal gravity, and it's got a system of mirrors that bounce sunlight in to illuminate the landscape so that you can grow crops. It's got a functioning ecosystem, and it kind of supplies everything that you would need to run a civilization.

In the first part of Seveneves, there is a ticking clock for building out Izzy [the book's nickname for the International Space Station] into a swarm of "arklets"—independent capsules that can be tethered to another another—that you call the "Cloud Ark." How difficult would this be to pull off without a ticking clock?
There are people that are actively working on this today. So I collaborated with a company here in Seattle called Planetary Resources, which is trying to do exactly that. The first step in that process is simply evaluating what's out there.

The asteroids out there in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter are plentiful, but far out and hard to get to. There are also a lot of asteroids in Earth-like orbits. They're either slightly inside the Earth's orbit or slightly outside or they cross the Earth's orbit, and that's a much smaller population than the main asteroid belt. But, it's still got enough in it to supply any kind of realistic need we would have in the near future.

Would it be easier, relatively speaking, for the humanity of the present to build space habitats in situ rather than send rockets up with construction materials?
Oh, it's no contest. At least with the launch technology we have today, which is rockets, it's very expensive and uses a lot of energy. The cost of getting a kilogram of just about anything into orbit is incredibly high, so the best way to leverage that is to basically send up hardware that goes and grabs asteroids. Once we figure out how to do it, then I think the numbers pencil out very clearly in favor of using in situ resources.

The future humans are very technologically advanced in the second part of the novel, and I'm curious if you considered if any of these people might have abandoned the idea of going back to Earth? Might they have instead considered going outward into space?
Once you've built a big spacefaring civilization that is orbiting around the Earth, there's not much need to go outward. The Moon is gone, so the next place you could go is Mars, and you could make some good arguments in favor of going to Mars, but man it is very expensive in terms of the energy you have to put in and the time you have to take. So, if you completely take away the historical and emotional side of it, completely pretend that doesn't exist, I think there are still really strong arguments for sticking with Earth.

But then I think realistically there would be a very strong emotional pull to go back to Earth. We see this all the time in exile communities. People who have had to leave as what they see as their native soil, and now they're living in a diaspora somewhere else. There's this intense longing and all types of ritual and tradition that perpetuates that longing to go home again. And I think all of that would happen in the case of this civilization, so I'm pretty sure that the technical argument combined with the emotional argument would be pretty much overwhelming.

A diagram of genetic drift among the various future human groups. Courtesy Neal Stephenson

One of the more interesting aspects of Seveneves is the swarming robots that can assemble into various forms to build the space habitat ring, amongst other things like the eye and space hook vehicles. How far are we away from swarming robots that can carve up asteroids, comets and moon rock to build such structures as well as perform all of these other tasks in the book?
Well, swarming behavior is something that is increasingly well understood, and we see for example people playing with swarms of drones. So I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that sort of thing happening if there were an incentive to build those. There are people in robotics playing with a lot of different morphologies. Robots that look like snakes, robots that look like crabs, robots that go around on wheels, and humanoid robots. You've got drones.

In a way, what I'm doing here is over-simplifying things a little bit to a pretty small number of different morphologies and those [can] be the sort of stem cells that whole races of robots evolve from in the human future. In reality it's much more of a menagerie than I'm making it out to be.

"We already have humans with consciousness and souls and the ability to think like humans, and we already know how to make more of them, and it actually turns out to be a lot of fun."

The way people behave with technology is interesting. We look around our technological environment and we tend to assume that whatever is there is there for some logical reason. But a lot of times what is there, like the QWERTY keyboard, is kind of an historical accident that became enshrined as the way we do things, and it's really no better than other ways we might have done it and sometimes it's actually worse. That's just a reality of how people adopt technology, and I assume that that continues into the future.

It's also refreshing that the robots, or AI, are not evil in Seveneves. Here you have the robots performing helpful, mechanical tasks—namely repairing things and building huge structures. Compared to a story like Ex Machina or Transcendence, it's a different notion of how robots will function in the future.
Well, that's kind of my take on how it would happen realistically. We already have humans with consciousness and souls and the ability to think like humans, and we already know how to make more of them, and it actually turns out to be a lot of fun. So, the idea that we would make human-like robots doesn't make a lot of sense. If we're going to the trouble and expense of robots, then we should make ones that aren't very much like humans, and do the stuff that we cannot do.

In the novel you talk about future humans "slamming" comets onto the Earth to create water. Going back to "the Event," when the moon rocks start falling to Earth and set the planet on fire, is it assumed that bodies of water evaporate? What, in your own mind, happened to the water at that point, and in the following thousands of years?
I assume that most of it turns into steam, goes into the atmosphere, and some of it may escape (into space), and some of it may get chemically combined with substances and stop being water. And some if it may be retained and eventually be condensed back into liquid water once things cool back down again.

So when future humans slam comets full of frozen water onto the Earth, what is it that they are doing exactly? What is their game plan?
It's an attempt to replace all of the water that has either escaped or chemically turned into something else, by just taking available water. If you're that kind of civilization, and you've got the ability to move asteroids and comets around the solar system at will, and if you're thinking on a sufficiently long timescale, then it's not a big deal to drop comets onto the surface.

It's not so much that each comet turns into a lake or something like that. It's just that you're increasing the total amount of water in the atmosphere, and most of it initially just evaporates and becomes water vapor in the air. But if you keep doing it long enough, the water vapor is going to start falling as rain, and oceans and lakes are going to come back.

Through a character in the first part of Seveneves, Moira, a genetics researcher sent to Izzy to launch the Cloud Ark, you go into epigenetics. This is integral to the novel's plot because living permanently in space would require genetic tweaking. Moira's epigenetic tweaking for the benefit of her descendants, on the other hand, is a personal choice. Where are we as far as tweaking genes and using epigenetics on organisms?
Well, Moira is fixing things that need to be fixed. The epigenetics stuff is kind of in a separate category. It's a pretty new field, relatively speaking.

We were all brought up to understand that we all have this DNA code that is unique, and it determines how we are—what we look like and how our bodies work. There's a lot of DNA that was considered "junk DNA" because it didn't seem to be expressed or doing anything. But newer thinking is that there is DNA that kind of gets turned on or off, or gets suppressed or expressed depending on various factors that are sort of contingent on what's going on in the life of the organism.

The scenario in the book is that each of the eves makes their own choice as to what their descendants are going to look like. Moira is the genetics expert, and the choice that she makes is to go deep on the epigenetic thing, and imbue her descendants with this trait that, depending on what happens to them during their lives in response to good things or bad things, that they will undergo an epigenetic shift and kind of go to sleep for a few weeks, and when they wake up their sort of a different person. So, that's just a part of their ethnic makeup, and everyone knows about it, and society has adjusted to that reality.

The Eye, a space vehicle and habitat that moves around the future civilization's orbital space ring. Image by Weta Workshop, courtesy of Neal Stephenson

As you get into the second part of the novel, which jumps 5,000 years into the future, you have this free market system in action amongst the seven races descended from the seven eves, which helps create the orbital ring. What are your thoughts on this inability to evolve beyond this economic mentality even though we're talking human extinction if there is no cooperation?
Well, in the early portion of the book the debate that they are having is just the debate that they would have. You can't open a newspaper or go into any political discussion forum without people debating the pros and cons of the free market, and we all know how that conversation goes. The people who are pro-free market point to the failure of centralized planned economies, and say, "Look, it's more efficient and it gives us a better standard of living." And people who are more skeptical have counter-arguments, and back and forth that discussion goes.

So, I assume that it would be weird for me to write a book, set in the present day, where people are talking about creating a new political economy and that discussion doesn't happen. The same people would be having the same discussion, and it would be made a little more interesting by the fact that in a confined space-faring group there would be a need for collective action that might not be a good fit with a complete libertarian philosophy.

In the distant future part of the novel I don't really get into how the economic system works. Superficially, it looks not that different from what we've got now, and that's sort of a deliberate choice of what kind of a world that I thought would be interesting to write about. One in which that is easily recognizable to people living now, but that has this whole history behind it that's completely different, and is trying to engage in this crazy new experiment of re-terraforming the surface of the Earth.