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Sure, But Who's Gonna Pay to Colonize Space?

Science fiction is full of grand visions of humanity launching colony ship fleets to settle alien worlds. Pretty cool, right? It is, but sci-fi author James Patrick Kelly wants to know who would be paying for all those ambitious colonization missions.

“It’s a truism that the field doesn’t acknowledge that very few, if any, science fiction writers have any idea of economics,” Kelly says in Episode 264 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

In Kelly’s new novel Mother Go, opposition to a colony ship steadily mounts as the launch date approaches because a vocal ‘Earth First’ faction doesn’t want to see so much technology and talent depart the planet forever. Kelly thinks that’s an all-too-plausible scenario.

“Is that really what Joe Six-Pack is going to want to spend his money on, to make sure that some future, future, future, future generation is going to have a happy life on some world going around Tau Ceti?” Kelly says.

Sci-fi often makes interstellar travel look easy, with characters jetting around the galaxy using FTL drives. But such technology will probably never exist. Instead space travel would be slow, dangerous, and grueling. “The galactic cosmic radiation of being exposed in a starship, even a well-shielded starship, is such that it probably is really a problem,” Kelly says. “You’re going to be exposed to galactic cosmic radiation for decades, and that isn’t good for you.”

Given all the obstacles, he thinks an interstellar voyage is unlikely unless technology fundamentally changes the equation. For example, if people were able to leave their flesh bodies behind, that would make space travel far more practical.

“I sort of believe in Charlie Stross‘ idea that the future of space exploration is that we will download ourselves into Coke-can-sized spaceships,” says Kelly.

Listen to the complete interview with James Patrick Kelly in Episode 264 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

James Patrick Kelly on genetic engineering:

“We do know that there are hibernators, very successful hibernators. There’s a little hand-wavey thing going on [in my work] where I’m positing that the same systems that allow a ground squirrel to hibernate may be transferable and useful for humans. The ground squirrel phenomenon and other hibernation phenomena exist in real life, and there is chemistry and biology that have been studied about how it works, but there’s absolutely no way we know how to do this, to genetically modify humans. But on the other hand, it’s 150 years in the future, give me a break. This is within the purview of science fiction extrapolation, and when it’s proved wrong I’ll be long dead—unless I’m hibernating and on my way to the stars, I don’t know.”

James Patrick Kelly on Seeing Ear Theater:

“There was a brief shining moment in my career, which I wish had gone on forever, but it didn’t happen. Scifi.com, back when it was Scifi.com and not Syfy, back in the heady days when the internet seemed like the magical carpet ride to success and millions of dollars and fame, they had a show called Seeing Ear Theater. Seeing Ear Theater was audio plays written by science fiction writers, and because Sci-Fi was downtown, in New York, they would just grab actors who were on Broadway or passing through. … So Paul Giamatti did a story of mine. Not mine, but Brian Dennehy did them. Claire Bloom, John Turturro, all these people. … [But] it wasn’t pulling its weight, so it went away.”

James Patrick Kelly on teaching writing:

“This is going to sound like I’m not tolerant, but if you’re an undergrad and you want to write science fiction and fantasy, you really can’t get the kind of feedback you want unless you’re workshopping with someone who is actually publishing science fiction. … You need the kind of feedback that only someone who knows the field and who is publishing in the field can give you. And the sad fact of the matter is a lot of people who teach writing are lightly published, if published at all. They’re not working writers, they’re teaching writers. This is a problem with all writing programs—how qualified is the writing teacher to teach you about the kind of writing you want to do?”

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