Charlie Stross has an interesting post on designing a society for a generation ship— a structure intended to ferry a large number of people to another star over the course of a few hundred years.

Most stories set on such ships seem to be about their failure, which is perhaps why Stross is worried about how to organize the shipboard society.  Perhaps his most provocative comment:

One thing I’m pretty certain of is that the protestant work ethic underlying American-style capitalism, with its added dog-eat-dog ethos, would be a recipe for disaster aboard a generation ship — regardless of whether it’s run as a democracy or a dictatorship. American (or British) working hours are a bizarre cultural aberration — and a very local one. More to the point, competitive capitalism tends to reward increases in operational efficiency, but efficiency is most easily optimized by paring away at the margins — a long-term lethal threat to life in this situation. The “tragedy of the commons” has got to be engineered out aboard a generation ship, otherwise the residents will wake up one [virtual] morning to discover someone’s acquired a monopoly on the oxygen supply. And that’s just for starters.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I suspect he’s right, given the contraints we’re talking about: a tiny little ecosphere can’t take either cutthroat competition or unbridled change.  But then you may face an even trickier problem on the other end: a society geared to milennial stability may be poorly adapted to actually founding a colony on the other end.

But then, I’ve always been out of sympathy with the idea of “let’s settle another planet ‘cos this one is screwed.”  If we haven’t solved the problem of screwing up planets, colonization doesn’t help.  If you’re an arsonist, you don’t solve your burning house problem by moving to a new house. 

FWIW, I think Stross’s problem is most easily solved by extending the human lifetime.  More to come in my SF novel. 🙂