De Nieuwe Batavia: Meat is Cheaper than Metal

A thought exercise:

It occurs to me that, in a resource-constrained environment, the fact that inorganic materials break and wear out becomes a problem over time. Meat, on the other hand, grows back. I can picture a generation-ship culture that uses humans for many moving-parts operations: maintenance, transportation, EVAs.

This would particularly be the case in a mixed waking/cryo ship: the waking crew would be expected to forget a lot of the colonist expertise over the generations, so they would become basically a ship-maintenance team. The colonist-specialists would then wake up on arrival, with their knowledge and experience fresh in their heads.

Over time, the EVA suits would become more important than their wearers. I was thinking about this in the context of an accident. Say someone’s fingers get tangled in a monofilament anchor line and cut off. The shift supervisor asks whether it’s a clean cut—can the fingers be reattached?

When she’s given the severed fingers, she throws the meat in the organics recycling and starts examining the glove material.

Because meat is cheaper than metal.

Take this further, and you find that turking and monitoring are a major part of crew responsibilities, because brains can be replaced and sensors can’t. And crew members who aren’t able to work or turk are euthanized.

Take it even further, and there are lots of leather, sinew and bone artifacts around the ship. (Though it’s possible that bone needs to go back into the mineral cycle, or people start having calcium deficiencies.) Even if we keep the taboo on cannibalism, there are a lot of changes that a “meat is cheaper than metal” culture could wreak.

The challenge, both as a designer of ship’s culture and as a storyteller, is to preserve the sense that people matter in such an environment. My impulse would be to distinguish between the person and the flesh, so that the intellectual and emotional artifacts of a person become more valued as their physical selves become less absolutely theirs.

Imagine a culture of poets and storytellers, artists and philosophers. Imagine that the ship’s radio sings with collective choruses; you tune into a channel not only to listen, but to join in. Imagine a blogging and commenting culture. Imagine vast wikis of knowledge and speculation, poetry and prose.

Then imagine waking up at the end of the journey and finding the whole epic story of sacrifice and art, intertwined and interconnected. Imagine the shock of it, having gone to sleep in an Earth-standard culture. Would it even be possible to engage with that? Or would that culture then be lost?

Imagine studying it, generations after arrival. Imagine becoming a fan of it, remixing it, becoming absorbed in it. Imagine a subculture where the last crumbling human-leather artifacts are traded back and forth and treasured, where teenagers try to recapture that strange, magical time when the mind was, by necessity, separated from the meat, and flew free as a result.

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25 Responses to De Nieuwe Batavia: Meat is Cheaper than Metal

  1. Serge Broom says:

    “…Imagine that the ship’s radio sings with collective choruses; you tune into a channel not only to listen, but to join in…”

    Go and write that story.
    We insist.

  2. Serge Broom says:

    About a ship’s mixed meat/metal… Ellison and Van Vogt once wrote a story about intelligent metal ships, each with a crew of one human. Sometimes two ships would come toghether for the purpose of their humans to mate and create each ship’s next crew. That was in collection “Partners in Wonder”.

  3. fadeaccompli says:

    The fact that the premise comes across as creepy a lot faster than it does beautiful–and that I have to step back and think about it to see the beauty–says a lot about how hard it is to maintain that body/person divide, I think. It’s very hard for me to picture “meat is cheap” applied to humans and still see there being a step back from “humans are cheap.”

  4. When a metal part breaks or wears out, the metal atoms are no more likely to vanish into the ether than random organic stuff is. Basic bronze age metalwork requires mere bronze age temperatures and techniques; similarly for iron age metals. Exotics like beryllium and titanium are trickier, but it’s unlikely wood/bone/leather is going to be a better substitute for a beryllium or titanium part than would be steel.

    On the other hand, it takes a fairly large infrastructure to build an integrated-circuit-based pocket calculator. But if we can engineer a guinea pig with a nine digit display on its side and a keyboard of nipples…

  5. fadeaccompli@3:
    There would definitely be a cultural gap between the colonists and the crew at the end of the journey. I’m not sure how they would bridge that.

    Imagine waking up from coldsleep and being given a pair of human leather-and-sinew sandals. Definitely some story in the reaction there.

    Stephan @4:
    The problem is that metal that wears out wears out into metal dust; collecting that is a bit challenging (and therefore equipment-heavy and costly). I agree that broken parts may be repaired, either by mobile high-temperature work like welding or fixed stuff like forging. But a forge is heavy and energy- expensive for a ship; I’d expect them to try to make do without one.

    Humans don’t require nearly as much heavy equipment to reproduce. Indeed, it takes a fair amount of external intervention to stop us making more humans.

    I think, on balance, that I would want to keep the calcium cycle closed, so it’s less about bone replacing steel than it is about leather and sinew replacing other materials. And, more significantly, human effort used to save wear and tear on inorganic devices. Teach humans mental math (or give them an abacus) and you don’t need your guinea-pig calculators.

  6. It occurs to me that when the cold-sleep colonists wake up, what we have is a first contact story between groups of humans.

  7. (A) I think you’re overestimating what can be done with pencil, paper, and an abacus; they can’t manage transcendental functions in less than hours, or days if you want real precision. Slide rules and precomputed tables of sines, logarithms, and so forth definitely help– but to actually reach the Moon without sailing off into the void or crashing, we still needed electronic computers both on the ground and in the spacecraft. (B) You can collect dust with a broom. More realistically, if you have (for instance) a thousand tons of important steel widgets and the ship dies if more than half of them are out of order at any given time, you bring along a smelter, a foundry, and a machine shop, plus an extra thousand tons of carbon and iron– perhaps in the form of stuff that’s nice to have but not essential, such as pianos and disconcerting statues of cats. If tripling the amount of mass on board means your effective delta-V and thus post-acceleration-phase cruising speed is a third what it was, so be it; it’s a generation ship, there’s no hurry. (C) You’re going to have to start doing some real computations about your craft’s size, mass, and energy budget at some point– and humans are such big animals, the numbers get astronomical (har!) in a big hurry. For instance: assuming your crew are in interstellar space and are vegetarians growing plants under artificial light, they’re going to need cropland– probably a rock bottom of .07 hectares/person, according to The next green revolution: Its environmental underpinnings. Cropland has to be illuminated for the plants to grow. Solar flux maxes out at 1 kW/m^2 on the ground on Earth; we can cut this in half to have half the fields in night at any given time, and then in half again since we won’t lose light to angle of incidence. But that still multiplies out to 700 square meters of cropland illuminated by a jaw-dropping 175 kW of light, PER PERSON. Obviously, it will take more energy than that to drive the lights; current low-pressure sodium lamps, for example, are 15-29% efficient. That’s going to mean some mighty heavy power generation equipment, even if we assume (for instance) nigh perfect lights and power plants a tenth the mass of the most efficient reactors we can build today.

    Obviously, I don’t know if you’re envisioning a crew of tens, hundreds, thousands, or what. Regardless, I’m willing to bet that once you run the numbers, it’ll be easier to see why I’m willing to blithely say “bring along a smelter, a foundry, and a machine shop”. Tools and the energy to drive them really aren’t all that heavy compared to what it takes to sustain animals.

  8. I wasn’t thinking of running a ship without appropriate computing power for navigation. I was referring to the electronic guinea pig-level calculations: “How many scoops of what am I going to have to use to make enough nutrient fluid to fill this tank?” We do a lot of it with calculators now that is eminently suited to pen-and-paper, abacus or slide rule. Larger calculations can be triaged between abacus-turking and taking some (limited) core system time.

    There’s a difference between “limited resources; triage and drop some down to work-and-turk” and “everything is done by humans”. I was never talking about a ship without any resources, just looking at a different place to put the line than usual for this kind of fiction. Even with a smelter, a foundry and a machine shop, there isn’t infinite resource. There are only so many disconcerting statues of cats on-ship; each one should be melted down at need only.

    (And the problem with the broom-solution is that dust gets into unsweepable areas, and that it’s mixed up with lots of other crap, both organic and not. Extracting the materials back to their usable forms takes multiple stages for some materials, and may not be possible at all for others. A pile of steel and rubber dust doesn’t go back onto the worn parts of a handcart that easily.)

    I think the basic point is that meat is part of a cycle that’s running anyway, while metal isn’t. Prioritizing using renewable resources over non-renewable ones is a no-brainer for ship design, and can lead to some interesting storytelling.

  9. Thought, cycling this morning: the second half of the saying is…and mind is more precious than air.

    I’m thinking about how people on the ship would value each other, even after the meat they had custody of has gone on to other uses. Their artistic contributions would be remembered, of course. But what if people were frequently tattooed, and the leather with those tattoos became a memento? You’d use it for repairs of frequently-used items, where you could see it and remember the person who wore that flesh.

    (I think there’s a whole range of vocabulary for the separation of meat-and-mind: having custody of meat, wearing flesh, being steward of the body, passing on their resources as a euphemism for death.)

  10. Kaleberg says:

    Why would meat be cheaper than metal? They can both be recycled. If metal can be dispersed into dust too fine to be collected by a broom, meat also disperses in the form of flaking skin, sweat and saliva. Can these be collected and recycled while small inorganics cannot?

    Since the ship will need to have sufficient energy resources to slow down and match the speed of its destination, it will have to have a massive power generation system. Given relativistic effects, I’m guessing that the entire life support system, including smelters, fabricators and recycling systems will be able to operate off an engine bleed like air conditioning on a jet.

    Keeping the engines working would require a maintenance system including spare parts, spare mass, and an intelligent set of operators to deal with the various contingencies. It’s not like there’s a plan B if the engine goes out and cannot be repaired. Since those operators will probably be short lived compared to the journey, there will need to be an intelligent community to train them and support them.

    They aren’t going to be immortal brains in a jar. We’ve seen that movie, and it didn’t turn out well. They aren’t going to be able to kidnap a Vulcan brain now and then either. We’ve seen that episode, and it didn’t turn out well either. They aren’t going to be basket weavers. Any serious star ship engine is going to take more than macrame to keep running.

  11. It’s not about eliminating mechanization. It’s about minimizing in-journey use of mechanization, because a multi-functional, mobile human being with judgment is easier to produce or (if already produced) train than a computer or maintenance bot is to repair.

    It’s about where we choose which place we draw these lines.

    Also, it’s about what tells the best story, since this is worldbuilding for fiction. I’m not, you know, going to go out and build a generation ship in my backyard once the rain stops. Does everyone quibble about books with FTL too? To this degree?

  12. David Wald says:

    Something about the feeling of the idea is making me flash on Orson Scott Card’s early short stories, but it may be only my reflexive reaction to the idea of the…physical artifacts.

    In terms of practicalities, humans repair themselves fairly quickly from many things, but don’t have the quickest or most robust reproductive cycle. Would humans be the only meat?

    In terms of storytelling, it seems like you’ve got several very different stories to tell: at least one for each of your last four paragraphs.

  13. It think the difference with FTL is that very few stories are about FTL itself. Mostly, FTL is just a means to telling other stories about other things. You’re trying to tell a story about what happens when meat is cheap relative to metal. People are commenting on the substance of the story.

  14. I’d disagree.

    Stories using FTL say, “Assume FTL. What societies spring out of that? What does that make possible?”

    I was saying, “Assume meat is cheaper than metal. What societies spring out of that? What does that make possible?”

    I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t bother to write this stuff down where anyone else can see it.

  15. Serge Broom says:

    I for one welcome Abi’s writing ‘this stuff’ where anyone can see it.

  16. Lylassandra says:

    I think we perhaps read your proposal as “would it ever be that X” rather than “assume X”, and so answered the wrong question.

    So here’s my quick thought– how are the sleepers going to feel when they wake up and realize they’re on a (clearly mandatory) donor list, and might be needed at any time? After all, if someone else is injured and loses a bit, you have two lungs, ten fingers, and a host of other spares to give…

    And now I’m flashing to Pratchett’s Igors, excuse me…

  17. how are the sleepers going to feel when they wake up and realize they’re on a (clearly mandatory) donor list, and might be needed at any time?

    Crystallizing what was in my head when I was thinking of this….the ship has two compliments of people on board.

    Colonists spent a bunch of time training in homesteading, farming, minor terraforming (I’m assuming a relatively habitable destination planet), plus the range of skills and sciences needed to start a civilization at something higher than late-medieval level. They’re in cold sleep. Their skills and knowledge are part of the payload of the ship, along with the seeds, embryonic and cold-slept livestock, etc. They are, culturally, from the world they came from (assume Earth). When they wake up, they expect to recreate that culture, or one very like it. Their population is somewhere in the mid triple digits.

    Crew are a completely separate community, something around a hundred strong. They have a constructed (and agreed-upon by their g?-grandparents) culture designed to get the payload of the ship to its destination. They all know, at least intellectually, that their culture is temporary, because when they make planetfall the colonists will form the majority.

    I was further assuming that the cold-sleep capsules and technology aren’t readily capable of being intricately tinkered with on-ship. Specifically, once a capsule is opened, the sleeper wakes, and it may not be possible to put them back to sleep safely.

    So opening the cold storage and lopping off a finger or two wouldn’t really work. But the crew don’t believe that their individual physical integrity is important enough to sacrifice the payload — the mission — for. I can see some tension if a crew member has a skillset that they haven’t passed on, and have a weak heart; of course there’s then the temptation to crack a capsule and use a compatible one. But if one of the shared values of the ship is that the mission — delivery of the intact payload to the destination — is more important than individual lives, then that option is off the table. Suggesting it is, quite seriously, taboo.

    The fallout from this is that skills have to be redundant. There will probably be explicit tracking of a whole bunch of abilities, to ensure that no crucial skill has too few practitioners. I’m not talking about knowledge (the collection of facts on a given topic), but skill (the internalization of that knowledge, plus a bunch of experience, plus the muscle-memory of how to do the things in question).

    An interesting story — one that’s knocking about in my head — is what happens if the crew have to wake a colonist while still en route.

    Consider one of the agricultural experts (a highly redundant skill in the colonist population, so waking one doesn’t diminish the pool of expertise too much). She goes to sleep thinking she’ll wake on a new world with all of the people she’s been training with, these last ten years or so. Maybe she has a partner asleep in the next capsule over, as well as all of her friends and colleagues.

    She wakes up to find herself surrounded by oddly-dressed people she doesn’t recognize, all showing signs of nutritional deficiency. Something’s gone wrong in Hydroponics, and they needed to wake her or the mission will fail. She’s got to work with this essentially alien community to solve the problem. And then, at the end of it, she has to choose whether to live the rest of her life with them, or go back into coldsleep, with the risk that it will fail and she will die.

  18. Note that David Wald @12 was in the spam trap.

    Would humans be the only meat?

    Ooh, now, that’s an interesting question. I’d thought so, because we’re able to do both brain and brawn things, but there’s a world of possibility in either (semi-)intelligent engineered animals, or just well-chosen natural ones. Among other things, they’d make it easier to do things in constricted areas…

    Must think more on this. Excellent avenue to explore! Thank you!

    In terms of storytelling, it seems like you’ve got several very different stories to tell: at least one for each of your last four paragraphs.

    Yes. I think that’s why it intrigues me. There are so many places to go with it.

  19. Lylassandra says:

    I was thinking more of the clash on final awakening. I don’t know how long a trip it is, but I wonder how easy it would be to remember that your culture is “disposable”– especially if the trip lasts more than a generation. It would be hard, I think, to abandon the urge to fix your computer programmer when they lose their fingers while that agri-expert stands there with a full set after landing. What kind of resentments would it create when the expert refuses, even if they had all “agreed” that this thinking would be temporary? Would he not be considered immensely selfish by the crew, even if within his rights?

    Perhaps the only way to ameliorate the potential for such resentment would be to try and build some sort of worship and expectation into their view of the colonists, such that they would be willing to abandon their own culture in favor of the colonists’, and indeed expect them to act selfishly “as is their due”. Possibly this would even dovetail nicely with the “mind is more precious than air” half of things: these experts are so valued for their minds that it carries over into value for their flesh.

    Of course, you then run the risk of said worship backfiring, especially if the worship grows and changes (as religions are wont to do), and the colonists, once awoken, don’t turn out to be what the crew wanted. (Would we really be all that happy with King Arthur if he came back?)

  20. I think it would be hard to see your culture as disposable, but I wonder if the crew wouldn’t be back-footed by being on a planet anyway. Their whole enclosed world will go away. They’ll want to stay in orbit. Maybe they’ll break away from the plan and become in-system miners, trading with the colonists, but never joining them.

    It would be hard, I think, to abandon the urge to fix your computer programmer when they lose their fingers while that agri-expert stands there with a full set after landing.

    I don’t think the crew would think they’re entitled to each other’s parts, in part because they shouldn’t care enough to use up ship’s resources making the transfer. Really, what they’ve learned is not to care if meat is damaged. The computer programmer doesn’t get to treasure his lost fingers. And if there’s a choice between metal and meat, the sacrifice of meat should be the default, unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise.

    I think the culture clash would come if the agronomist loses his fingers and is upset. The crew would be baffled and contemptuous of someone so selfish as to care. That kind of injury is a reason to train your replacement, not sit around and be traumatized. It’s not like someone blew an irreplaceable circuit board, for crying out loud.

    Perhaps the only way to ameliorate the potential for such resentment would be to try and build some sort of worship and expectation into their view of the colonists, such that they would be willing to abandon their own culture in favor of the colonists’, and indeed expect them to act selfishly “as is their due”. Possibly this would even dovetail nicely with the “mind is more precious than air” half of things: these experts are so valued for their minds that it carries over into value for their flesh.

    Or they worship the Mission itself, the sacred trust their ancestors took up. The safe delivery of the colonists to the destination world is part of the Mission. Don’t mess with the Mission.

  21. Ide Cyan says:

    One word: Farscape.

  22. jacque says:

    Reading your idea, I immediately flashed on the movie The Fast Runner, which is a movie telling an Inuktitut legend. What struck me is that Inuktitut technology of the time was very nearly entirely animal-tissue-based, though not human tissue. But I think in all the movie, the only materials we see used that are non-organic are the odd stone, and water. (Their use of water is fascinating, btw. Think “paintable stone.”)

    “My impulse would be to distinguish between the person and the flesh, so that the intellectual and emotional artifacts of a person become more valued as their physical selves become less absolutely theirs.”

    For this point, I find myself thinking of Samuri culture: “a samurai must be willing to die at any moment in order to be true to his lord.”

  23. Mea says:

    The riverworld book(s?) by Philip Jose Farmer plays with the meat separated from brain idea. I recall mark twain being there, and when you were killed you merely sprang back in a new body further downstream, and people used leather made from human skin and such. Others will know more – the idea of using human leather is so repugnant to me, even in the carefully constructed riverworld world, that I couldn’t keep reading. And other parts of Farmer’s book were really interesting, but I have a huge, huge problem with even conceptualizing the use of human remains in that way (since i was introduced to the idea of human leather by going to the museum of the holocaust at MUCH too young an age).

    In other words, count me a vote for playing with the reusable component idea with critters other than humans. Because there are readers like me who want to focus on the ideas that interest you, but could get permanently stuck and put off with a !!!TABOO!! reaction to use of human parts.

  24. Mea @24:

    Thank you for the feedback. I don’t happen to have so strong a taboo reaction, and it’s worth remembering that others do.

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