De Nieuwe Batavia: Reduce

I recently cleaned out my T-shirt drawer, which had slowly gone from “full” to “overflowing”. What you see is the culled, tidied version. There are 41 T-shirts in there, 12 of which are black.

Why do I own 12 black T-shirts? Well, each is a special and unique snowflake little different, and those differences matter to me. There are long-sleeved ones and short-sleeved ones, ones with designs and plain ones, girly-fit ones and normal-fit ones. Some of them are older, stiffer and greyer; some are new, soft and coal-black.

But the real reason I have 12 black T-shirts is because I can. They’re relatively cheap1, so I can afford to buy them with very little reason. And I have room to store them.2

Neither of those conditions would apply in space3. Even if the ship is in trading range of a planet, getting a cotton T-shirt—or its component materials—out of a gravity well isn’t cheap. Out of trading range, I’d be taking the shirt out of finite ship’s stores, so I’d have to pay scarcity and opportunity costs on top of the shipping cost. And, as always in a built and pressurized environment, every cubic meter of storage space is expensive.

One could, of course, use storage areas outside the pressurized body of the ship. They’d be a lot like the self-storage units that have become ubiquitous in much of the First World. Rather than put on a P-suit and root around in there, I suspect customers would pay an access fee to have their unit repressurized while they added and removed possessions.4. Note that these units would still have mass, so if you’re writing about a ship under acceleration, account for the costs of boosting them.

So what does life look like when every garment is expensive and storage space is tight? Well, people have fewer clothes, obviously. I’d be more likely to have 4 T-shirts, two of them black, or a single black T-shirt.

But if I could only have a single black T-shirt, what would it look like? Instead of buying one of every variant of sleeve, tailoring and design that I liked, I’d have to choose. Different people would choose differently, of course: I would probably pick a neutral style, because it would to go with the other things I wore. But others would get something quirky and make it characteristic: one of those garments that evokes its owner even when it’s off5.

One trait that the few remaining garments would probably share is quality. If a mediocre €10 T-shirt and a durable €20 one both have a €2 shipping cost, then quality is a material factor in the price. In that case, I’m more likely to buy low-quality ones than I would if shipping added €40 onto the cost. This feeds off of the space issue, as well; I’m more likely to experiment with a lower-quality shirt if I’ve got a place to put it.7

Then, having the shirt, I’d wear it to death, unless I could find a way to resell it and make back some of the shipping cost. I’d maintain it carefully, mending tears and redying it when it got too faded. Then I’d use the rag for cleaning.

Now take these constraints, these particular kinds of scarcity, and expand them out. Everything in a space station or generation ship would be subject to the same pressures of room and cost. It’s a given that people in space will own less stuff. What’s interesting is how what they own will be different as a result; the changes are deeper than the fact that there’s no Costco out there in the black.

  1. Too cheap, really. Water costs in the production of the cotton, labor costs in the entire manufacturing and supply chain, and shipping costs (including end-of-life transport costs) are all lower than is morally defensible. But that’s another blog entry entirely (or, perhaps, a lifetime of activism).
  2. Until I don’t. Then I clean out the drawer again.
  3. Indeed, there are many places on earth where one or both of those conditions do not apply. Again, there’s another blog entry or ten in there.
  4. Not everything would survive the pressure and temperature variations: liquids and pastes could do interesting things. There are some story ideas in there, or at least some ideas for realistic touches in a wider plot.
  5. Combine the way sparse wardrobes increase the tendency to associate characteristic garments with the people who own them with the need to recycle6, and what do you get? Quilting. Particularly because spacefaring environments will probably tend to be a little chilly.
  6. Yes, inevitably, I’ll be writing about this in a little while.
  7. I’m also more likely to tolerate unexpected defects and false advertising. I would expect robust consumer protection to be part of the social order in a closed society in space. Picture the outrage one feels when one is being ripped off, particularly for large amounts of money. Now picture that same outrage where a person can find the merchant who ripped them off, and where the vacuum is always out there, waiting…

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42 Responses to De Nieuwe Batavia: Reduce

  1. SteveG says:

    Re: footnote seven: you get San Francisco during Gold Rush days, when a chicken egg cost a dollar, and a dishonest man’s life was worth rather less than that.

    Re: footnote five: you also get much more deliberate personalization of garments.

    Re: article: in a generation ship, you may in fact own only one garment, generally approximating a bodysuit, to which you apply power/resource at intermittent intervals to rearrange its color. If you are very wealthy, you may own two garments, which differ from one another in form so strikingly as to advertise to all who see you more than once that you do, in fact, own *two* suits of clothes.

  2. Serge Broom says:

    “…Neither of those conditions would apply in space3. Even if the ship is in trading range of a planet, getting a cotton T-shirt—or its component materials—out of a gravity well isn’t cheap…”

    So says Captain James T Shirt.

    That being said, you should write that story. There’s a time-honored tradition of tales about space traders who carry cargo from one point of space to another. The cargo is rarely specified, but if Harcourt Fenton Mudd is involved, it probably isn’t legal.

  3. Serge Broom says:

    …and who says that t-shirts are legal in the future. They may even be euphoria-inducing substances for the inhabitants of Gamma Trianguli 23.

  4. Serge Broom says:

    “…there’s no Costco out there in the black…”

    I see what you just did there.

  5. heresiarch says:

    “Instead of buying one of every variant of sleeve, tailoring and design that I liked, I’d have to choose.”

    Or, moddable clothing will become the norm. Can’t choose between a long-sleeve and a short-sleeve shirt? How about one with removable sleeves? Can’t choose between a form-hugging shirt and a loose-fit? How about a shirt made with expanding and contracting fibers? I think this fits with:

    “One trait that the few remaining garments would probably share is quality.”

    Maybe that moddable shirt* costs €100, but if it’s well-made, has deep value, and is tailored to your exact standards then it’s still a good deal. (Perhaps even before you factor in transport costs–does spacer clothing carry a caché down the gravity well? Or do they emphasize what they can do better, and the height of earth fashion becomes wear-once-then-throw-away couture?)

    *I’m reminded of Stephenson’s chord and bolt in Anathem.

  6. Steve @1:

    Bodysuits are about the worst idea, actually, because the shabbiness of the whole depends on the wear of its component parts. In other words, if space kids go through the knees of their clothing the way my 10 year old does his jeans, why do their parents have to discard their “shirts”? Better to have separate garments so that one can replace only the damaged/worn parts.

    Which gets at another piece of heresiarch @5. Detachable sleeves mean replaceable sleeves.

    My only concern would be fading: you swap to a new pair of sleeves, and their freshness makes the torso of the shirt look tired and worn. Which is kind of back to my reaction to Steve: maybe clothing becomes even more modular than we currently tend toward: bodysuit like a women’s one-piece swimsuit, jacket-like structure providing the sleeves, leggings.

  7. Solution: explore space naked.

    Or perhaps more realistically: for a generation ship, there’s going to have to be an internal ecosystem, recycling biomass via plants and animals and such. (Unless the plan is to pack several centuries worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.) Grow a few cotton plants every now and then and proceed as usual. (If you don’t care for white, you can dye cotton blue with some indigo plants and a “sig vat”, which is a very DIRECT way to recycle a particular waste material.)

    More generally, a given volume and mass of generation ship might be abject poverty for its denizens if there’s no spare energy– obviating its use for production of things like cotton and dyes, so it’s “make that one shirt last or go naked”– but relatively comfortable if there’s enough energy that some can be diverted to (for instance) recycling and replacing a black T-shirt the minute it begins to fade. The same sort of thing happens for ships that accelerate within a system; if you’ve got an ion drive powered by a kilowatt radioisotope thermoelectric generator and margins are so tight that an extra hundred grams of shirt increases costs unacceptably, “explore space naked” might actually be the solution. But if you’ve got fusion torch drives and are hauling gigatons of iron ore astronomical units because it’s less expensive to use an already-built big smelter far away than it is to build a new one where the ore is– well, odds are you can have TWO drawers of T-shirts, should you so desire.

  8. TexAnne says:

    Knitters and historical reenactors to the rescue! Sewn tucks weren’t just a design element; they were how you made sure a dress could last for years and inches of growth. Unisex clothing à la Hemingway wasn’t just his mother being weird–it doubled the number of children who could wear it. Knitters can darn; then we can ravel; as a last resort, we can shred the yarn, re-card, and re-spin it.

    Although I have to say that “explore space naked” isn’t an unreasonable idea. Presumably ships will have climate control, after all.

  9. Kaleberg says:

    There are no Jiffy Lubes or Aamco Transmissions in deep space either. That means every ship with long term residents has to have a repair shop capable of building and repairing its infrastructure, maybe not everything, but lots of things. Being able to manufacture is much more practical than carrying spare parts. That includes spare tee shirts.

    If the ship is capable of traveling even vaguely near the speed of light, the energy problem has already been solved. Accelerating from 0.100c to 0.105c would require enough energy to keep everyone in freshly manufactured clothing for years. They could run the fabs off an engine bleed the way commercial jets run their air conditioning and hardly notice the difference.

    It might even turn out to be cheaper to refabricate than to launder. That means a fresh, new tee shirt every day. (This might bring back underwear with the days of the week on it, but printed to order.)

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  11. heresiarch says:

    Stephen Zielinski @ 7: “Solution: explore space naked.”

    If nudity were enforced via resource constraints, clothing would become a status symbol and nudity shameful for a whole new set of reasons.* In addition, in as extreme a climate as space, clothes will need to be even more practical and protective that ever. I do not think I would like to be naked when there is an air leak, when I need to shepherd a hundred kilos of waste material through the ship, or really just doing anything in zero g.

    I can see nudity becoming the norm in a large, relatively warm, relatively secure habitat. One could imagine there being major cultural tension between the deepspacers, leading a lifestyle heavily dependent on high individual:resource ratios, and the naked impoverished masses of the hollow asteroids.

    * Or old ones.

  12. This conversation is really making me think about what I expect a generation ship, space station, or interplanetary freighter to be like. And a couple of factors come to mind in this context.

    First of all, I think the people who go on interstellar voyages in generation ships will be inherently thrifty people. They’ll always know that the resources they squander now may be ones that their grandchildren need to survive. So although the ship’s drives can run hot enough to supply the energy for everyone to have 41 T-shirts, that increases the risk that something irreplaceable in them will break in 50 years, or that there won’t be enough reaction mass for in-system maneuvers at the end of the voyage. And really, all a person needs is two, one to wash and one to wear. Four is luxury, really.

    (I did some weighing, and a T-shirt is about 200 grams. 37 extra T-shirts is 7.4 kg. If there are 1,000 people on the ship, that’s 7,400 kg of extra T-shirts. 7,400 kg is a lot of seed grain. It’s two tractors and a few spare tires for them. It’s simply a lot of mass and cubic that could be better spent furthering the mission. This applies whether it’s plants grown for their fibers rather than their caloric content, or textiles/finished goods already in storage at departure.)

    Secondly, I think that the economics of building a ship like this will encourage a certain sparseness. The people going on the ship won’t be able to pay for the entire expedition, so much of the bill will be footed by the planetary population they leave behind. That’s not going to lead to gold-plated solutions when less extravagant ones are adequate.

    My specific model of the generation ship would be a boost-and-coast model rather than continuous acceleration. The ship would use its drives early in the voyage, and use up the majority of its reaction mass then. Then it would discard the contaminated components and cannibalize the rest of the main drives. It would rely on maneuvering thrusters and some relatively cute orbital mechanics to decelerate at the other end. Although there would be power generation for heat, light, air circulation and manufacturing, it would be subject to the same impulse to thrift that causes me to close doors and turn off lights even though I don’t worry about next month’s electric bill.

    And an in-system ship or station, though more profitable for the dirtsiders and staybacks who will help fund it, will probably also be subject to cost constraints. If it costs n to make a drive that will allow the crew to live sparsely, and 2n to build one that’s much more pleasant, what will the stockholders vote for? How pleasant is life on a container vessel or an oil rig?

    Also, I don’t think that the people on De Nieuwe Batavia will feel impoverished. Our perceptions of wealth are relative: if no one has 41 T-shirts, if the very notion is faintly pointless (how many shirts do you need for just one torso?), then it won’t seem like a sacrifice not to have that many myself. And I suspect that the people there will live very much inside their heads and in virtual spaces, whose complexity and wealth are massless. It seems to be the trend of civilization.

    On the subject of nudity and warmth: clothing is useful for fine-grained temperature control in a habitat that’s otherwise always a compromise. Taking off layers allows you to deal with the difference between your body temperature after you’ve been lifting freight in the godown and when you’ve been sitting at a terminal for a while.

  13. As we know, children invariably have the same values and priorities as their parents, and evince precisely those virtues inculcated in their youths.

    The one generation ship in-flight social model I’ve ever seen in fiction that looked to me like it had a hope in Hades of accomplishing the required task was in Harrison’s Captive Universe.

  14. Stephan @13:

    Although children frequently rebel against their parents’ stated values, it’s tremendously more difficult to rebel against the underlying priorities of the society. When American kids throw aside their forefathers’ individualism and become collectivists, when Dutch children go the other way and stop collaborating with one another (and turn spendthrift to boot), and when the Brits drop the sarcasm and say what they really think, then I’ll abandon the notion of cultural continuity. As it is, they may write different things, but they’re still using the same pen and paper to do it.

    I’m currently raising two children in a culture that’s very foreign to my own upbringing, so I see the ways that the underlying local values are inculcated in them. It’s unconsciously pervasive, from nursery rhymes to the design of exhibits in the science museum. And I see the results, in people who, however much they feel alienated from their birth culture, still have an inner compass aligned to the deep values they grew up with. I see it because although I agree with those values intellectually, I did not grow up immersed in them. Locals don’t understand what I’m talking about.

    The other thing to note is that although children frequently rebel, they also slowly gravitate back to their parents’ values as they become parents themselves. As a former sullen rebel against the mind-numbing conformity of the suburbs who is now living in a suburb herself, I can attest to this.

  15. I’d counterargue that there are major shifts of underlying values and priorities– hard to make out on a year to year basis, but clear when considered over, say, four generations. For instance, eighty years ago in the USA, it was the norm to be (by current standards) a racial segregationist, convinced that women are inferior and that homosexuality is at best a mental illness. I don’t think there was a single day when we switched from (for instance) “Apartheid is desirable” as an underlying value to “Apartheid is barbaric”; I figure each generation was 25% of the way from one to the other. Describing Americans as “individualistic” makes for an interesting narrative, but Americans were still Americans back in the days when we enforced the Melting Pot view of cultural assimilation, had our undercover policemen infiltrating the Beats and the hippies, insisted that there were exactly two genders, set dogs on the Civil Rights marchers, and so forth. (Of course, one could argue that we enforced conformity in very individualistic ways, or that we’ve consistently been the most individualism-valuing of the top ten economies for the last N years. However, from the perspective of someone getting their teeth kicked in for wearing their hair incorrectly, this would be cold comfort.)

    I’d also argue that human societies do evince rapid major shifts in underlying priorities every now and then; these will often manifest on the nation-state level as civil war or revolution. You don’t get things like either the rise or the subsequent fall of communism in Eastern Europe without some major changes in the Generally Regarded As True answers to basic questions like “Who owns the means of production?” Imagine something like that happening on a generation ship with regards to the answer to “Who owns the output of the reactors?”

    And to attack it from the other side, I’d argue that the folks most inclined to put together a generation ship and fly off in it would not be (by modern standards) thrifty, but rather would be spendthrift raving egomaniacs. After all, the project is hardly sustainable; assuming everyone understands that faster-than-light travel is a chimera, building a generation ship is taking a tremendous quantity of resources and leaving the solar system with them, without even a possibility of any sort of any kind of return for the folks left back home for centuries at a minimum. That first generation of travelers is condemning their immediate descendants to life inside a flying tin can, all in pursuit of a far-off goal most of them will not live to see– and that goal is spreading humanity and the values of the project’s designers to another star. This does not rank high on the humility scale.

    Indeed, if there are any sort of “underlying priorities of the society” that are hard to change, things are going to get ugly on board– because that first generation’s underlying priorities were “Gain control of all the resources you need to pursue your dream and use them to do it, regardless of the effects this will have on those who do not share that dream.” Shoot, I don’t think that ship’s going to make it past the heliopause before the hydroponics run red with blood.

  16. Fade Manley says:

    Stephan @15, I think that this prediction, while a fascinating one, does make one very big assumption: that the people conceiving of this vast plan will equal the ones who actually get on the ship. I can think of all sorts of reasons why the people planning, building, and sending off the generation ship wouldn’t be the ones actually traveling on it towards that presumed distant star.

    That said, the “hydroponics run red with blood” (which is a marvelous phrase I must remember) is certainly a part of the implied backstory of Elizabeth Bear’s trilogy on a generation ship–Dust being the first one–in which the people who would build and set off on a ship like that very much fit the profile you’ve described. That the series picks up centuries after the ship was sent off–with technology still progressing aboard the ship, and all the cultural change and adaptation that comes from both that beginning, that environment, and outside changes imposed along the way–means there’s a lot of really interesting third/fourth order consequences going on in there.

  17. Stephan @15:

    I’d assert that the American ideal of “maximizing individual liberty” has been pretty consistent throughout our history. The questions of who is an individual in this context (which started as “white Protestant property-owning heterosexual men” and has grown since then), and what liberty is appropriate to maximize have been hotly debated, but I still maintain that “individual” and “liberty” are the axes upon which we plot and evaluate social change.

    So if you have a society where the ideal is “Protect the mission”, then you’ll get all kinds of interesting evolution and change about what “protect” means (Should decisions be taken by a central command or voted on? Should the means of production be owned? Will that make them last longer or shorter?) and “mission” (Do we stick to the original destination if observations indicate that there’s a better system further along our trajectory? How much do we use eugenics to ensure that the arivees are the best able to survive on a new world?).

    I think that there are interesting and believable stories to be written where hydroponics does run red with blood before the heliopause, and ones where the ship’s culture is strong enough and flexible enough to survive for generations. I think that every generation will regard its children as the ultimate vandals, heedless and careless for the mission and the ship, just as every generation since Plato has done in its own way. And I think it will be both true and untrue, as it always has been.

  18. I want a cameo as the maniac whose last words are “We must destroy the mission in order to protect it.” (But it’s okay if his bomb then does nothing but scratch the reactor casing, or turns out to be made of nothing but wet pulped once-black T-shirt.)

  19. Stephan @18:

    I hereby stipulate that anyone who uses any ideas from De Nieuwe Batavia and needs such a character should name him/her/it after you. It’ll be your immortality. (Well, that and your own work, of course, which I do enjoy.)

  20. Leigh Kimmel says:

    Abi @ 17: The comment on the problem of mission shift due to people not agreeing on what the stated mission means makes me think of the scene in Cyteen where Ari Two’s discussing the problem of what the azi on Gehenna may have had in their tapes, and how it could have mutated as it was transmitted to subsequent generations. The example she used was “protect the base,” and how both “protect” and “base” could have mutated significantly over several generations.

  21. heresiarch says:

    Stephan Zielinski @ 13: “As we know, children invariably have the same values and priorities as their parents, and evince precisely those virtues inculcated in their youths.”

    Over the existence of human society, rapid social change and intergenerational conflict is less of a universal truth and more of a historical oddity. Many communities of roughly a thousand or so individuals have survived with very little change for centuries–and external forcings were often what broke that equilibrium, not internal imbalance.

    @ 15: “I don’t think there was a single day when we switched from (for instance) “Apartheid is desirable” as an underlying value to “Apartheid is barbaric”; I figure each generation was 25% of the way from one to the other.”

    My feeling is that social shifts are often pretty sudden and unpredictable; punctuated equilibrium works as well for social evolution as for biological.

  22. Mycroft W says:

    “One garment” – needs to be washed. Frequently. It might just be worth wasting energy in fabrication to save water costs. If water can be fabricated, of course, or water loss is truly negligible (and in a generation ship, say 36500 days as a goal, we can’t lose half our water to being bound/unfilterable/space loss, so that means a loss of 1 in 75000 daily is not “negligible”) then that isn’t an issue.

    Much of the “old world thinking” about darning, repairing, etc, is done in a world with “infinite” water.

  23. Fade Manley says:

    Mycroft, I’m not sure I really follow how that works. If it takes X hours to dirty one shirt, having 1 shirt means you need spend a shirt’s worth of water per X hours worn. If you have 17 shirts, that means…you need to spend a shirt’s worth of water per X hours worn, you just get to wait 17 times as long before doing so. Unless there’s some serious economy in washing multiple shirts at once, instead of one at a time, I don’t see how the number of shirts makes a difference. (And if there’s a saving in washing many at once, that just suggests you have many people share a load.)

    Now, I might assume that you would need at least two of any Every Day outfit so that you can wear one while the other is being washed, but if you sleep naked and all laundry is done automatically overnight, one would probably suffice.

  24. Mycroft W says:

    Well, there are many people who say that you need to swap shoes every day, because 2 pair, alternated, will last three times as long as one pair, worn every day. I do agree with you on the “launder in aggregate” thing, but it means sorting everything out, or communal clothes.

    Which isn’t such a bad idea for low-level clothing – assuming there isn’t anything that could be transmitted by someone else wearing my thing (after it was washed) that won’t be by someone else wearing her thing (that was washed with mine). My apologies – I’ve lived alone way too much to know. Also, having unique outer layer, that is yours and you’re responsible for uniquifying and maintaining, and overalls (if you’re doing “dirty work”) and uniform underclothes (so that the outer layer doesn’t have to be washed as often) will work.

    After all, that was the reason for overalls and undershirts to begin with – to allow rewear of the scarce “clothes” between washings.

  25. heresiarch says:

    Mycroft W @ 22: ““One garment” – needs to be washed. Frequently. It might just be worth wasting energy in fabrication to save water costs.”

    It seems to me that any fabrication method–which would, on a generation ship, really be an elaborate recycling method–would be as likely to consume water in a permanent way as any washing method would be.

    I think though, one thing this conversation illustrates is that the difference between an inner-system freighter, with interactions with an outside economy and frequent acceleration and deceleration; and a generation ship, with a maximal importance placed on sustainability and less on mass, lead to quite different resource allocation strategies. Not that that is surprising, I guess.

  26. David Harmon says:

    If there are 1,000 people on the ship, that’s 7,400 kg of extra T-shirts. 7,400 kg is a lot of seed grain.

    Or it’s about 1% of the passengers themselves! I agree that there will be constraints on resources, but they will be figured into the total budget. If you’re balancing T-shirts against seed grain, you’re not planning the trip, you’re trying to survive a disaster in-flight.

    Stephan Zielinski: As noted above, the last few centuries have been markedly atypical for humanity. One could make a reasonable argument that all the development of “the West” since the end of the 15th century represents the results of plundering the New World and feeding the resources thereof back to the colony owners. Repeat the cycle for the American West in the 19th century, and the antipodean equivalents, and look back to the Greek and Roman empires for prior examples. More resources create pressure for more “freedom”, and open up room for more people to be recognized as “full citizens”. (In a similar vein, I’ll note that for the same reason as “ships at sea”, a spaceship might have some republican features, but it won’t be a democracy, or “libertine” either, because (1) power struggles are too deadly in space, and (2) there isn’t that open frontier for the “wild ones”, (or jilted lovers, or aspiring cult leaders) to escape to.

    As far as generational changes: I’d guess that there’s a lot more cycles than long-term changes. I’ve heard discussion about a three-generational cycle of attitudes in America (leading up to the whole Generation X hooraw), but I don’t know how well that generalizes to the world. I’ve also seen a few families with two-generational cycles, where that “rebellion” translates to a toggle between generations — sometimes the people involved change as they mature, but yes, sometimes you do get people who politically/morally flock with their grandparents rather than their parents. Either way, building a generation ship will require gaining a true understanding of human development and cultural transmission, and even so, the shipboard society is unlikely to be exactly what was planned.

  27. SteveG says:


    Are there no patches on your planet? Here, we make them from scraps of brightly colored fabric, leading generally to a patchwork appearance. Some of us even do quilt-style piecework on the patches. Nothing says “personal style” quite like a stack-n-whack knee patch.

    As regards collectivism on the part of Americans, I’d like to point out that we can thank the Americans for considerable efforts throughout the 19th century in re-establishing the legality of the labor or trade union, which had become illegal in Europe in the 1400s or so.

  28. MacAllister says:

    Programmable self-cleaning/repairing nano-fabric?

  29. Paul A. says:

    The energy for the cleaning and repairing still needs to come from somewhere, at the expense of something else…

  30. TexAnne says:

    Paul A.: Repairing things by hand isn’t hard, if you stay on top of it. But that’s part of why “man’s work lasts from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” See also Ethan of Athos and its “social credits,” or Janet Kagan’s Mirabile and its child-care professionals. (On Mirabile, “Who raised you?” is a sign of extreme opprobrium, and it makes people straighten up immediately.)

    (Sorry, did I just derail the conversation?)

  31. Paul A. says:

    Point of clarification: My comment was a response to the immediately preceding one about self-repairing nano-fabric.

    TexAnne, if that wasn’t clear, I apologise. If that was clear, and I’m just not getting why your reply is relevant to self-repairing nano-fabric, I apologise for that instead, and could you please explain a bit more?

  32. TexAnne says:

    Paul A.: Sorry, I’d missed what you were responding to.

  33. Kaleberg says:

    It is fascinating to see the strong psychological grip of frugality at work in this discussion. Sorry, but the ecological, energetic and financial costs of building, launching and operating a generational ship so far dwarf the regenerated tee shirt budget that the difference is negligible. The real tradeoffs are going to be between an active or passive streamlining system to deal with vacuum drag and choosing an appropriate cruise speed, trading off engine efficiency, reliability and fuel consumption.

    I’ve worked as a computer programmer, so I’ve often run into a misplaced desire for thrift and efficiency. You can pay big time for bumming a few cycles. We’re even having a big budget debate in Washington with a misplaced appeal to our thrift lust rather than recognizing that an advanced society has its costs, and these need to be paid or our society will regress or collapse.

  34. heresiarch says:

    Kaleburg @ 33: I don’t quite see how the enormous costs of interstellar travel make t-shirt frugality less important. Unless you’re positing a transportation technology that disregards mass, then a gram is a gram is a gram, whether it’s a t-shirt or vacuum-drag spoilers, and the engine will only push so many of them. No matter how big the ship, there’s still a hard limit to how much it can carry, and a lot of competing priorities.

  35. Kaleberg @33:

    I’m not entirely convinced that either software development (the field in which I make the money for T-shirt shopping) or Washington budgetary discussions are necessarily good refutations of frugality on a generation ship.

    First off, there are grounds for frugality in IT. This week I’m working out of an office in Poland with really inadequate connectivity, and I wish very much that a bunch of the more profligate bandwidth-hogging applications we work with had been substantially more frugal with their resource usage. And secondly, although I see the ship-drive equivalent of “spend your way back to prosperity, then tax to pay the deficit”, I’m not convinced that we’ll get that kind of marginal spend out of the people who pay to build generation ships.

    Besides, this is only partly about physics. I think it’s likely that ship life will be poorer in material terms than ordinary early twenty-first century American or Western European life. (I actually think that pretty much everyone’s life will be poorer in material terms, unless we get that alchemical transubstantiation up and running real soon now.) You think otherwise. I suspect we’re not going to convince one another.

    But the real question, the real point of this blog post, is assuming resource constraints are true, what does that do to the culture? And, relatedly, what makes the better story? Although a few authors have done a decent job with post-scarcity worldbuilding (Charlie Stross comes to mind here), you’ll note that most writers who invent post-scarcity societies then tell stories around their fringes or in their failure modes (Iain M. Banks; Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep and its sequels). I don’t think readers find it easy to make the leap from our own scarcity-controlled world to a post-scarcity one, and I’m not sure writers really have the secondary, tertiary and quaternary effects of that difference very clear in their heads.

    It’s worth discussing — probably in another blog post, when I’m done with all this business travel — how people will see this frugality and resource constraint. Because I’m not sure they’ll notice it, the way that I don’t recall noticing the relative information constraints I existed under in the 1980’s, without Google and Wikipedia at my fingertips. Our perceptions of poverty are generally focused on relative poverty, not any kind of absolute poverty (once we’re over the high childhood mortality/people starving to death level of impoverishment). So if I have four T-shirts, but every one else has four, then am I poor? If I have 41 that I wash and wear and everyone else has a new one every time they want to cover their torsos, then am I rich?

  36. albatross says:

    Whether or not the ship’s inhabitants are poor by our standards, they’ll probably be poor, at least in some parts of their lives, by their own standards. That seems almost inevitable given constraints on energy and payload in the ship.

    But at least as importantly, their map of scarce and cheap things will be different from ours (and that of their own culture). Some stuff may be cheap–perhaps cubic meters of ship volume are plentiful relative to crew size, so everyone can have a mansion sized space in which to store their four carefully maintained t-shirts.

  37. Lila says:

    Nettles. You can eat them, you can wear them, you can weaponize them, you can use them to make drugs (acetylcholine and serotonin), and you can use them to reoxygenate your air.

  38. OtterB says:

    Tossing out two things I’ve read recently that relate to this conversation. One is “Quarter Share” by Nathan Lowell. The spaceship in question is a trader, not a generation ship; it comes into port regularly (maybe 30-40 days apart), so it doesn’t live with the complete recycling needs of the longer-term effort. But mass is closely controlled and there are noticeable cultural influences aboard the ship. For one thing, everyone wears “shipsuits” on board, and has just one or two nice outfits to wear on liberty when they get to port. And, everyone has a mass allowance for personal property that depends on their rank. The lowest ranked, the “Quarter Share” of the title, have a small allowance. (Book not to hand and I can’t remember how much – maybe 10 kg.)

    The other thing that makes me think of living in a post-scarcity situation is Steven Gould’s new “7th Sigma.” (It’s in the same universe as “Bugs in the Arroyo” which was published on a while back.) It’s an interesting adaptation of the modern American Southwest to a situation in which metals cannot be used or possessed. Again, not as drastic a limitation as a generation ship, because many resources are still available even within the Territory (water has to be used carefully, as it’s desert country, but nobody has to worry about having enough oxygen). But there’s still a feeling of make use / make do.

  39. Adrian Smith says:

    Abi – do you mind if I say something on this thread? I’d be using your email if I could find it, but I imagine that’s problematical for the usual reasons.

  40. Adrian @39:

    You have mail. And thanks — I do need to figure out where to put my contact information up.

  41. SamChevre says:

    Really belated comment–but last weekend I went home, and this post and what I saw came together.

    Home, for me, is Appalachia–and something that’s a feature of the landscape there I noticed again. People have piles of stuff–literally. Piles of unidentifiable decrepit machinery; rusting cars; sheds full of stuff; torn and wornout clothing in boxes.

    And it came together when I remembered that it’s within the last 50 years that there were year-round roads, and within living memory that everything had to be carried. (Not hauled–carried; until the early 40’s there were parts of Appalachia where everything had to be packed in and out.) When transport costs are high, and supplies are only occasionally available, everything that might ever possibly be of use is worth keeping.

    So I wonder–is the settlement, 100 years after the long trip is over, characterized by hoards of almost-junk?

  42. SamChevre @41:

    I really need to get back onto this and do “Reuse”, because that’s exactly what I would expect to happen. See this year’s Hugo-winning short story, For Want of a Nail, which takes place on the sort of resource-constrained generation ship I’ve been picturing. There’s a scene in a shop selling spare parts and secondhand goods, where the characters buy a particular connector cable.

    This is the precise equivalent of the vast store of worn out white goods that my grandmother on the mountain (complex family-of-choice, long story) used to have just past the corral. When the current fridge or washer would break, their first stop would be the “goodie dump” where its predecessor sat slowly rusting, in case the spare part could be found or adapted without a trip to town or an expenditure of cash.

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