Friday, November 4, 2016

The Terror of Star Travel

Much has been written about the physical difficulties of star travel for humans, and analogously for aliens. The idea that aliens could travel in generation ships, which are hypothetical huge starships able to contain colonies of aliens, serving as crew or being passengers, has popped up in multiple science fiction works. There are many difficulties with them, but one difficulty with them has not been emphasized very much: the basic psychology of star travel.

What would it be like to be on such a ship? It is not something that can easily be imagined. It is incredibly easy to think about the engineering aspects of the ship and its operations, figuring out the dimensions needed for different portions, the power aspects, the hull, the sensors needed, and so on. It is also interesting to think about the interaction of the crew or passengers on such a long voyage, with potential mutinies, factions, crimes, and so on. But there is something more basic than that.

It is very difficult to even get a glimpse of what it would be like to simply be on such a ship. Without any understanding, coming up with possible problems can hardly happen. So I was very lucky to visit the Phoenix Art Museum, where they have a work by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. It is experiential art. She created a large room with six reflecting walls that you can enter. The room is dark except for some tiny LED lights hanging from the ceiling on invisible wires. The LEDs are of different colors and there are very many of them. In the dark room, the little lights reflect back and forth on the reflecting walls and appear to be extending to infinity.

Fortunately, I was at the museum when there were few other visitors, and I went into Kusama’s chamber and sat on the floor and let the swinging motion of the LED strings caused by my passage damp out. It seemed to me to be like the view one would get from a port, perhaps a large glass sphere, on a starship.

This was not the intention of the artist at all. The work, entitled “You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies”, was intended to be a depiction of what she saw inside her mind from time to time. If the multicolored LED strings are set into motion, I suppose it is like fireflies in a pitch-black night. They stay on for a while and then go off while batches of others go on, non-synchronously. The turning on and off is not like what one would experience in the starship observation globe, but it happens so slowly that the effect is similar enough to a starship’s view that the effect is the same, or at least I think so.

After a few minutes sitting alone in the dark, being very calm and simply watching, it became clear to me that being on a starship, light years away from any stars or planets, might actually induce something like terror in an alien, assuming their minds were similar to ours. All the familiarity we grow up with, from the planet of our birth, is totally gone, forever. Familiarity is one thing that helps us function and stay sane. When you are in a totally, absolutely, different and unfamiliar situation, with nothing from your past present any more, your mind might start to simply rebel. I did not feel terror, as I knew I could simply get up and find my way through the dark to the exit, but when there is no exit for light years in any direction, what would happen?

The feeling of loneliness, or perhaps aloneness is better, starts to hit you, even in Kusawa’s chamber with its illusion of infinite distances. There is nothing to give you any scale in the chamber, so the lights could be nearby or a billion miles away. I don’t know how anyone could make a better illusion of star travel in such a simple way. There is simply nothing to get a mental connection to in the chamber. It takes a few minutes for the recollection of coming in the door and finding your way to a central point and sitting down to go away, and leave you with the full experience. But it did come to me, and it was simply that there was nothing of me left. Trying to explain it doesn’t work very well and perhaps someone more versed in psychology could do a better job, but the feeling is simply that of a loneliness that is more than complete loneliness. It is like you are lonely not just from the lack of other people to interact with, but that the entire planet with which you are familiar has left you as well. Perhaps there is a loneliness for things, for views, for places, for structures, for things to do, as well as for persons. Being in interstellar space is a loneliness that is total and absolute. You feel lonely for everything you ever knew.

It is not the same as traveling to another continent. The sky is still there, like you were familiar with. The ground is still there. Distances are still of the same scale. Yes, even distance has left you behind in interstellar space and you can feel lonely for that. Time is still the same on a new continent, but in interstellar space, time has left you as well. There is no time there. Time on Earth or an alien planet is governed by the rotation of the planet, and the entire planet has left you, along with the scale of time that it provides. The feeling is simply that everything that has formed your mind is now gone. It couldn’t happen in the Phoenix Art Museum, but in space, even gravity has left you alone. The strangeness of the environment seems to me to be certainly enough to induce terror, as there is nothing left familiar to mentally hold on to.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really cool piece and I'm sorry I'm not near Phoenix so that I could go look at that exhibit. Of course one can only speculate on the psychological impact of being in interstellar space; perhaps the closest parallel at hand would be long-haul submarine voyages?