Preface to A History of Longhaul Spaceflight Psychotechnology

A non-christmassy short story.

"A History of Longhaul Spaceflight Psychotechnology", by Vanz Cunningham

Preface, by Katarin Rybczinski

The first discovered problem of longterm space flight was also the last to be solved. Travellers go mad.

The press call it Space Madness, the military call it Extension Fatigue, psychologists call it Prisoner Stress or Tin Can Syndrome. There are as many names as failed cures, and as many explanations as expeditions that "Autoterminated" when the crew shut down.

Of course they didn't always just shut down. A few became delusional first, and in some sensational cases killed each other and/or themselves. But most of the time they become gradually listless and depressed, until they stopped feeding themselves and stopped responding.

Initially we thought it might be from the boredom, so we gave them endless diverting tasks, games and challenges to occupy their brains and their time. It worked for months, even years, but the artificial tasks were completed more and more perfunctorily, and eventually ignored.

Then we thought it might be from loneliness, so we put fifty gregarious types together on one ship. They formed friendships and alliances, politics and factions - even a religion - and we published joyful papers on how we'd solved the problem. Then we noticed they were shutting down too, and we still didn't understand why.

We thought we could solve the problem by using young children as astronauts. The thinking - quite plausible at the time - was that adults only can't cope with space because it's not the life they grew up with.

I was one of those who sponsored and implemented the plan, and I watched my proteges cut out their surgically implanted feeding tubes with makeshift knives and no anaesthetic. Maybe one day I'll be able to forgive myself, but I doubt it.

Cryosleep was the among the first solutions to be tried, and it appeared to work - right up to the moment the test subjects were revived. The problem seemed to be that, although almost all brain functions had been slowed right down, the autonomic functions could only be taken down so far.

The mind isn't just the prefrontal cortex - it's the whole brain, and the whole body, and indeed the whole past life of the person. By cryoslowing the travellers, we essentially fractured the "person" into several noninteracting parts, which couldn't function without each other.

Many gave up and declared space travel was impossible, saying we should concentrate on solving the earth's problems instead of wasting resources and life on exporting them to other planets. However others still thought a modified cryosleep may still be the answer.

A brain in a "hot cryo" state can be fed sensory cues from which it can construct a fantasy life, offering all the textures and varied surprises of reality.

This is not virtual reality, nor is it the same as REM sleep, and this is not hallucination. We did briefly try placing subjects in indefinitely extended REM sleep, but found continious dreaming for more than thirty six hours was impossible, though we're still not sure why. Nonstop drug induced hallucination and permanent VR were obviously not viable.

However, the sensations inducible in hot cryogenic storage have a detailed and "real" quality absent from ordinary dreaming, and the parameters of the narrative are much more tightly controlled, consistent and believable, kept that way by the computer - or "dream machine" as the media christened it.

Essentially, under the computer's constant guidance, the traveller lives a full virtual life, not limited to rearranged components of their former real life. They are given a whole city to explore, even a whole world, with a neverending stream of complex but soluble problems. There is even the appearance, but not the reality, of danger and grief, without which lives become initially pleasant but quickly stale.

We discovered this last the hard way, by immersing earthbound test subjects into their individual notions of a blissful existence. In only days they all exited the simulations in panic, unable to endure what had become the most banal of hells.

In tests of the more "gritty" scenarios, subjects responded well to spending a year in their alternate lives while their bodies were maintained mechanically - even preferring their slightly novelistic fake families and friends to their real ones.

There were however two remaining problems. One year in "altlife" was stimulating, five years was probably bearable, but the dozen or more centuries that might be needed for a complete journey to a distant planet - that was a different matter.

The first problem was that, no matter how stimulating the artificial challenges provided by the computer, eventually their very artificiality made them uninteresting. The second was that, while someone could in principle have their interest and their body maintained for two or three thousand years, by the end they will have developed a mental state indistinguishable from space madness. It seems people just can't cope with that much living.

The solution to the first problem was controversial but successful - and developed by the author of this work. If people get bored with entirely realistic but fake challenges, make them think the challenges are real. Suppress the knowledge that altlife isn't life, and subjects won't get bored - at least, not so easily.

The second solution is to have several altlifes lived in a row, each of forty to eighty years. After each, memory of it is made inaccessible (but not erased) and a new life begins. While it is theoretically possible to begin at birth each time and progress to old age, in practice the subject is best reborn as a young adult each time.

In the pages that follow, my colleague Dr Cunningham will take you through this history in much more detail than I could manage, and I suspect with much greater flair. He and I are both proud to have dedicated our (real) lives to this problem, and to have made interstellar colonisation a possibility, as well as a necessity.

Katarin Rybczinski
Berlin C, 2243

1 comment:

  1. See, now this is how that whole Matrix nightmare started...fooling people into thinking that it's all real. Either that or this is how the Cylons were created and started to take over!