Category: Novel
Page count: 351
Language: English
Author: Karl Schroeder
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2014
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3726-9
Toby McGonigal wakes up from hibernation and apparently a whole lot of time has passed by and there are whole civilizations based upon hibernation technologies first pioneered by his family. These societies live in lockstep, harvesting resources for thirty years while everybody is sleeping, and spending them all in the span of a month. To other human societies, these lockstep cities and worlds are the stuff of legend, a bit like old stories about the fairies. This system simulates faster than light travel by having everybody sleep while people travel from one planet to another, enabling interplanetary trade and civilization. Will 17-year old Toby find friends to cope with this bizarre environment? Young adult novel ensues.

The lockstep idea is really interesting and I bet there will be plenty of other writers to explore its possibilities.
- The novel relies on a series of unspoken assumptions, the first of which is that a whole lockstep civilization can survive thirty years of various historical, geological and astronomical events unscathed. There are workarounds - for example, the 360/1 lockstep could have made symbiotic deals with other lockstep civilizations, everybody watching the others while they sleep. But really -in this future, is there no violent species or civilization that would be glad to invade sleeping worlds?
- Ever since Timothy Leary had cryonic suspension enter into the public consciousness, there has been no shortage of people who wanted to be cryopreserved, if that is really a thing. Let's imagine a world where the 1% decide to skip the next two hundred years, leaving only enforcer bots in charge and teeming masses of scientists working tirelessly to revive them. The world would be ruled by dead people waiting to be revived and made immortal.
- Let's say you are old and lonely. You could skip time between visits from your relatives. Just be alive when your children come and visit you. Yes, that is creepy.

Outsourcing Paradise to the cold poisonous clouds of Planb

Dear newborn comrade,

It is considered appropriate to deliver important news, such as your recent birth, by means of a direct address. As a fellow proto-citizen and a graduate of the Baron Bodissey School of Life, it is my duty and honor to introduce you to this underground world where you have been born. I do not presume of your quality. You may be a newling (a new ‘soul’) or you may be an oldling. You will only learn whether this life is your first on the day you graduate to the immortal existence down below.

We stand on an island above an ocean located a mere 3 kilometer under the surface of a small, tidally locked moon orbiting Planb, a cold giant gas planet. This is not our cradle; our species came into existence on Unspiek, a smaller planet, closer to our class F main-sequence star, Farmera (1). Unspiek lies in what we call the habitable zone of the system - the orbit range at which surface water can stay in a liquid state. We evolved there from primitive forms of life to a spacefaring civilization.

In the long run we are all dead” quotes (2) do not hold sway on us hyper-advanced civilizations. People were functionally immortal, and there were thousands of billions of them. How did it work? We developed a system where new babies could be born while the entirety of individuals from past generations would remain alive, though functionally not at the same time (3). Babies were few and far between, but death had all but disappeared.

For millenias, our government accommodated our growing population, managing to handle it with great machinery to harvest the energy of our white star and efficient resource allocation.

This dynamism was somewhat cancerous. Outliers happen more easily in large data sets and some of them are bad news. Such a black swan happened on Unspiek and all but wiped out Unspiek-kind. The survivors concluded that centralized authority carries too much risk. It has an entropic quality: on the long run, it turns into the social equivalent of a black hole. There was something rotten on Unspiek, with compromised machines all over the place and corrupt authority embedded in the very stones. We needed a clean slate. To make sure of it, we scourged the place and put the emptiness of space between us and our home planet, still forbidden to this day, 45 million years later. We scattered our civilization between this moon, the planet below and a few asteroids.

With our new ethos of not allowing the past to dominate the present and not allowing the one to dominate the many, we moved to distributed life technologies. We rebuilt our civilization around the discrimination between the different stages of life and a lack of individuated government. Our focus on personal autonomy and redundancy ensures resilience to internal and external threats.

On this moon, we live like in the old days. Our tidally-powered systems provide us with comfort and energy. The surface of the moon is too small (radius: 460km) for all of Unspiek-kind. Thus, when their alloted time runs out, graduates of the School of Life design themselves a new extremophile frame, able to cope with the pressure and the atmosphere of Planb, and they dive down below.

The people from generations past live in the dihydrogen layers dozens or hundreds of km down below, in the planet’s own habitable zone, a range of altitudes dependent on individual frame specs, peculiar biochemistries and focus on resistance to stellar radiations or pressure, etc. They hold on to networking organisms that they bioengineer themselves to provide support.

Hostile to life as usual, Planb, given the proper hardware and operating system, has proven to be a decent environment for a computing system -with easy cooling (110K average in the stratosphere). The frames I told you about earlier are autonomous units that participate in what is essentially a computer the size of a planet. Soon, my own consciousness will be uploaded into one. As I integrate into the network, I will host even more pieces of (crypted) data. Mostly oblivious of my surroundings, I will be confined to virtual world environments, shared or not.

The whole society down below now revolves around earning access to bodily life by helping maintaining the system. Data is redundantly hosted, making the destruction of one or even a billion of units without lasting consequences for the individuals. Here on the moon, death is final. For an oldling, dying might be the very purpose of incarnation, while passing away in an untimely fashion could just mean that a new persona fails to be added to its expanding mind.

Was your birth just an expression of nostalgy? Are you a shared soul, the fruit of two minds’ love? Whatever the truth of your personal condition, enjoy your individuality. It will last until it is time for you to dive down below, comrade!


This story proposes one possible scenario for intelligent life on an exoplanet outside the habitable zone of a solar system. Dr. David Spergel, in his discussion with theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson about the circulation of life in the universe (4), remarked that, when talking about life in the Universe, the time scale is all-important: “life has probably started a billion year before than it did on Earth (or a billion year after)”, hence the necessity to consider the avenues of action open to “technologically advanced life”.

Also, as SF writer Sarah Newton puts it, “the very concept of ‘habitable zones’ is humanocentric” (4). When you plot on a graph the range of different temperatures to be found in the environments of the Universe, the 0 to 100C space is a thin line. Technology-enabled extremophiles thriving in other environments than liquid water might very well be the main form of life thoughout the Universe.

On Planb, life found its way to an extreme environment, thanks to intelligent design.

(1) Philip José Farmer-A ;)
(2) John Maynard Keynes
(3) example of such an idea with Dayworld - for a different take on hibernation see also Lockstep by Karl Schroeder
(4) Other Earth MOOC!
(5) Mindjammer RPG

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The 1,000-word text above was my third assignment in the Imagining Other Earths MOOC. I agree with the evaluations below (story is fun, science is weak).

self → Some sentences are a mouthful and the science could be better. Otherwise, I am pretty happy about the end result. It was not at all what I envisioned at first, but I followed the idea, not the other way around.
peer 1 → Very entertaining and imaginative. My only query would be the use of Tidally powered systems on a tidally locked moon.
peer 2 → The scientific idea of examining a non humanocentric idea of the habitable zone and life on an exoplanet, but it was only made really clear to me by the foot note. The idea of this transplanted civilisation is strongly imagined, but I did find it quite hard to read and understand as the ideas were very densely packed in there!
peer 3 → Nice and creative work, enjoyed reading it.
peer 4 → Interesting thoughts presented here, I like this.
peer 5 → Obviously from a SF fan. It was clever and well-written but I just found it had too much fiction and not enough science. I really didn't see the "inventing a planet and solar system and describing it".
peer 6 → Very good work, thought-provoking,