She remembered talking to Roger about Fermi's paradox. If the universe harbors life, intelligence, why haven't we seen evidence of it? Why are we alone?Roger favored what he called the Mean Time Between Failures argument. Technological civilizations simply fail, just as the components that make up their technology fail, sooner or later, for reasons as individually insignificant as they are inexorable, and final. Complex systems, after a point, tend away from robustness.
Sixteen scientists and engineers embark on a tiny spaceship to Alpha Centauri: a desperate undertaking that pushes the very limits of what their ingenuity, technology, and resources can do. Behind them, humankind is in its death throes. This concise story alternates between the preparations for the voyage, the voyage itself as piece after piece of their preparations unravels, and what led them to do this in the first place. The situations on Earth and on board the spacecraft parallel each other on their path to failure.
This a grim, extraordinarily well-written exploration of the limits of possibility and the fragility of innovative systems, as seen through the lives of a few vivid characters. The spacecraft can't finish its mission because it's based on untested technology, with barely enough resources; possible points of failure multiply and there are no fallbacks or redundancies. Human civilization likewise, at the tipping point Scholz indicates (the 20th century, or maybe 19th, or...?) has entered a phase of explosive technological growth and socioeconomic innovation, outrunning the ability to test and refine changes, constantly pushing the limit of what resources are available to it. The real problem shown here, though, is the 21st-century interconnectedness of the whole world; globalization linked all economies and allowed an infintely greedy oligarchy to seize control of all resources and power (Scholz goes so far as to propose that agrotech companies managed to replace every single food plant in the world with patented, sterile ones). Connection is a two-edged sword: it brought together minds from all over to develop great ideas, like the team for the Alpha Centauri voyage; but also it allowed unprecedented control by self-interested powers, and in the end the latter outweighed the former. And with the entire world one society, with all resources concentrated, there was no longer any redundancy, any sources of alternatives. Finally, humankind had outstripped its ability to rebound from failure.
This is a dire warning: science fiction in the mode of "if this goes on..." Perhaps it has already gone too far, in which case the story is also an elegy for the good life which is already past. A thought-provoking story, indeed. I've often argued that returning to some past state of humanity is no longer possible; that the only hope lies in further innovation to try to find a new stable state. Scholz would agree with that (it is the view of many of the idealistic scientists in the story) but is arguing that the very nature of innovation (at least as humans, in the era of capitalism, have practiced it) is itself a source of instability. Yes, maybe growth as we have been doing it for the past centuries is not the only possible sort of complex civilization. Perhaps some other species may avoid putting all its eggs in one fragile basket. But the Fermi Paradox...