Sterling, Bruce. "Taklamakan." Asimov's Science Fiction Oct.-Nov. 1998. Collected A Good Old-Fashioned Future. NYC: Bantam, 1999. London: Gollancz, 2001. See Internet Speculative Fiction Database for translations and frequent reprints, as of June 2022, at link. As of June 2022 "Taklamakan" is available on-line here.
From the Generation Spaceship Project's "Notes on Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’ / "Notes and comments for Bruce Sterling’s ‘Taklamakan’ (1998)," quoting or paraphrasing Simone Caroti in The Generation Starship in Science Fiction: A Critical History, 1934-2001 (2011):
Spider Pete and Katrinko find the entrance to the underground complex and trace back a path made by three mummified corpses to an “impossibly vast cavern” that is festooned with artificial lights made to replicate the constellations. There are three enormous starships in the cavern underground. The starships, it might be assumed, are the same sort of experiment as seen in Ballard’s ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ (1962) [...] – an experiment of fifty years standing to test human responses to isolation for a GS voyage. But, as Caroti point[s] out (2011), the Taklamakan starships in their buried cavern are not a human experiment. They contain “entire populations of undesirables, ethnic separatists who would not change the way they live, would not let the twenty-first century absorb them like the rest of the Sphere (or Asian Cooperation Sphere, 2052’s name for the political entity of which today’s China is the controlling member), and would fight constantly to retain their identity” (Caroti, 2011). The people on board the three separate and isolated starships have been abandoned to their fate, which becomes much worse than for the travellers in Ballard’s story (1962) because there is more down in the cavern than just people. The cave floor is a wash of “‘simmering tidepools of mechanical self-assemblage’ that regularly give birth to strange biomechanical robots (Caroti, 2011) and it is the single duty of these biomachines to “keep the undesirables inside the ships”. Anything they find they take back into the semi-sentient ooze below the old starships where it is transmogrified into a new advance for the biomechs. This element of ‘Taklamakan’ (Sterling, 1998) is certainly a new and distinctly Cyberpunk [addition] to the GS subgenre, creating uncertainty in the narrative and providing an epic conclusion.
We note the underground containment of humans in a high-tech structure, a relevant motif going back to "The Machine Stops" in the early 20th c.
Discussed by Christopher Palmer, "Generation Starships and After" pp. 326-27. Palmer's formulation — two human explorers
[...] make their way into a set of huge underground, domed structures in the empty desert, once used for underground nuclear tests, now supposed to be waste dumps. Once inside, they discover two quite different things. One is the Sphere [...] uses this place as an autonomous AI testing ground — throw a quantity of [electronic] stuff [...] into a kind of evolutionary broth [...] and let it endlessly mutate. The result is a huge variety of robot mutations [...]. The other [thing discovered ...] is that the Sphere has suspended in this secret enclosure three huge "spaceships" full of different varieties of dissident ethnic peoples, self-sustaining, and, by way of fake views out the windows, supposed to be en route to the stars. So this is the ultimate bathos of the Generation Spaceship trope: these people were, in the view of the Sphere at any rate, primitive from the beginning, and they will never leave Earth. Meanwhile their devolution, predictable enough, will be observed and will be in contrast to the wild, productive evolution of the AI life forms that inhabit the same vast cavern. (p. 326; see also p. 327)
RDE, finishing, 18Jun22