For this year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month), I’ve decided to branch out and work on a new project. Last year was a rewrite of the previous year’s project, and while I still have work to do on it before trying to get it published, I needed to get outside of that head-space and play with some new ideas. I’ve been trying to game out how one might build an interstellar society if it turns out the faster-than-light travel is completely ruled out by the laws of physics. We have some theories about Alcubierre drives and wormholes that suggest such things might be possible, but for now it remains uncertain if they are possible, merely impractical, or flat-out impossible. I wanted to write something that made as few predictions about future science as possible – that was conceivable based on our current understanding of science. At least something that doesn’t clearly violate known laws of physics.
I do make a few assumptions – you can’t write science fiction without doing so. For example, I assume that medical technology will eventually make death obsolete. There is no law of physics that we know of that forbids such a thing, and while I’m not an expert on biology, my understanding is that there is no hard upper limit on how long an organism can live.
I also make some assumptions about how the human mind works – I don’t know if it is possible to speed up subjective time to the degree I depict in this story, and I confess that I don’t know how plausible the biological interventions I propose are. I decided not to make too many predictions about artificial intelligence either. The machines in my story could be built tomorrow if you had the resources to throw into the project. I believe that it is possible to make an artificial being conscious, but we don’t currently know enough about consciousness to know that such a thing is possible, so the AI in my story will be what we call “weak” AI.
Enough pre-amble. Here is an excerpt from a very rough draft of my first chapter:
Some people said that the world was dying. But that wasn’t quite right. The world was changing, was becoming uninhabitable, to us – and let’s be fair, to most of the mammals, the birds, even most insects. Perhaps some day bacteria would reign supreme once more, for a time, before “higher” life forms could survive once more on the surface. After our colossal mismanagement of the ecosystem, one would be hard pressed to presume superiority over supposedly lower life forms. Let’s call them “more complex.”
What do you do with 10 billion people on a dying planet? Easy, you might say. Send them off to other planets. Slow down there cowboy, do you truly appreciate the logistics of launching all of humanity off world? And supposing you solved that little problem, where would you send them? Mars? Don’t make me laugh! You think sending humans to a place even more inhospitable than the current planet is a solution?
We built bubbles around ourselves, in some cases quite literally. We closed in the cities, built giant automated hydro farms to keep ourselves fed, for the farmland had all dried up. Coastal cities were abandoned, for the water had risen enough to take out most of the good real estate. We retreated inwards, lived in virtual realities. Kids grew up never having known a time when you could go outside in the middle of July and not wither in the suffocating heat, straining to breathe. There were pockets, here and there, where reality hadn’t caught up with the rest of world. Places that were once paradise had become desert, while miserable places became islands of blessed relief, the last vestiges of the lush world that had once been Earth.
We lived in little spaceships anchored by cruel gravity. So it was not so strange when someone suggested we send our little bubbles outwards, beyond the bounds of the solar system, towards the many habitable planets we knew existed. Planets that we knew were unoccupied, for we had never detected sentient life beyond our blue sphere.
One small problem with this plan, aside from the technical challenges of building large enough spacecraft, was that few who started the journey would get to see the destination. The distances involved were too great, and the ships too slow, that most journeys would take 200 years or more. Even with modern medicine, few could live far into their second century. Fine, then, at least their children and grandchildren would get to live once more in the open air.
A few brave souls embarked on such journeys, to the nearest stars. Proxima had some decent real estate, and it would take only 80 years to reach it, a light sprint in astronomical terms. But it was still too long in terms of a human lifespan. Most would rather stay home, close to the servers, where you could enjoy the company of six billion others.
Did I say six billion? Yes, the population had begun to decline. People lived longer, had children later – much later – if at all. Slowly our population returned to a manageable level, too slow to prevent global catastrophe, but you take your wins where you can get ‘em.
The average human could expect to live 500 years now. Most human ailments, including most forms of that most vicious killer, cancer, had been beaten back by miracles of science far more effective than drugs had ever been. People died of weird new ones, never before seen, because nobody had ever lived long enough to get them. Eventually even those ones were curable, and for the first time in history we couldn’t put a number on the estimated human lifespan.
You might be saying, “surely now people would be willing to make the journey to the stars, being effectively immortal.” You would think so, but you would be underestimating the human capacity for boredom. Besides, now that you live forever, if you wait long enough the Earth may become habitable once more. With current techniques, the air might be breathable again in a thousand years.
We had conquered death, but we had not conquered its bedfellow, time. Our ships still took too long to reach relativistic speeds, so we couldn’t take advantage of time dilation to shorten the trip. And supposing you could reach such speeds, it would only shorten the trip for those on the ship. It would still take just as long from everyone else’s perspective. Not to mention that if you wanted to talk to anyone back home, you would need to wait at least nine years for a reply (probably longer, since it turns out Proxima doesn’t have such great real estate after all). You just can’t run a society like that. Humanity would become fragmented, silos of culture (much like the days of old, but multiplied by an order of magnitude) spread out over a hundred light year radius. Even with the cultural stagnation that younger and more naive people liked to complain about, one could still expect the world they left to be nearly indistinguishable from its former self, should they choose to return.
Then someone had the brilliant idea to just speed it all up.