Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Near, Far

Fiction about the near future, as many people have noted, is most often like a funhouse mirror of the present. It distorts and exaggerates our current fears and preoccupations; it takes current trends and pushes them as far as they'll go without breaking down into incoherence.  It's science fiction in its most purely satirical mode.  Like costume drama films, it contains the fingerprints of the time in which it was composed.  It doesn't go out of date; it loses context.  It's also becoming more and more difficult to do, as the present increasingly becomes its own self-engulfing parody.

Fiction about the far future, on the other hand, digs deep into the past.  Given all the problems of attempting to predict the near-future - black swans, non-linear dynamics, the law of unintended consequences - it certainly makes no sense in consciously trying to project any part of the present on to the far future.  Instead, writers suggest that archetypal human narratives and historical principles will survive every kind of technological change, and reappear in different forms.  James Blish's Cities in Flight series, for instance, is underpinned by the theories of Otto Spengler.  Isaac Asimov's Foundation series was inspired by Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Frank Herbert's Dune and Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun are different takes on Messianic figures.  Old-school space opera, with its palaces and empires, its sword-wielding heroes and princesses, echo Hollywood's romance with medieval history.  And so on, and so forth.  Like fantasy, the narratives of far-future science fiction are shaped by patterns of Story.  Unless you believe, like those who champion the technological Singularity (aka Rise of the Machines, or the Rapture of the Nerds), that the far future lies on the other side of an intellectual event horizon. That the far future will not only be impossible to predict, but also impossible to comprehend.  That it is an end to Story and the heat death of science fiction, and we cannot utter a single syllable about what follows.  But where's the fun in that?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Size Matters

This brilliantly simple graphic by Adam Grossman neatly illustrates how the scale of human achievement is dwarfed by the size of the galaxy.  We've been emitting radio transmissions for about a century now, and since they travel at the speed of light, the very first transmissions have reached a theoretical distance of one hundred light years from the Sun.  (As Emily Lakdawalla points out in the Planetary Society blogpost where I first found the graphic, the inverse square law means that those transmissions would be so incredibly attenuated as to be undetectable except by the magic of advanced alien technology.)  This means that all of the transmissions to date are contained within a sphere of two hundred light years' diameter.  The graphic shows just how small that is, compared to the size of the Galaxy - if you click to embiggen the image, you'll see that a little blue dot in the centre of the enlarged square: that's us, that's as far as we've reached out.

Space opera's central conceit is to imagine that human influence can extent across the entire breadth of the Galaxy.  Across billions of stars, and about 120,000 light years.  And cosmology operas imagine that humanity can influence the billions of galaxies beyond our own, the fate of the observable universe, and even multiverses beyond that.  Which is why, of course, breaking or getting around the Einsteinian lightspeed barrier is such a common trope, in space opera.  While some writers - Alastair Reynolds springs to mind - have cleverly incorporated the long spans of time required to traverse interstellar distances at sublight speeds into their plots, they usually (as far as I'm aware), limit themselves to so-called near-space.  Conventionally, that isn't much bigger than the volume of the little blue dot.  That image really brings home why it's so necessary to break the speed limit if you're going to have any kind of comprehensible galaxy-spanning plot, and introduce human dramas to the galaxy's vast stage.
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