Rethinking Interstellar Travel for Science Fiction

If you read science fiction we live in a small universe, but if you read science, the universe if horrendously huge.  There is no way with words to convey the immensity of space – even math fails to give us a feeling for the size of reality.  If we drove over to Proxima Centauri in a Camry it would take 50,000,000 years and if Voyager 1 was going that way, it would take 76,000 years.  Of course, if we could travel as fast as light it would take a mere 4.28 years.

So what does it say about our SciFi fundamentalist belief when we imagine Hans Solo or James T. Kirk making the trip in a matter of hours?  How close is this to believing a man in  a red suit can visit every house in the world in one night?  Now I know all the science fiction true believers will come back at me with testimony about a short-cut to the the stars can be discovered any day now.  Just for the sake of this argument, lets assume Albert Einstein is right (we have no real other reason to believe otherwise).  Hell, even if there were no FTL speed limits we’d find it it damn hard to build anything that could travel even at 1/10th the speed of light.

Let’s say we create the technology that gets that trip down to Proxima Centauri to 100 years, and thus need to rethink science fiction.  (My personal feeling is we’ll have tremendous trouble getting the trip down to 1,000 years, but none of us will ever know that final answer.)  To get an astronaut to another star when the trip takes 100 years means either using generational ships, extending the life of the astronaut or developing some kind of suspended animation technology, or so the SciFi gospel has preached so far.

I have some weird alternate ideas – I mean, there’s always more than one way to skin a flat cat.  We could send machines that have the ability to grow people from an in vitro culture.  Imagine being born on a spaceship in its last years approaching the target stellar system?  Of course, if the destination lacked a habitable planet, those poor souls would be doom to a limited existence – but it might  make for a fantastic philosophical SF novel.

Another idea is just give the job of interstellar travel to robots.  Then whenever they find a potential womb for biological life they could whip up a DNA soufflé from a recipe book inspired by life on Earth.  Our AI children could be the Johnny Appleseeds spreading carbon life forms across the galaxy, and given enough time, intelligent life would re-evolve.  We just wait for our star children to phone home.  OK, we’ll need to develop some real patience.

Using our SciFi minds I think we could all come up with many kinds of seed pods to shoot at the stars.  We could even engineer life to live where our kind of DNA couldn’t.  But that doesn’t sound like much fun for us, does it?  What if we built huge robotic telescopes to launch in all the directions of the celestial compass that we could tap into as a hive mind VR input and commune with the stars?  We could become cyborg space minds – I’m sure this will appeal to the Spocks among us more than it does to the action oriented Kirks types – those guys can invent STL travel and crawl to the stars.  

The more I study science and cosmology it feels like life on Earth is about as practical as one atom somewhere on Earth becoming conscious and wondering why none of his buddy atoms ever talk back.  If life is important, why is it such a tiny aspect of reality?  If life isn’t common, maybe it’s our duty to spread the complexity. 

Life is all around us, so living things dominates our awareness, but if we measure our world against the rest of the universe, life is freakishly well hidden.  If there is a God, why did she make us so small compared to the rest of existence?  We’re hardly the center of the universe.  From our perspective, if we played God, comparing the size of the Universe to the Earth, the children of Homo Sapiens would live on a world no larger than a charm quark in size.  Good luck getting our little beings to spot us.

My guess is we don’t have a creator other than reality churning through all the possibilities.  Intelligent, self-aware life, is a fluke that may exist elsewhere in reality, but maybe not, or maybe not close by.  We are doomed to be snuffed out with the same indifference by reality as all the other millions of species that have become extinct on this planet so far.  Interstellar travel could extend humankind’s lifetime a few billion years, until we needed to travel further afield.

Travel between galaxies is well beyond speculation but imagine if we could spread our species across the entire universe, so it was finally obvious that our strange self-aware kudzu filled the universe, would any being outside our reality take notice?  Maybe there is no one to impress or judge us, but isn’t it a better aspiration than letting ourselves go extinct while assuming we get to live in another reality after this one.  Like man, what are the odds of our personal self-awareness striking two existences in a row?

Star Trek’s Enterprise like space travel will probably soon be seen as a fun fantasy like It’s A Wonderful Life angels or Harry Potter wizards, so I think science fiction needs to rethink interstellar travel.  From Doc Smith to Stephen Baxter, we’ve had some fantastically fun science fiction, but just how realistically visionary has it been?  When science fiction fans die, and their last thoughts are on future possibilities, is Star Trek really any better than fantasies of Heaven’s streets of gold and immortal life with wings?  We can’t know the future, but it’s science fiction’s job to try harder than we’ve done so far.

JWH – 10/12/9

6 thoughts on “Rethinking Interstellar Travel for Science Fiction”

    1. I have been a science fiction fan all my life. Some of my favorite stories have been about interstellar travel. I believe that it may be possible to someday travel to the stars.

      1. Kenneth, I think it’s possible too, but I don’t think we’ll travel to the stars in the way science fiction sees it now. Star Trek and Star Wars are fun fantasies. However, we need to examine why humanity as a whole is keeping us from returning to the Moon and going on to the planets before we can think about heading out to the stars.

        We science fiction fans feel the manifest destiny of space travel calling us, but most people think such adventures are a waste of time.

  1. “If there is a God, why did she make us so small compared to the rest of existence? We’re hardly the center of the universe”

    Actually, we are, in that we are, physically, midway between the largest things — galaxies, etc. — and smallest things (atomic world); or so I understand.

    But size doesn’t matter for significance. If it did, then a seven-foot-tall basketball player would be slightly more important than a 4’5″ Filipino lady. What makes us important is things that are not quantifiable. As I suspect you’d agree.

    1. But I think you knew what I meant Dale, we’re not the center of God’s attention, or in better words, mankind is not the prime purpose of creation. If intelligent aliens exist, who is first in God’s eyes?

      But in a sense, from any location in the universe it appears the observer is in the center of things because it appears to be infinity in all directions.

  2. Well, Judaism teaches that God’s attention was and is centered on blessing humanity through the chosen people, Israel. Christianity teaches that God’s attention is centered on blessing humanity by God becoming a human being, Jesus, to redeem us. Islam teaches that God’s attention is centered on humanity as He sends Muhammad as the final great prophet with the most perfect statement of His law (sharia). Hindu thought teaches that the divine shows attention to earth by the activity of avatars. Buddhist thought teaches that the bodhisattvas attend compassionately to people on earth by serving them. And so on. None of these religions starts from big universe/little earthlings to make inferences about the prime prupose of creation. The prime purpose of creation in each case could be said to be for human beings to connect with a transcendent order. I think the differences between any two of these faiths are important, but surely on this matter there is agreement. I would say that the approach that devalues humanity because we are small and the universe is big is fundamentally flawed from the get-go. One could even argue, on the premisses of at least some of these religions, that the immenseness of the universe is for humanity’s benefit — to ecnourage in us awe, aspiration, wonder, etc.

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