1. The Mundane SF Movement
As some of you may know, Julian Todd and Geoff Ryman have created what they have called the "Mundane SF" movement. The full list of premises underlying this movement are available here.
To summarize them, the governing assumptions are that:
1) Due to a lack of plausible FTL drives, interstellar travel is fantasy,
2) Travel to alternate worlds is even more fantastic, and thus
3) We have Only One Earth and had better make the best of it.
Or, in their terms:
That the most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet.
Geoff Ryman has contrasted mundane science fiction with regular science fiction through the desire of teenagers to leave their parents' homes. Ryman sees too much of regular science fiction being based on an "adolescent desire to run away from our world." However, Ryman notes that humans are not truly considered grown-up until they "create a new home of their own," which is what mundane science fiction aims to do.
Now, let's consider the rationality of the Mundane SF assumptions, because I don't want to do what so many critics often do and simply call an idea I don't like "irrational" based on my not liking it.
First of all, they equate the practicality of interstellar travel with the practicality of FTL travel. Leaving the issue of FTL open (as physics currently does allow FTL under certain circumstances, but we're not sure if these circumstances are humanly replicable, or even really possible in this Universe), what does limitation to STL ravel mean?
Well, it means that (1) the fastest you can move mass asymptotically approaches 300,000 km/sec, or 1 LY per year; and (2) it takes a lot of energy to do this.
This does not preclude interstellar exploration, or even colonization -- as numerous futurists and science fiction writers, starting with Tsiolkovsky and Goddard, pointed out as early as the 1900's and 1910's, interstellar operations were possible provided that one was willing to engage in very long-term planning (decades to millennia). Science fiction picked up on this starting in the 1930's and 1940's, with Murray Leinster's "Proxima Centauri" (1935) and Robert Heinlein's "Universe" (1941). These are both very well-known stories of those eras, repeatedly anthologized, and STL starships have been used in numerous SF stories to the present day. Indeed, the Fermi Paradox is largely based on assumptions involving the construction of such starships by hypothetical advanced alien civilizations.
Hence, the Mundane SF advocates cannot reasonably claim ignorance of this possibility -- one which is not referenced at all, however, in their "manifesto." They simply ignore the real possibilities of STL interstellar expansion, because it doesn't fit their model of mature Only One Earthers versus immature SF escapists.
To be fair, Geoff Ryman allows for STL interstellar travel, but points out that popular SF -- by which he means mostly TV and movie SF -- avoids it because of the inconvenience to plotting. He doesn't seem to see why this pokes a huge hole in the claim that we are limited to Only One Earth, though.
"Very fast sub-light speed would still impose a horizon on how far we get."
Really? Personally, perhaps, but what prevents humanity from spreading out in "stepping-stone" fashion, from one exploitable or habitable world to the next, building a civilization at each point and then, when that civilization is mature enough, launching starships from it? Indeed, because one of his limitations is:
It depends how long you think a starship can keep going without risking major malfunction and how fast an anti-matter driven starship could be. I reckon 30 years in its own time-frame, you may think more.
he is implicitly disallowing even fuel or maintenance stations!
In an apotheosis of selfishness, he says:
For most of us whose descendants will not be among those specially selected interstellar crews, for our children, for humankind as whole, the future is here on Earth.
Really? First of all, even in genetic terms this is a dodgy statement -- it would already be technologically possible (though economically impractical) to record the genotype of every living human being, and, having done that, send it across interstellar distances. Secondly, I prefer to think of "humanity" in more memetic terms, and it is certainly possible for Earth to play a part in the creation and transmission of ideas across interstellar distances as part of an interstellar civilization.
He also explicitly disallows immortality/downloading, based on what are I consider fairly specious arguments: in particular
Immortality? Suns die, galaxies die, the universe dies. Nothing is immortal outside of God’s heaven. We will all die one day. Leaving Earth won’t stop it.
It's quite true that no immortality scheme would be perfect, but merely being able to live (say) a few hundred or few thousand years would be perfectly adequate to permit a small interstellar civilization with considerable cultural and political unity. And, of course, if you're concerned about the fate of humanity in general, unity isn't necessary -- a galactic-scale balkanized STL civilization, or even Sagan's cooperative "Galactic Federation," would require little political unity yet would ensure the survival of Man and many of his memes into the indefinite future.
Brain downloads: transferring something that has four switches (up and down in both directions) to a system works through binaries?
This is so scientifically illiterate that I am astounded he said this in public. There are some fairly serious obstacles to brain downloading, though these are mostly because we don't yet know how the human mind works and is supported by the physical structure of the brain at the nuts-and-bolts level. However, the system he describes could be easily mapped to binary by using two bits per switch ("00"="not present", "01"="inactive," "10"="up" and "11"="down"), as anyone who's taken an Introduction to Computer Science course would instantly realize. Hence, each unit could be represented by a sixteen-bit "word," well within the capabilities of even existing computers!
Again, there are obstacles to this technology (for one thing, it's much more complex than Ryman describes), but this isn't one of them!
Secondly, and even more devastatingly, they dismiss interplanetary expansion by, without even discussing their reasoning, assuming that we can only colonize planets which are "habitable like Earth." He dismisses colonizing worlds within our own Solar System, such as Mars, with:
Terraforming Mars may be a better bet than travelling those vast distances to terraform a rocky, radioactive wilderness. Both efforts would take tens of thousand years. What human endeavour has lasted tens of thousands of years?
which implies that we must terrfaorm to colonize. But we already, in theory, know how to create self-sustaining life support systems, assuming that we are allowed to import energy (and some quantity of replacement volatiles to compensate for leakage) into the loop. The technology enabling us to do this in practice is not far off, certainly not far off on the time horizons of science fiction.
And why "tens of thousands of years" to terraform Mars? That's pessimistic even in terms of present-day engineering capabilities. Wouldn't both the technology and the engineering capabilities increase, even a bit, after even a few decades to centuries of attempting the project?
By the way, this techno-pessimism has a trap that Ryman hasn't seen yet. If we're so totally limited to present-day science and technology, forever, how are we to prevent the Earth's ecosystem from collapsing? We don't yet know how to do this, and the technologies that we would have to develop to do so are essentially similar to the ones which we would need to terraform another planet.
Indeed, there is a general assumption that we are forever limited to the technology we have now running all through his speech, as in
Will cramped, smelly spaceships full of people who have been trapped with each other for twenty years, with terrible food, no light, drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out, is that really the most exciting thing we can imagine?
which I've heard variants of from many techno-pessimists, many times before.
Take a moment, look at this statement, and think about what Ryman's saying here. He's talking about STL starships, but similar comments are made about spaceships and habs in general.
He's saying, basically, that we can never improve the comfort level of any off-world habitation!
Why must it be "cramped?" (depending on the energy available to the launching civilization, a starship could be quite massive and hence quite large).
Why must it be "smelly?" ("Smelliness" is not a mystical property of enclosed systems, it is a reaction between our olfactory apparati and molecules physically present in the environment, hence meliorable).
Why is there "no light?" (this is the weirdest one of all: one envisions a Regency spaceship where they can't keep the candles lit because it would use up the oxygen supply)
Why "drugs and entertainment only so long the computers hold out" ...? Oh, I can see why "the computers" would be important, but why are they running down? Surely spare circuitry would be one of the easiest things to ship?
Applied to a hab, which could actively produce more minerals and volatiles from nearby celestial bodies, this critique is even stranger.
Indeed, though early colonies in space or on other worlds would be quite spartan, in the long run they might be luxurious. If one is, for instance, hollowing out cavern complexes under the Lunar or Martian surface, one's work is cumulative, which means that once the colony has been established for a while there could be vast amounts of space in which the population was living. Far from "cramped," such colonies would eventually offer their inhabitants more room than they would be likely to have on an overpopulated Earth.
Finally, though this is a trivial point, Ryman ignores the fact that "fantastic" SF actually created most of the ideas and perspectives that inform his concept of focusing on creating an ecologically sustainable future on the Earth. For instance, the notion of a beautiful, comfortable and yet non-industrial civilization "close to Nature" was greatly popularized, in the 1950's and 1960's, by the man who most argued in favor of "escapist" fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien. The very concept of the Earth as a unified system was grasped only by a specialized few until expeditions to space brought back pictures of the Earth from outside.
And much of the data with which planetary ecologists form their theories and plans come from a source every detail of which was "fantastic" science fiction a mere century ago -- man-made moons with electronic cameras operated by artificial brains, launched into orbit by rocket ships!
This illustrates a crucial point. Consider how much progress we've made in a hundred years. Ryman is essentially assuming that this was a once-in-a-species event -- that we will not make an equivalent amount of progress in the next century, or even the next millennium, or (if you take his Mars statement seriously) the next tens of millennia.
2. The Real Future
Obviously, we could fantasize about any technology or event we wanted to have exist in the future, but this would be unrealistic (although, based on the historical evidence, numerous events and technologies that we now deem fairly improbable will probably be realized over the next century). So I'll limit myself to developments and technologies based firmly on known physics. I will assume no catastrophic civilizational collapse, nor the extinction of the human species by any means other than transformation into a post-human form: obviously the first would greatly delay, and the second prevent the expansion of our civilization.
The total amount of energy, and hence wealth, available to humanity will increase at a rate roughly equivalent to compounded interest (because the process of accumulation is quite similar). Over the next century, fossil fuel power generation systems will be replaced by nuclear fission with solar and other passive systems as auxiliaries; over the centuries thereafter, nuclear fusion and perhaps more exotic power generation systems will replace nuclear fission, and space-based solar will replace ground-based solar in the auxiliary role.
Why is this inevitable? Because the drive to produce wealth is fundamental to human nature, and energy is the ultimate source of wealth. And there is no scientific, or even technological obstacle to the "next century" projection: the farther-future projection implies technological but not necessarily scientific progress.
An increase in the amount of energy and wealth available to Mankind will accelerate the human expansion into space. This is a bit less certain a prediction, because over a mere century some social movement might prevent this from happening, but it is very certain over many centuries, because social movements are transient, while technological capabilities last for as long as our species survives.
Among the ways in which increased energy and wealth will accelerate the human expansion into space:
A. The wealthier humanity as a whole, the wealthier each subunit, hence the smaller the size of the subunit required to make space ventures. We can see this happening right now: the first space race involved only two superpowers, while the current one involves America, Russia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and over a dozen private corporations. A century from now, even small corporations will probably be able to participate in extraterrestrial ventures, and many centuries from now, we may reach a point where the average human family has the resources to emigrate from Earth, if they choose to do so.
This is inevitable assuming anything short of complete civilizational collapse. All regimes politically benefit by possessing greater general wealth, and even command economies consider costs when deciding upon whether or not to launch space ventures.
B. Technological progress offers improved launch technologies. We currently only launch spacecraft by means of chemical rockets, but magnetic catapults and laser launchers are also technologically and space elevators, skyhooks, and ion-beam acclerators are scientifically possible. All offer significant energy advantages and dramatic payload advantages over chemical rockets. It is likely that within a century electromagnetic and laser launch systems will be common, and within centuries the other named systems will be common.
This is fairly inevitable because any or all of these launch systems would also improve military and scientific space capabilties: furthermore, a private launch system operator would realize considerable commercial advantages from being able to sell cheaper launch capabilities. It is difficult to see any social movement, short of the complete collapse of human civilization, preventing the emergence of such technologies, since even fairly anti-space expansion regimes would want to be able to loft satellites as cheaply as possible.
C. Technological progress offers improved spacecraft construction. Most of the cost of spacecraft operations today is maintenance and repair work: because the physical demands stress the capabilities of existing materials severely, spacecraft have to be in near-perfect conditions to launch or re-enter safely. As improved materials -- iridum and osmium based steel alloys, and fullerene based plastics and composites -- become more widely available, spacecraft will be safely operable in far less perfect conditions, greatly reducing ground crew operational costs.
This is inevitable because improved materials technologies are not specifically "space" oriented applications -- they would also make many earthly operations, such as the construction of bridges, skyscrapers, and tunnels, and the operation of ships and aircraft, much cheaper and easier. Only the most rabidly anti-technological regime would oppose such materials, and it is difficult to see how it could maintain its dominion given this attitude (as its foes would have better military equipment).
D. Infrastructure improvements are cumulative. Improved infrastructure makes operations cheaper -- if you can simply order a launch system off the shelf, or rent space on an existing launch, rather than have to build a rocket from scratch to support your space venture, that venture has become a lot cheaper, and easier to organize. Furthermore, even if specific infrastructure is allowed to decay (the American abandonment of the Saturn V heavy-lift rocket is a case in point), the knowledge of how to do it is never completely lost, and still less the knowledge that it has been done.
E. Once you're in orbit you're halfway to anywhere. This is cliche, but cannot be overemphasized. Something like half the difficulty of any space venture comes from launching and landing in Earth's deep gravity well. Once there are even a few functioning offworld habs, trade between them can be conducted far more cheaply than any of them can trade with the Earth. Since the initial habs need not be built for commercial purposes, but once they are built they can easily generate both supply and demand, this in part gets around the obstacle of initial profitability.
This is semi-inevitable over the next century: I could imagine a World Government both so anti-space that it would not found space habs and so anti-commerce that it would not let private organizations do so either. It is inevitable over centuries, since eventually the World Government would change its policies or be replaced by a more expansionist one. 15th-century China forbade oceanic exploration, but nevertheless over the ensuing centuries, the Chinese people did expand into Indonesia. Policies are never as eternal as their authors may imagine.
Given all this, the next century will see humanity plant its first outposts and colonies on and around the worlds of the Inner Solar System; we may succeed in getting farther (the revelation of the interesting features of the Galileian moons and Titan offer obvious incentives for manned exploration of the Jovian and Saturnian lunar systems). Over centuries, we will extensively colonize the Solar System: a millennium from now, the majority of the human species will no longer reside upon the Earth, due to the expansion over time of these colonies from both emigration and natural increase.
The question of interstellar travel is more difficult to answer. Electromagnetic ramscoops may turn out to be forever impractical, at least given the low density of the local medium. If ramscoops cannot be built, then we are limited to fusion and antimatter rockets, and to passive assists such as launch lasers pumping starsails. This keeps travel times down in the range of 0.10 to 0.25 C, which means that even for immortals, most travel will be one-way emigrations. On the other hand, if it proves possible to completely upload and download human minds, people could be transmitted (between existing bases) at a full 1.0 C, which is fast enough that immortals could regularly tour small to moderate-sized interstellar empires.
Energy considerations are limiting but mostly for near-future operations. Within the century, we may be able to launch unmanned interstellar probes. If we develop fabricator and nanobot technology to a sufficient degree, even an unmanned probe could construct facilities to receive a later manned expedition.
As our civilization grows in energy generation capabilities, large starships become increasingly practical. A large antimatter rocket, for instance, would require many current world-years of energy to accumulate the necessary fuel, but a civilization centuries from now will probably generate at least a few orders of magnitude more energy than does our own, and would find the launch of such an expedition a much lighter burden.
If you want my guess, I think we’ll launch an interstellar probe within a century, the first manned expedition within two centuries, and within a millennium will have planted at least one colony in another star system. This all assumes no FTL travel.
Even if we don’t make any concentrated effort at interstellar travel, we are likely to achieve it in time, anyway, in consequence of gradual progress in extended-duration spacecraft and colonization of the extreme outer Solar System, especially the Oort Cloud (which extends out halfway to Alpha Centauri). Over time, successive waves of colonization of Oort iceteroids and other interstellar bodies will lead men to other star systems, even if their ancestors never intended to go out that far. Within, say, ten thousand years, we might colonize near interstellar space (within 10-50 LY) in this fashion.
3. The Rejection of Boundlessness
From this discussion, it is easy to tell that I think the rejection of a human future containing expansion to other worlds is an essentially irrational one. Current science already supports the capability to colonize other worlds. Existing technology is up to the task of, at least, Lunar colonization; and technology already on the drawing boards to the colonization of the rest of the Inner System. Readily predictable technology is adequate to the colonization of the Middle and Outer Systems, and probably the stars beyond.
You will also note that the Mundane SF movement is actually friendly, however, to other forms of change. Superintelligent computers are allowed – as long as humans can’t be uploaded into them (because that would make space travel too easy). Posthuman intelligent life is allowed – as long as it can only live on the Earth (because if it could then interplanetary colonization would be too easy). Indeed, Ryman goes on about the “new wonders” he wants to substitute for the old – provided that they all remain firmly on Only One Earth.
Part of the clue lies in the way in which we have traditionally thought about “the Earth” as the realm of “mundanity” (naturalness worldliness, normality) as opposed to “the Heavens” as the realm of transcendence (supernaturalness, unworldliness, literal “unearthliness.”) Yes, the Scientific Revolution that changed our world view is four centuries old – but the essentially Mesopotamian concept of “the heavens” that preceded it is over forty centuries old, and it has not yet completely departed our way of thinking.
Notice how many scientists decry manned space exploration as a distraction from the “real work” of scientific study of other planets, and are positively horrified at the notion of commercial or military activities in space? Science is abstract and sacred, suitable for the “pure” spheres above the Mundane, spheres dominated by quintessence rather than the vulgar four elements known on Earth. Commercial and military endeavors are tainted by worldly ambitions. This is not their explicit argument, but it constantly peeks through the rationalizations.
Notice how resistant most people are, even after a century of science fiction and half a century of actual space travel, to the notion that the future in space can really be a human one, with human concerns? Repeatedly, politicians are cheered for arguing that we should put “human concerns” before the space program – implying that the space program is esoteric, beyond normal human interests, and irrelevant to the practical future.
The new religion of environmentalism feeds into this attitude. To their credit, this has not been the case for most of the scientists who have advocated the Gaia Hypothesis (but, then, to them it was never a religion) – they, instead have pointed out that human colonization of other worlds would fulfill Gaia’s evolutionary promise, by spreading Earthlife beyond the globe of its origin. But many on the Left have taken environmentalism to mean that one must demonstrate loyalty to the Earth by manfully resisting the call to expand beyond her confines.
This is close to Ryman’s reasons. He argues that the science fiction dream tempts us to “burn through” the Earth in the assumption that there are other potentially habitable planets for us to move to when we’ve used up our homeworld.
This is, still, irrational. There is nothing about the ability to colonize other worlds that means that one should logically destroy one’s homeworld – a world that, in any case, will be the most habitable one for Man for countless centuries to come, probably even if we developed FTL interstellar travel! Must the owner of a mansion who buys some other houses therefore trash his ancestral residence? The idea is ridiculous, when translated into more familiar terms.
No, what I think is operating here is something deeper.
We evolved on the Earth, and our perceptions of space and time are adapted to the limitations of life on her surface. Indeed, they are adapted to much smaller areas than the surface of the whole Earth – notice how many science fiction stories treat whole worlds as if they consisted of one town and some countryside around? The scales of space and time in the Solar System, let alone the Galaxy or the Universe, are dizzying to our minds. Some find them awesome and beautiful – others, I suspect , find them frightening.
To those who want a planned, controlled future, the implications of the size of the Universe are terrifying. What happens to the hopes of a tidy little back-to-nature utopia if the amount of energy available in just a single planet-sized solar orbital collector array utterly dwarfs that available to the “sustainable” planetary civilization, condemning that civilization to the status of quaint backwater? Posthuman superminds can be kept cozy and manageable if limited to Earth-surface renewable energies – what happens if they can burn sizable fractions of gas giant atmospheres as fusion fuel for their unguessable purposes? What is the glory of a united World Government, when that World Government is a speck on the vast dapple of the Cosmos?
To paraphrase H. G. Wells, fantastic science fiction makes what they think great seem small, what they think strong seem weak, and they don’t like it at all. They have a point – change is dangerous, and if we handle it wrong we may get not progress, but destruction, on an unimaginably vast scale. But what they don’t get is that change is unavoidable.
Boundlessness is frightening. We stand suspended across immensity and we fear to fall. But we may also fly, and we will never fly until we have the courage to spread our wings and hop off the edge of the nest.
There is also a strong Sour Grapes effect. The Silent and Boomer generations grew up with the promise of science fiction, promises which have taken longer to come about than was first hoped in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The generations which will be colonizing the Inner Solar System will not be theirs: it is the Millennials and those who come after them who will reap the glory which the earlier generations sowed. This is normal in human affairs, but the Boomers in particular imagine themselves a special generation, and consider it very unfair that such normalcy should limit themselves. Their pessimism has strongly influenced the Slackers, who are also just a bit too old to participate.
They would rather have it that it be final truth that the dream of space was a lie, that they were the first ones sophisticated enough to realize it, and that all future generations live within the prison that has restrained their own ones. What they don’t get is that future generations will not consider themselves bound by this, any more than the generations who first had the benefit of antibiotics refused to use them out of sympathy for the sufferings of their elders in childhood. When they can, they will stride boldly forth to colonize the planets, and the stars.
In the end, I think it is H. G. Wells who best expressed why I think the inexorable march of history will roll over, plow under, and pass by the smoking wreckage of the Mundane SF dream:
“Rest enough for the individual man - too much, and too soon - and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning” (Things to Come)