To Boldly Go…Nowhere

As a science fiction fan, I’ve read lots of stories concerning the future. They’ve presented some intriguing concepts, too. Take, for instance, the Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. It’s hard to sum up this massive story, at least for me, but basically a race that evolved on a planet with a very extreme solar cycle sets off to gather information.

Because the cycle is so extreme and their lifespans are so short, the aliens develop into what we would call spiritual beings. In the course of their travels, they encounter humanity. One of the incidents they witness is a human sacrifice carried out by a cult known as the Lightbringer Sect (or something close to that. It’s been awhile since I read it, so bear with me here). I won’t give away all of the plot—go read it, if you want to know what happens—but essentially, when these aliens see the spirit of the sacrificial victim slip through a dimensional doorway, they follow.

Unfortunately, this leaves a doorway open that should have remained closed, and certain very nasty individuals who were imprisoned in limbo, such as Al Capone (he’s one of the nicer ones), slip through and take possession of living humans and start wreaking havoc. Eventually, we learn that this is a test for humanity that every sentient race has to face. And humanity has to find its own solution. It can’t use something another race already used.

Hamilton fully fleshes out his world. It’s a massive trilogy, with something like 130 characters and well over 4,000 pages (in the mass market edition, anyway). I won’t even try to guess how many words, but at a minimum I’d say 600,000. Sort of War and Peace for the sf genre. Don’t let this scare you off. If you like sf, it’s a wonderful read and you really get caught up in the world Hamilton creates, complete with a history that makes sense. It’s the kind of sf I wish I could write, but I don’t know that I could ever accomplish something so intricate.

This long preamble is leading somewhere. Hamilton’s world has a history. By the time the story starts, humanity has branched quite a ways out into the galaxy. Travel is accomplished via wormhole, rather than hyperspace or faster-than-light (FTL), though all three are staples of good sf, especially space opera. The ships use wormholes to bridge the galactic distances, and these ships are powered by nuclear powerplants. In fact, technology has progressed to the point that using nuclear weapons, while outlawed, is not viewed as the ultimate threat. A device called The Neutronuim Alchemist is, however: a technology capable of extinguishing a star.

Besides talking up one of the best sf stories I’ve read, there’s another point to this. A couple of things happened recently that…I don’t know, offend me, I guess is the best way to put it. To put it in the terms of a certain very popular series about a boy wizard, it feels like the world is made up mostly of muggles.

Science fiction has always been forward-looking. Even if the story is dystopian in nature, it looks forward to a possible future. Sure, the dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories are often a vision of a future we’d just as soon avoid, but at least they make you think. Maybe the consequences are a bit far-fetched, such as in Planet of the Apes, but it’s a principle that’s being put forth.

On the other hand, there are the ones that look forward to a brighter future, even if it’s still dangerous in some way. The title of this post is my adaptation of a phrase that comes from the famous intro to Star Trek: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” It seems to me that, all of a sudden we’re afraid to go anywhere. We don’t seem to want to go where we’ve already been, never mind boldly going where no one has gone before.

Witness two recent events in the news: the disaster in Japan and the end of the space shuttle program.

What happened (and is happening, as I write this) in Japan is horrible. Nothing in this post is meant to diminish that in any way. Between the quake(s), the tsunami and the nuclear situation, they are in a bad way and need help of any kind that folks can offer. Let nothing I say here take away from that.

On the other hand, though, there’s the reaction we’ve seen. In Germany, they’ve decided to do away with nuclear power altogether. Real danger of tsunamis in Germany. Yeah, they have to deal with that all the time. And then Obama wants every plant in the US checked, like there’s gonna be this monster wave hit that plant in Idaho and cause all kinds of problems. Then there’s the plant in New Jersey that’s similar in design to the Japanese plant and suddenly the citizens around there, who’ve probably paid it little attention, are scared.

A valid argument can be made that our technology isn’t quite up to using nuclear force to produce energy. I’ll grant that and even agree with it. But, you don’t make advances in anything by not using it. We have a microwave oven because the astronauts needed some way to cook food in free-fall (please, oh please, do not use the term zero-g, as that is a misnomer). Satellite communications came about because we didn’t want the Soviets bombing us (and them) back to the Stone Age. We needed a way to watch them and make sure they weren’t shooting nukes at us because Breshnev had too much vodka one night.

We don’t make advances in science and technology by sitting and watching the clouds float by overhead. The Space Race was another battle in the Cold War, make no mistake. And nuclear power was, and is, a peaceful application of what we learned at White Sands.

And then, on top of that, there’s the end of the shuttle program. The nation that was first on the Moon now has to hitch rides from people who don’t like us because we have leaders who can’t see past their noses. For them, space exploration, with all its potential, holds no benefits.

I’m not talking about flights of fancy where we hop in a spaceship a lá Flash Gordon and make a quick jaunt to another solar system and be back in time for supper. Physics as we know it presently doesn’t allow for that. If that kind of thing is ever possible, it will be long after you and I are gone.

What I am talking about is the Moon. And Mars. Jupiter. What happens when we have access to all that hydrogen gas? If you’re not familiar with the idea, most star travel engines in current sf use hydrogen as their main source of fuel, and Jupiter is one huge source of the stuff. Then there are all the minerals on the Moon and Mars. I’m not completely up on it, but I believe there are possibly minerals there that are rare on Earth.

And what about Europa? It’s one of Jupiter’s moons, and they think there may be water on it, even if it is frozen. Maybe even life down underneath that ice. By the way, in one of life’s wonderful ironies, Europa is the moon that the aliens turn into another life-bearing planet in 2010: Odyssey Two.

None of this, of course, takes into account the things waiting to be discovered out there. What happens when we start mining the asteroid belt? Ben Bova, among others, wrote several stories dealing with this. Or the possibilities that will open up to us when we are able to construct things in orbit. This allows for very strong metals, and if we can put some real habitats up there and not this cheap Tinker toy we call the International Space Station, we can provide lots of solar energy for the planet. Free energy, I might add. Free of carbon and free of charge. Well, okay, maybe not that last, but it will be so abundant it might as well be free. And who knows how much food we’ll be able to produce up there?

There are so many possibilities, so many wonders waiting for us up there. Yes, it will be dangerous. And it will be expensive. But if we’d let that stop us in the past, America would still be populated by a few Indians. I know some folks might think that’s better, but not me. It’s called progress. Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. Stop holding things up. If you want to be Luddite, more power to you, but please oh please stay out of my way.

I believe it is one of the Beatitudes that says the meek shall inherit the earth. Robert A. Heinlein had an addendum to that that I’ve always remembered: The meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.

But only if we quit letting the meek drive the spaceship. Most of ’em are too shortsighted to be operating a motor vehicle anyway.

Here’s to the future.




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