Filed under: climate change, deep time, Hot Earth Dreams, science fiction, Uncategorized, Worldbuilding | Tags: Hot Earth Dreams, Space Opera
I was going to post this on Charlie Stross’ Antipope, where there’s another interesting discussion developing on space opera. So as not to chunk 1,450-plus words onto that message board, I thought I’d post my thoughts over here, for those who are interested.
Here’s the background: Writing Hot Earth Dreams was rewarding in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t the surprise best seller that I’d dreamed of. I’d still like to write a best-seller (I can dream), and I’d read on Antipope that Space Opera was the Thing to be Writing now.
Now I loved Star Wars when I was about seven, and I’ll even admit that I’ve been tempted to join one of those light saber clubs just to do a weird martial art without all the hierarchical BS. That said, well, what does a book about climate change and the imaginations of my fevered brain have to do with space opera?
(Spoiler alerts, not that you care) In doing Hot Earth Dreams, one thing I really learned was how to think about deep time (see Chapter 39 if you have the book). This kind of matters, if you’re going to do anything vaguely realistic like, oh, Alpha Centauri, where the two stars orbit each other every about 80 years or so, in a decently elliptical orbit. No one’s found any planets around those two, but if there’s an earthlike world around one of them, its climates change 3-5°C at minimum every 80 years, or about middling climate disaster for us every few generations, back and forth. It’s not a matter of having two suns in the sky (visually it’s one sun and a really bright star). Rather, it’s that long, slow, inexorable shift, leading to the realization that every generation will be born to a different climate and experience the world that their parents didn’t grow up in. For some it will be getting hotter and wetter, for others, cooler and drier, and then the world will get strange and change on them. Weird stuff, and most people just don’t get it, even though the whole world-gone-strange thing increasing problem right now. Still, most people not getting something is a big problem, so if I want to create a best-seller, I have to be careful about going full on climate geek. Unless the next edition of Hot Earth Dreams sells really well…
Rather more useful is the idea I got from James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, that civilization isn’t the endpoint of the development of civilization. That may sound weird, but highland South-east Asia is littered with people who claim to belong to groups that were once civilized, but lost a battle or whatever and fled into the hills, there to become the epitome of hillbillies. I used this notion to predict what the future would look like in Hot Earth Dreams. The tl;dr version is that I suspect that a severely climate changed Earth will be world-wide Zomia, as global civilization crashes, and the few survivors regroup, pick up whatever pieces are left, and build new cultures that may not even be literate.
That puts a rather different spin on one of the central tropes of space opera: colonizing new worlds. Many SF authors assume that civilization is sort of a state change, although there’s often Vanished Precursors or some other #CleverHandWave to explain why the galaxy isn’t totally over-run by alien civilizations. Another problem is it usually takes massive doses of handwavium to explain why the unsustainable civilization of the present can become both totally familiar and totally sustainable (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is guilty of this, but he’s one in a legion). But what if we assume that civilization is unsustainable, but interstellar colonization is possible (presumably using something like FTL)? I already covered this idea back in 2013, but I gave it a Lovecraftian spin. You can have an unsustainable interstellar civilization that lasts indefinitely, so long as you can set up new colonies faster than the old ones die, where a successful colony can builds its own starships and send out new daughter colonies of its own before it too succumbs. This whole scheme runs into a lot of trouble if you hit the remnants of something else’s interstellar empire, which may be why the galaxy does not appear to host interstellar empires and we’ve never been colonized.
In this kind of environment, we’re far away from Star Trek’s Prime Directive. The survival of civilization as we know it depends on building new colonies, even knowing that these colonies will be impermanent but cause massive changes to their host biospheres.
As a deep dyed environmentalist I find this idea repellent, but then again, it’s a big source of conflict, and conflict makes for better stories. Pity the poor colonists who fall in love with a planet. They’ll undoubtedly become preservationists, but if their colony survives, they can rationally, only hope that, once their civilization has crashed, some of the beauty they love will have survived the colony their building, for their distant hillbilly descendants to love (assuming humans survive at all, which depends on the planet, really). Within such a universe, a lot of people will either tune out the inherent conflict, try to be conservationists or preservationists (what I do now), or try to find ways to create a sustainable civilization, even if it’s impossible.
Hot Earth Dreams also says something about the timeline of such a universe. Basically, if we don’t achieve interstellar capabilities this century (ideally in the next few decades), we’d better achieve sustainable civilization, or our species will be stuck on this planet forever (in HED, I assumed the last would be the case). Right now, I figure there’s a narrow window (basically before 2050–that’s a narrow window when your timeframe is millennia) when computers might be powerful enough to figure out if starships are physically possible, and we’ll still have enough resources to build those ships. After 2050, things get problematic. Climate change can start really biting down, making it difficult to find the resources to build a starship (hundreds of millions of climate migrants may be a higher priority). Alternatively, if Moore’s Law and Koomey’s Law don’t end by 2050, we’ll have computers that are superhumanly intelligent, so that starship probably wouldn’t have humans on board. If I want a space opera flavored with canned monkeys and not chips (and apparently canned monkeys outsell chips and salsa), then I’ve got to assume that someone (or some AI) figures out starflight within the next few decades.
That puts a lot of constraints on the space operatic culture too, which is handy. I can look at the kids these days and assume they’ll be middle aged when the world’s going to hell and the option of bugging opens up .
It also basically assumes that the starships we send out will be a lot like submarines or the ISS, capable of supporting life on the scale of months, not years. This in turn strongly implies that the star drive is either fast FTL travel or a jumpship (which could go slower than light, so long as no time passes inside the ship while it’s jumping).
Finally, there’s the question of what happens on Earth while jumpships are planting colonies on Alpha Centuri BB or wherever. I suspect that civilization could be more sustainable on Earth if we got into a pattern where cities revitalized themselves faster than they fell apart, even as the climate worsens. This has been kind of the pattern for millennia anyway, with “high civilization” bouncing around between Alexandria, Rome, Byzantium, Damascus, etc. No city has stayed civilized for millennia (possibly apart from Damascus, and it’s falling apart now). They all fall to wars, epidemics, famines, bad governance, resource exhaustion, and so forth, and only later get rebuilt. Extrapolating forward, in the 22nd Century, we could see, say, the western US falling apart Iraqi style, while Toronto and Detroit flourish, just to give one possibility. If there’s severe climate change, the race will be on to get the colonies up, running, and independent before civilization totally crashes on Earth, and the interstellar ops (overgovernment, Star Trust, whatever you want to call it) may be stuck with fighting the rearguard action to preserve civilization until the colonies are self sufficient. Eventually, Earth will be left behind, simply too drained of anything but history to make it a worthwhile stop on the star lanes. This will be the fate of all the colonies too, eventually.
It’s kind of a bleak universe, but you know what, it looks operatic, at least on a hot August day.
Oh, and if there are jumpships, then one likely precursor is something Larry Niven wrote about in “The Theory and Practice of Teleportation.”
Those are my rather disordered thoughts. What did I miss?
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