Musings on Generational Sci Fi and the Need for FTL

On the recommendation of my cousin I recently read (well, listened to, actually) several books by Alastair Reynolds. A former astronomer with the ESA, Reynolds writes space science fiction. Many of his novels take place within the same “universe,” and all take place in similar universes, one feature of which is that faster-than-light (FTL) travel is, essentially, impossible. This of course is in complete compliance with the laws of physics, and Reynolds primary mode of interstellar travel is via “Lighthugger,” a class of spacecraft that is able to come close to, but not exceed the speed of light. So travel between stars still takes years or decades. I refer to this type of story as “generational science fiction,” as in a story typically takes a twenty years or more to play out.

Reynolds is a competent writer and the reader quickly becomes accustomed to the casual use of “decade,” and “century.” In a few of his books, at least some of the humans have developed hyper-longevity or immortality treatments in order to navigate the stretching of time that comes from societies and economies spread over such vast distances; and the  sci-fi fallback of cryogenic hibernation is invoked for many humans on long space flights.

But it seems that not enough happens back at home in the thirty or so years it takes a character to go back and forth between planets. While we certainly expect the writer to focus on the story, rather than minutiae such as skinny ties coming back in style, minutiae happens. People live their lives. Culture grows, changes and evolves. Sometimes quickly, sometimes over longer scales. It’s not just fashion, it’s social roles, etiquette, politics, language. For example, it really wasn’t that long ago that smoking was permitted almost everywhere – in movie theaters, on airplanes and in stores. Now, in most of the US, smoking is essentially prohibited indoors.

But technology and human society are intricately linked and so the problem is not the just fluid nature of social norms, but the constant advance of technology that it uses. Twenty years ago cellphones were rare; the internet was a curious novelty for most people; there was no GPS system. These technologies have become a part of our society and social norms have grown around them and with them. Technology and society push each other forward. Technologies are developed to address social needs, society changes to accommodate the new technology and this new society has needs that are addressed by a newer technology. As long as there is a society, the technology grows and evolves exponentially.

But in generational science fiction, it’s as if technology, along with the culture and individuals that create it, takes a time out while waiting for the protagonist to arrive from her long  journey. Is this simply a literary device to prevent our hero from trying to save the day with a technology or weapon that has become obsolete during the years she was in cryosleep? Or is stagnation a necessary consequence of a light-years broad culture and economy? Will people just give up on their own creative impulses when they know that the latest, greatest thing was probably devised by someone else 50 years ago and is bound to arrive in orbit any day now? It’s hard for me to believe humans will behave this way. Humans have to deal with today every day. And that doesn’t just mean the incessant routine of waking up, working and going to sleep. It means developing – or losing – relationships; it means discovering new ways of doing things; new ways of thinking. A person who is not in cryosleep can’t help but move forward and thereby move technology forward as well.

But assuming the constant advance of technology brings up another problem which concerns spaceflight specifically: each generation of spacecraft will be faster and less expensive that the previous one. This is essentially the same as the problem of an economy without inflation: there is never an incentive to invest. If you know the price will be lower in the future, why send your ship out today, especially when cheap and fast still means billions and decades – even centuries?  Why spend the money or political clout? This is part of what is holding us back right now with regards to human exploration of mars. The stagnation grows out of the advance of the technology itself, and nothing ever gets past the testing stage. Space exploration becomes what we could do, but don’t, because any craft we send out today will be passed by one we (or our competitors and rivals) send out next year.

We might eventually get humans to Mars, but who will send humans to Tau Ceti, or Epsilon Eridani, or Alpha Centauri B? The problem isn’t the question of who would go, volunteers would line up by the thousands. The question is who will send them. I doubt any government will. There’s no political or economic benefit to having a colony that can’t return goods or taxes to the motherland in less than a dozen lifetimes. How about an eccentric billionaire? It doesn’t seem to fit the psychological profile. In spite of what we see in comic books and James Bond movies, billionaires tend to get their billions through careful investing. It’s the privatized version of the problem the governments face: the next four thousand quarterly reports will show zero return on the “investment.” It’s not an investment at all in fact, it’s just throwing money away into space.

So we need warp drive, starburst, FTL, hyperdrive, wormholes, whatever you call faster-than-light travel, we need it soon. It’s humanity’s only hope!

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