Communion Of Dreams

You can’t get there from here.

Charlie Stross is a smart guy. And a fine writer, with significant Science Fiction cred. So when I saw an item posted by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing yesterday titled “Futility of Space Colonization” with a link to Charlie’s full post on his blog, I was curious. From the post:

That’s the first point I want to get across: that if the distances involved in interplanetary travel are enormous, and the travel times fit to rival the first Australian settlers, then the distances and times involved in interstellar travel are mind-numbing.

This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you’re not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money).

And then this, about the question of colonization in our solar system:

But even so, when you get down to it, there’s not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live there for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don’t exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there’s no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we’ll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow, driven by our increasing dependence on near-earth space for communications, positioning, weather forecasting, and (still in its embryonic stages) tourism. But the domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

OK, like I said, Charlie is a smart guy. Go read the entire thing – I think that he has nailed the economics of the matter of space colonization pretty solidly. He’s right with all the physics, energy requirements, et cetera, from everything that I see and know on the subject.

And he’s dead wrong.

Oh, I think that he’s right – right now, it is hard to come up with a pragmatic, practical argument for the possibility of space colonization. But his argument reminds me considerably of this item posted on Paleo-Future last week:

Aerial Navigation Will Never Be Popular (1906)

The August 14, 1906 Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana) ran an article by Sir Hiram Maxim titled, “Aerial Navigation Will Never Be Popular.” An excerpt, as well as the original article in its entirety, appears below.

But I do not think the flying machine will ever be used for ordinary traffic and for what may be called “popular” purposes. People who write about the conditions under which the business and pleasure of the world will be carried on in another hundred years generally make flying machines take the place of railways and steamers, but that such will ever be the case I very much doubt.

That item goes on to talk about how flying machines will undoubtably be adopted as weapons of war, but that they will forever remain too expensive and risky for any other venture.

The thing is, it is difficult in the extreme to make solid predictions more than a couple of decades out. In my own lifetime I have seen surprise wonders come on the scene, and expectations thwarted. Technology develops in ways that don’t always make sense, except perhaps in hindsight. 100 years ago, many people thought that commercial flight would never become a reality. 40 years ago, people thought that we’d have permanent bases on the Moon by now. You get my drift.

Everything that Charlie Stross says in his post makes sense. You can’t get to that future from here. But “here” is going to change in ways which are unpredictable, and then the future becomes more in flux than what we expect at present. For Communion of Dreams, I set forth a possible future history which leads to permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and Europa, with functional space stations at several other locations outside of Earth orbit. Will it happen? I dunno. I doubt that exactly my scenario would come about. But it is plausible.

And with experience in dealing with exploration and colonization in our neighborhood will come the necessary technologies to go further. Even without a dramatic technological leap, it would be possible to slowly expand outward through the Kuiper Belt and into the Oort Cloud, playing hopscotch from one asteroid or cometary body to the next over generations, out past the edge of our ill-defined solar system and into a neighboring one. I’ve seen calculations pertaining to Fermi’s Paradox indicating that a race with little more than our technology could basically spread across the entire galaxy this way in a matter of less than a million years. Add in that any race doing so would undoubtably maintain at least some minimal rate of technological improvement, and you’ll experience a logarithmic growth which would include some truly stunning (to us) tech.

I am surprised that a writer of Stross’ calibre isn’t able to come up with scenarios which allow for him to imagine this happening, for it to make economic, practical, pragmatic sense. Besides, there is more to human motivation than simple economics – there are plenty of instances in our own real history where people have done things for reasons which do not make sense in economic terms, and accomplished goals which would otherwise never have been attempted.

So, yeah, you can’t get there from here. At least now you can’t. But give us a few decades…

Jim Downey

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