Space Operas we grew up reading such as Star Wars or Star Trek take interstellar travel for granted. They don’t even worry about the science – just push a button and engage the warp drive. Much science fiction literature takes the same route. In Ian M Banks’ Culture series for example, the Culture are so far in advance of humanity that they smile at our lack of understanding of their technology. As Arthur C Clark said, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
The hardcore end of SF, for example And Weir’s The Martian, takes a close-to-real look at space travel. In reality, putting humans into space is difficult, dangerous and hideously expensive. A human in Star Trek: First Contact on beaming aboard the Enterprise asks ‘how much does all this cost?’ Jean-Luc Picard merely explains that the economy of the future doesn’t think in those terms.
Suspending disbelief requires us to assume that there are technologies we have not yet discovered that will take us from the crude rockets of today to the ion drives and warp drives of Space Opera, with artificial gravity to boot. Its only a blink of an eye historically from the sailing ship to the steam ship to the nuclear submarine; we went from unmanned Sputnik 1 to moon landing in 12 years. So our modern view of scientific progress expects that we will continue to progress. At some point a Stephen Hawking of the future will go ‘ah, so that’s it!’ and we will have a Theory of Everything; once we fully understand the principles that operate the universe, we should be able to invent those magical technologies.
But suppose they do not exist? Suppose the Theory of Everything proves there can be no warp drives, transporter beams or artificial gravity. The only way we can reach the stars will be aboard ‘Space Arks’ taking decades or even generations to reach their destination. But what if the experiments on human biology resulting from lengthy missions aboard the ISS show the body cannot cope with more than a year or two in zero gravity? Or that humans could not survive long missions in deep space with solar radiation frazzling our DNA. If so, there will not even be ‘space arks’. Mars may be as far as astronauts get – and those heroes may have to accept that it will be a one way trip.
In 1950, Enrico Fermi posed the question that has become known as the Fermi Paradox. If intelligent life is not an event unique to Earth, there should be countless other civilisations amongst the 100 billion planets estimated to exist in our galaxy. If this is true, we can’t be the first to invent space travel, and the others may have a couple of million year’s start on us. So where is everyone? Earth is such an obvious place for the alien Space Arks or even robot probes to head for. Yet they are not here, and there is no verifiable evidence they ever have been.
Maybe the Fermi Paradox demonstrates that interstellar travel is impossible.
One of Ian M Banks’ non-Culture novels is Against a Dark Background. The storyline takes second place to the key idea, in which a planet is situated so far towards the edge of the galaxy that there are very few stars in its sky. The limits imposed by the laws of physics mean that its inhabitants can never leave. Everything that can be invented has been invented, then in some cases forgotten. Every political system has been tried, every religious experiment exhausted, and wars are fought over the same terrain for the same list of causes. Resources are basically what can be recycled. Progress has been replaced by stagnation.
So is that humanity’s future? In a hundred years time, in a thousand years, in ten thousand years? If we can’t stretch out beyond our solar system, and nobody else can reach us, perhaps we’re stuck on this rock forever.
Image: Chris Foss, concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy (author’s collection)