Swans and Singularities: Space Travel

The future is going to be different than today in ways we can’t entirely predict. Countless possibilities stretch out before us as science continues to advance in multiple fields. We can make educated guesses about those possibilities and when they’ll become realities, but there are hurdles in the way that prevent us from knowing exactly which paths will open up and when. Over the course of human history we’ve seen this pattern repeat time and time again. Breakthroughs are made all the time and cause fundamental changes overnight, like the creation of gunpowder, the discovery of electricity, or the invention of antibiotics. And the funny thing is, because a lot of these breakthroughs can be due to chance, we really can’t be absolutely sure when and how these changes will come.

There are people who work towards these sorts of breakthroughs for a living, however, and they’ll often tell us where they think things will be going. Someone working in the development of artificial intelligence will have some pretty convincing arguments about when an artificial superintelligence might be created. Someone involved in fusion research will have a credible sounding prediction of when their reactors might be able to power our civilization. And every once in a while NASA will drop us some interesting pictures that make us wonder if they’re trying to tell us something.

As speculative fiction writers, one of the fun things is to take ideas like this and run with them as far as we can. You’ll find few people who get as fascinated with the idea of technological singularities as scifi authors. And, while a lot of us may have a looser definition of what this singularity may be than academic communities, most people who are concerned with this world changing event base their stories in some aspect of modern scientific understanding. Even in instances where we hand-wave it away, there’s a respect for science involved. For as ridiculously implausible as most FTL concepts are, for example, they exist because someone realizes that FTL would be a game changer in a universe far more vast than we once realized. In fact, even without going faster than light, there are a lot of technologies related to space travel that get scifi authors and fans really excited. Yet, in the modern discourse, there are a lot of people who have a hard time understanding just how important space can be for us down here on Earth.

To those people I always like to point out: the destination doesn’t change the world, the journey and what we find out there does… Continue reading Swans and Singularities: Space Travel

Clarke, Singularities, And Swans

One of the things that unites speculative fiction genres is dealing with a world that’s different from our own in ways that seem impossible. With fantasy the line is easily drawn, we know that there aren’t actually wizards or dragons no matter how much we want to believe. But with science fiction there’s always this grey area where we’re not entirely sure just what is and isn’t really possible. It’s that grey area that gives the genre its unique flavor as we explore worlds that seem completely insane but still have that vague sense of truth to them. In essence, when you describe something in science fiction as not possible you can always feel that lingering sense of “yet”.

It’s because of this that I’ve always been a big fan of Clarke’s laws – particularly the third law. According to Arthur C. Clarke, sci-fi author and futurist responsible for stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey, any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. It may sound like an easy excuse for writing impossible things and calling them scientific, but when you think about the real world you realize it’s surprisingly accurate. To this day there are people who believe everything that NASA does is an elaborate hoax because, to them, everything NASA does seems impossible. Even people who do trust in science will doubt some things are possible just because a theory sounds insane despite evidence.

And one of the most interesting aspects of this concept as a speculative fiction writer is that some of those theories may shape our future. We can’t be entirely sure which will actually happen, but we know that the world of the future will be drastically different from the world of today. In fact, in academic circles they say that we may one day hit a “technological singularity” – a point at which technology has advanced so far that society would be near unrecognizable to us. Some people have a hard time wrapping their heads around that, but anyone who reads this right now is doing so through a device that would have been considered witchcraft a thousand years ago. So how is it that we can have experienced such dramatic changes and yet still feel like things can’t go further?

For that, we have to talk about swans… Continue reading Clarke, Singularities, And Swans