Alan Zendell, August 5, 2021
Science fiction is a broad genre that examines countless visions of our possible futures. Some are complete nonsense – vampires, zombies, monsters devouring cities, dinosaurs coming back to life – they make for good action films but have little meaning otherwise. Alien invasions and extinction event-causing asteroids are possible, but unlikely, not the sort of things we worry about every day. But the good stuff, based on sound science or scientific theory, offers us windows into future social trends, explorations, discoveries, and human evolution.
As the effects of climate change intensify and we are wracked by pandemics, as automation produces chronic unemployment on a massive scale, and critical resources become scarce and prohibitively expensive, life on Earth will be under increasing pressure. Are those things combined likely to exterminate human life? Probably not, but they could have catastrophic effects on the sustainability of our societies, quality of life, and national economies.
In the worst case, billions of lives could be lost, and civilization could be set back to pre-industrial times. If history is our guide, there will be constant warfare and the loss of governments’ abilities to maintain order and protect their citizens. Life on Earth would be nightmarish.
But science fiction isn’t only about doom, gloom, and disaster. It’s mostly about hope and optimism and challenge and accomplishment. It’s about providing productive arenas for humanity’s restless energy and need to improve and excel, to improve society and sustain economies without resorting to war. It is, in fact precisely what John F. Kennedy meant sixty years ago: “We choose to go to the Moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …”
Exploration and expansion resulted in some awful things: wars, the destruction of entire civilizations and cultures, and slavery to name a few. But they are also what enabled our industrial and technological development. Human societies must constantly evolve and improve themselves or stagnate. As I wrote in The Billionaires’ Space Race, the search for other places that can sustain human life is more than justified by the near certainty that at some point in the future our survival will depend on them. But the likelihood of some catastrophe in the uncertain future isn’t the only reason to explore space, or even the best one.
The best reason is what John Kennedy talked about, the constant renewal of the human spirit, revitalizing the belief that no challenge is too great, and the incomparable feeling we experience from achieving those hard goals. If you’re old enough, you remember how exciting each step of the Kennedy’s challenge was. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, sitting on the edge of our seats as astronauts (both Russian and American if you’re a pure fan of the science) were launched into space. Especially that day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon in the midst of the Woodstock festival. The contrast between those events says more than I could ever express here.
What if, in the midst of pandemics and political struggles, with science under attack by the forces of greed and decadence, we attempted something really bold? Michelle Obama might put it, “When they go small, we go BIG!” What if, for all the reasons discussed above, but mostly to prove to ourselves that there’s no limit to what we can do, we decided to explore habitable planets around other stars? The Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics reported today that astronomers have discovered a star thirty-five light years from Earth orbited by five planets. Three are likely to be habitable, one of which may have an oxygen atmosphere and water oceans. That one might be a new home for humanity.
What if we re-imagined Kennedy’s 1960 vision to reach the Moon as a search for such a new home? Thirty-five light years is a long way – 206 trillion miles – the distance light travels in that time. To get there we would need to build Generation Ships, modern day Noah’s Arks, and supply them with everything colonists will need to establish a new society. They’re called Generation Ships because they’re self-contained worlds that travel for hundreds of years, perhaps dozens of generations before reaching their destination, because they would attain only a fraction of light speed. The only problem with such a goal is that none of us or our great, great, … great grandchildren will be alive when it arrives.
People once thought going to the Moon was a fantasy, but we got there despite Vietnam and the domestic turmoil it created. Maybe what we learn trying to find a new home in the stars will help us preserve the one we have. If the idea captures your imagination, click here for a list of the best Generation Ship fiction written in the last seventy years.