American Gothic Goes to Space

Will there ever really be “farmers in the sky”?

The sci-fi novel I am working on takes place several centuries in the future, at a time when people have finally gotten a bit bored with scientific and technological advances, when so many earth-like planets have been discovered and settled that deep-space exploration has also begun to pall on the popular imagination. Much scientific research and technological innovation has been relegated to super-smart artificial intelligences (their work monitored by humans), although people who actually want to do that stuff can certainly do so. Finally, people can just get back to figuring out what makes life worth living, and use or ignore advanced technology as they wish.

Another part of the “sci-fi” premise is the idea that, several centuries from now, but at least a couple of centuries before my story takes place, physics will undergo another huge revolution that makes Einstein’s insights seem as primitive as Aristotle’s natural philosophy seems to us today. Basically, this will be the final step in scientific understanding — one might call it the End of Science, as it will reveal certain truths about the structure of the universe that are far beyond the human capacity to comprehend, much less make use of. Finally, science reaches a point where it is merely true, not at all useful! The physicist, at last, becomes the pure contemplative (which is where the ancient Greek philosophers were headed, more than 2,000 years ago).

This leaves me free to write a “science fiction” story that is actually about people and human concerns. I want to be able to tell a story without having to pretend to be a scientist, so these premises serve me well. I can “invent” future capabilities of science without having to go into a lot detail or explanation. As it happens, my characters are going to be building a rather low-tech world for themselves, even though they have a huge vessel, loaded with all sorts of marvelous capabilities and guided by a super-smart but also humane artificial intelligence, in permanent orbit around their new home.

Space ship orbiting planet

Does it matter if we never visit other planets? Is it enough simply to imagine that we will?

By the way, all this is pure fiction — by which I mean that I don’t believe it myself. I don’t believe that we’ll discover dozens, maybe hundreds of earth-like planets scattered around our galaxy or that we humans will ever reach even one such planet. I do suspect that someday our scientists will reach a point where they just won’t be able to go any further — in fact, I think that we may almost be there. But, guess what? It doesn’t really matter. Science will not solve our problems; if you pay attention, you’ll see that for every problem that science “solves” it creates at least one new problem, which then needs a further solution. Even when a physical good is achieved, it often opens up a new moral evil.

Which brings me back to why I like science fiction (I actually prefer the broader term “speculative fiction”): it allows us to create an entirely imaginary world in which to examine entirely real problems of the human condition. So the book(s) I want to write will be “true” in the sense of presenting human realities, even though the imaginary world in which they play out will probably never be approached in “real” history.

For those of you who look forward to discovering and exploring planets where human colonists may someday try to build new homes in the real (i.e., nonfiction) universe, check out the Tau Zero Foundation, made up of researchers, writers, and others who are working toward someday developing means interstellar travel and exploration. News of developments and research by Tau Zero members is reported on the Centauri Dreams blog.