The Long View: Far Futures

Last and First Men

Last and First Men

John J. Reilly never really cared for Steve Sailer, even though they had some ideas in common. Even fifteen years ago, Steve traveled in intellectual circles that were considered gauche. However, the very first line of this review is an idea John and Steve share: science fiction usually tells you more about the author's present than the actual future. In part, this is because science fiction tends to be set within the author's or reader's expected lifetime. However, some notable counter-examples can be found.

John lists Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, Arthur C. Clarke's Against the Fall of Night, and H. G. Well's The Time Machine as examples of serious attempts to imagine a future very distant, and very different, from the present. I might add Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, although I only know it by reputation. Also Orson Scott Card's Xenocide sequels to Ender's Game, although theis series is not usually considered classic.

There is another thing these books have in common besides being set very far in the future. All of them deal with the end of the world, in some fashion. John wrote a whole book on this subject; there is something in the Western literary tradition that tends to the eschatological when the remote future is considered.

After reading this book review, I think I will add this book to my list for when I trawl used book stores. I have come to love short sci-fi because of Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War series, as well as C. M. Kornbluth's collected works. This set is novellas instead of short stories, but the basic idea is the same. Take a great idea and run with it, but you don't need to flesh out a novel's worth of dialogue and plot.

Far Futures

Edited by Gregory Benford
Tor Paperbacks (Tom Doherty Associates), 1995
$15.95, 348 pages
ISBN 0-312-86379-9

The problem with most futures in science fiction is that they are usually pretty much like the present, but louder. They are also rarely more than a generation or two away. The count of classic science fiction stories that are set in a really distant future is surprisingly small. There are Olaf Stapledon's "Last Men" books and Arthur C. Clarke's "Against the Fall of Night." At the very beginning of modern science fiction, there was H.G. Wells's "The Time Machine." Other examples can be adduced, but they very fact they stand out in memory shows how rare they are.

The editor of this set of five original novellas decided to alleviate this situation by requiring that the authors place their stories at least a thousand years in the future. Since the writers in question, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield, Joe Haldeman, Greg Bear and Donald Kingsbury, are among the hardest of hard-science fiction writers, he also ensured that all this time would be put to good didactic purpose. The format, in fact, is precisely right: each of the pieces is just long enough for the contributors to take an idea for a spin around the block, without the need for padding into a full-length novel. This practice should be encouraged.

Stories about the far future need not logically be eschatological, which is to say, they don't have to be about the end of the world or the end of an age. However, all of these stories deal with end-of-everything themes to one degree or another. The universe as a whole ends twice in this book, and the sun blows up at least once. The least eschatological story is "Genesis" by Poul Anderson, but even that one really just addresses the flipside of the same question. Perhaps any sufficiently distant point in time looks like the end of the world temporally for the same reason that the visual horizon looks like the end of the world spacially: at the limit of observation, there is no detail.

The distinctive feature of the most recent futures has been their relentless cybernetization. Many of these futures are temporally parochial, not to say myopically trendy. According to the transhumanist movement, for instance, computer evolution is accelerating towards an asymptotic limit in the next century. At that point, the world either disappears into a sort of black hole, or enters into a new phase-state, like water turning into steam. To my considerable surprise, another class of future that has become popular is founded on what might be called "The Physics of Immortality," as set out by the relativity physicist Frank Tipler in his book of that name. To put an extraordinarily long story very briefly, Dr. Tipler demonstrates that (1) the universe must be fated to collapse in on itself ("closed," in physics-speak), (2) everything in the universe will eventually be incorporated into a single great computer, and (3) this computer, essentially a universal mind, will be able to prolong its subjective experience to infinity as the final singularity is approached. Despite superficial differences, both types of cyber-apocalypse share a certain family similarity, since they are both about the dissolution of the world in the approach to a limit. (In Kabbalistic terms, the ontological limit was called the `en-sof, but that's another story.)

The two stories in "Far Futures" that reach the end of the universe share some plot similarities, too, even though they have different theoretical premises. "Judgment Engine," by Greg Bear, assumes not a closed universe, but an open one that will die the heat-death at some very distant point. In fact, it will not just disperse into an ever-finer vacuum, it will dissolve back into the quantum foam from which, presumably, it emerged. The final computer intelligences are therefore chiefly preoccupied with creating an ultimate entity that can affect the state of the foam, so that the foam will give birth to another universe that is an improvement on this one. "At the Eschaton" by Charles Sheffield, on the other hand, sticks much more closely to the Tipler scenario, though inexplicably he makes the opening of a naturally closed universe the final task of his characters.

In any case, both these stories involve a 21st century man, whose brain and body had been uploaded as a computer file, being reconstituted in some cosmologically distant future in order to solve a problem beyond the wit of the post-organic intelligences that superseded mankind. Both protagonists also attempt to contact or revive their long-dead wives. Indeed, the eons-long quest by the protagonist to revive his wife is what "At the Eschaton" is all about. Again, this is a little inexplicable in terms of the story's Tiplerite premises. Since, according to Tipler, everyone is supposed to be resurrected as a virtual reality emulation at the eschaton (meaning simply "the end"), the protagonist need not have spent so many centuries lugging his wife's cryogenically-preserved corpse from star system to star system. On the other hand, that story does offer two pieces of good advice for people who plan to achieve immortality by having their bodies frozen. The first is, pay the extra $5 and go for liquid helium rather than liquid nitrogen. The second is, make sure, before you go in the deep-freeze, that someone in the future will have a good reason to thaw you out.

Poul Anderson's "Genesis" is also more or less on Tipler's track, but since the story happens a paltry 1.5 billion years in the future we don't get to see whether the universe is open or not. What we do get to see is a galaxy dominated by machine intelligences ultimately derived from Earth, many of whose programs are the minds of human beings uploaded in the geologically distant past. However, most of the story takes place on Earth, which is experiencing desertification as the sun slowly expands. The story centers on the fact the collective computer mind of Earth, called "Gaia" for obvious reasons, has reconstituted human beings and set history going again in the narrow range of high latitudes that remain habitable. All this was done without telling the galactic mind, which would probably have had ethical objections, and which in any case became suspicious and sent an inspector. Much of the interest of the story is provided not by the flesh-and-blood humans, but by the computer simulations that Gaia runs of possible human histories in order to find the best way to guide Earth's latter-day inhabitants. These simulations, which are so complete that the "actor" programs in them are fully conscious people, illustrate a basic flaw with Tipler's philosophy (which is what it is, as distinguished from the hypothesis he imagines it to be). You might call this flaw "The Icebreaker Paradox."

Many years ago, members of the Monty Python troupe did a series of television parodies called "Ripping Yarns," one of which took care of every British public school story ever written. In one scene, a master is inspecting the school's hobby room, where most students are building model boats. One of the students, however, has built an actual 110-foot- long icebreaker. When challenged, the boy says that it's a full-scale model. "If it's full-scale then it's not a model!" the master replies reproachfully.

I think that much the same would have to be said for any absolutely perfect virtual reality emulation. You could not emulate a universe on any coarser medium than a universe, in which case the emulation is not an emulation, it's a universe. It may even be that this line of argument could lead to a final refutation of the idea of computer-hosted consciousness. If you make a computer that is more and more like a brain, which apparently is what artificial consciousness is going to require, then eventually you will no longer be dealing with a computer, but with a brain. Another way of putting it is that not everything can be reduced to information, since not everything can be expressed in every medium. Just as long carbon chains are the only really practical medium for biology, so matter itself is a privileged medium, the only really suitable one for life and mind. If this is so, then cybernetic devises might amplify and supplement conscious life, but they could never subsume it.

This is more or less the state of things in Donald Kingsbury's "Historical Crisis," the only really cheerful piece in the book. This novella's apocalypse is the most modest, since it treats merely of the end of the Second Galactic Empire, the one all those slightly Stalinist psychohistorical planners in Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy were trying to establish. The story is set 40,000 years in the future, when the Second Empire has been so long established that its comfortable citizens have begun to find it wanting. Kingsbury took the liberty of updating Asimov's premises to rectify the two major problems that readers today have with the original Foundation books: the lack of computers and the fact that the kind of linear extrapolation that "psychohistory" seems to require flies in the face of chaos theory.

The computer problem is dealt with neatly. People are mated for life to small chip-devices, called "fams" for "familiars," that are in effect extensions of their brains. Fams enormously expand people's memory capacity and save them from most of life's mental drudge-work. The problem, which the young genius-level protagonist discovers when his fam is executed, is that without one he cannot do simple arithmetic or find his way around city streets. As for the chaos theory, the focus of social control strategies just shifts from minding events to minding strange attractors. The Imperial Police police trends, not people. In fact, the psychohistorians who run the Empire first become aware of an effective insurgency when they notice sporadic outbreaks of astrology at various points in the galaxy.

Most 1990s cyberculture buzzwords are here. You have your topozones and your memes and your smart drugs, all for the most part put to good use. Indeed, the Second Empire falls not in an interstellar battle, but in a sort of apocalyptic seminar in which the insurgents prove to the powers that be that historical stasis is neither possible nor desirable. The author also has a gift for ironic turns of phrase. There is something to be said for any story which makes it perfectly plausible that a polite form of address should be "Excellent Frightfulperson."

Joe Haldman's novella, "For White Hill," is also a sequel to an earlier work, in this case of his own Nebula Award winner "The Forever War." (The novella does posit some minor changes in background, apparently to make the story even more depressing.) Readers will recall Haldeman's earlier novel as a very convincing infantryman's account of a seemingly interminable interstellar war. Its well-merited popularity was based on the way it caught both the cynicism and the apparent shapelessness of the Vietnam War, of which Haldeman is a veteran. "For White Hill," set about 400 years after the action of the novel, adds yet another Vietnam parallel, since in it the human race finally, unexpectedly, loses the war.

"For White Hill" is by far the most apocalyptic in feel of these novellas (it is also, by the way, quite erotic). Before he learns of the war's last stratagem, the narrator visits an Earth that had been sterilized by the enemy's nanomachines centuries before, in the first few years of the war. The infection essentially melted the human population within a week, and then turned on all other forms of life. The planet was later lightly resettled by natives who had been in space at the time of the disaster. Earth had many colonies and so the war continued, but not, it would seem, forever. The end of the human race, it fact, barely makes it beyond the editor's thousand year minimum. That will teach him to set deadlines.

This book probably does not have a lot to tell us about apocalyptic anxiety at the end of the 20th century. The constraints under which the novellas were composed puts the action at a distance too remote to interest popular culture. This is the sort of science fiction in which the science is more important than the fiction. Half the fun is looking for possible mistakes and anachronisms. For instance, since these stories were written, new estimates suggest that the Earth will not be consumed by the sun when it enters its red giant phase: the sun will outgass much of its mass, its gravitational attraction will fall and the Earth's orbit will expand. This particular fact does not affect any of the stories here, though it does touch on their sketches of solar evolution. However, one may hope for more collections like this one, in which this kind of projection could make a differenc.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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