Sunday, January 21, 2007

One Giant Leap

News: I’ve put out a new short story — One Giant Leap. It’s a love story set against the outbreak of a world war where two scientists are trying to develop an interstellar drive.

This is one of a few of my stories where I have gotten feedback suggesting I turn it into a novel. This is true for a lot of my short stories, because part of the reason for writing them is to explore potential worlds for a novel. In this case, I wrote One Giant Leap after thinking about the history I came up with while world-building for my first novel The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracy (on sale at lulu in paperback or as an ebook for only $3. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more! ;-) Please buy it. Please ... PLEASE! Look, I swear! If Mandy, my blowup doll and I ever manage a firstborn, we’ll name it after you — ALL of you! What more can we do? Actually, I don’t think she’s that happy about the idea even though she hasn’t said anything ... and to tell the truth, I’m the one trying for a baby — and I’m REALLY trying, so much so that my back keeps going out — because Mandy doesn’t seem to have her heart in it, she just lies there with that look of surprise on her face. It used to be delighted surprise, but I’m not so sure any more. Ah women, who can understand them? After all these years you’d think her biological clock would be ticking like crazy.)

Oops! Looks like I got sidetracked with my personal problems er ... life, I mean.

So, back to One Giant Leap.

History shows that civilizations rise and fall. We’re on a rise that’s been steadily accelerating since the Renaissance. But it’s not a constant slope. Our knowledge of science and technology has increased in fits and starts, slow at first until now where it appears to be increasing exponentially and people talk about the spike, or singularity as Ray Kurzweil calls it, where the pace of technological change will be so rapid that its impact will irreversibly transform human life as we know it.

Certainly, it seems that way, what with the incredible pace of change with consumer electronics, growing processing power of PCs and software sophistication, and the boom with the internet. But if we step back and take a look...

There have been no major theoretical breakthroughs in physics since relativity and quantum mechanics and that’s almost a century now. There is a lot of talk about dark energy and dark matter, but that’s all it is — talk. There is no experimental evidence and even the theoretical basis isn’t consistent.

Similarly, the only way into space is with rockets and looks like it will be for a while to come. And when we get into space? Current ion engines will get you nowhere fast, light sails might allow for a leisurely jaunt, which is all that interplanetary travel will be for the future, and exploding nuclear bombs or antimatter engines are pie-in-the-sky ideas that may never come to pass. And what about the moon? The last time anyone set foot on it was about thirty years ago and the prognosis for going back is a decade or more in the future if the political will lasts that long. As for Mars, it’s still a pipe dream.

In medicine it’s the same. The promise of antibiotics and vaccines has stalled and in some cases gone backwards with the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Twenty or so years on, we still don’t have a vaccine for HIV and now there is the threat of bird flu, another influenza and the resurgence of old diseases that were supposed to have been eliminated. Cracking DNA and the genome was supposed to lead to a bright future of personalized medicine and it may do, but what has been revealed is that there is another layer of complexity to overcome — the proteome. And this layer is far more complex than the genome because a gene can code for a multitude of proteins depending on how it is triggered and how it and the DNA around it is affected by such things as methylation.

My view is that rather than a spike, eventually we will hit a barrier and level out. All of our technological innovation is still based on science that hasn’t really changed in a century and while the costs in some areas are in virtual freefall, the costs in other areas have risen to the point that research has dwindled almost to a stop. We may not reach this barrier for a century or so, but the law of diminishing returns will catch up.

And it may also be a bumpy road.

War seems to be an inevitable component of the human character. Last century we had two world wars and a pile of local conflicts. How many will the twenty-first century throw up? And while war is a major trigger in technological innovation, for fifty years we have been in the situation that a major flare up could result in the demise of our civilization. When the last two world wars occurred, most of the globe consisted of third world countries. The balance is changing as China and India boom. If conflicts over resources, ideologies and national pride escalate into all out war, it might be enough to send the global economy into freefall from which we might not recover for hundreds of years.

In fact there are a lot of potential problems on the horizon that threaten our civilization — global warming and dwindling resources are the old bogeys, but burgeoning middle classes in the old third world countries will exacerbate these effects with their lifestyle demands. It might well be that growing global wealth will be the greatest threat.

How all this will pan out, no one can really say.

One scenario is that global warming will trigger sea-level changes with the collapse of the Greenland ice sheets and the global melting of glaciers and this may cause huge population upheaval as coastal cities are inundated and agricultural boundaries shift. On the other hand, the melting of Greenland’s ice sheets might stall the Atlantic conveyor and trigger an ice age in a time span as short as a few decades. Whether either of these futures will come to pass in the next fifty years or in a couple of centuries time, no one can definitely say, but there is increasing data pointing to both.

In a way it’s funny, because it’s through our prior ignorance of what pumping billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would do, coupled with our lack of political will to do anything about it, that has resulted in these two doomsday scenarios that face us. And yet, if an ice age was triggered, the world might end up pumping out huge amounts of greenhouse gasses in an attempt to raise global temperatures to stop the ice sheets expanding and thus alleviate the problem. Now wouldn’t that be ironic.

But you can look it in another way. An ice age would lower sea levels quite a bit. In previous ice ages, sea levels dropped by as much as a hundred meters or more. That would uncover a huge expanse of new land to colonize and exploit. Sure it might be a bit cold, but the weather wouldn’t be so extreme.

That’s the thing about the future. Anyone who tries to predict it inevitably ends up wrong. And that’s where the fun lies. I seriously doubt that the future world I envisioned in The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracywill even remotely come to pass, but parts of it may do.

The history I envisaged for The h’Slaitiarr Conspiracy covered a period of about 800 years so that (hopefully) most of today’s environmental problems had passed. The main points are:

  • 22nd century — discovery that paves the way for interstellar travel.

  • 23rd century — world coalesces into two power blocs that are evenly matched and locked in a stalemated cold war.

  • 24th century — interstellar flight achieved as 50 year world war breaks out. Cities transfer underground for safety.

  • 25th century — war ends when robots become sentient and stop the war. World government is formed and interstellar flight rediscovered. Robots accept role to monitor society in a police role. Rejuvenation becomes commonplace and Earth society becomes stratified.

  • 25th and 26th centuries — Oxygen based planets colonized. Robots seek their own world.

  • 26th century — Alien race discovered, but it is more advanced and shows only an academic interest in humanity. Eventually they develop a global interpreter and allow Earth to set up a limitied embassy on their home planet.

  • 26th century — a hundred year war breaks out that ends in stalemate, which leaves factions on both sides embittered.

One Giant Leap is set just prior to the start of the major war in the 24th century. At the moment I have some ideas for a series of three or four novels that cover this period through to the end of the war and the rise of the sentient robots and I hope to flesh it out in a few years time. I also have another short story, A Question of Loyalty, which is set during the h’Slaitiarr war and which explores ideas for another short series of novels set during that war. Whether I put it up next or not, I’m not sure, but it will be soon.

What history shows is that civilizations develop in fits and starts. They might be stable and last for a thousand years and then, just as suddenly vanish. Or they might fade, but never quite die out, and then bloom again. But one fact is certain. They all peak and then fall and that fall may either be short and spectacular or a slow fade into oblivion, and that’s what I’ve tried to take into account.

Whether our civilization has peaked or not, I don’t know, but it’s fun to imagine...

Read One Giant Leap at