Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Space and the Uncertain Future

I've just finished reading Candle, the one novel of John Barnes' Century Next Door or "Meme Wars" series that I had somehow missed up to now. I really love Barnes' SF writing. Although there are many things that are hard to believe in these books, within the world of the books, they make perfect sense. He sounds like he's simply telling you what's going on. The Sky So Big and Black is still my favorite, followed by Orbital Resonance, Candle, and the weird and disturbing Kaleidoscope Century, the book pictured here because its title captures the scarily plausible alternate recent history and near future that these books describe.

Although filled with engaging characters, amazing ideas, and plenty of action, these are not light or cheery books by any means. There are human and non-human monsters, depressing dystopias, and all sorts of wars in them, as well as hopeful social experiments involving space colonization. The future is not a simple time in Barnes' books, and although space plays a big role (Sky So Black takes place on Mars, Orbital Resonance in a hollow-asteroid colony/shuttle space ship whose orbit "resonates" between Earth and Mars), and space colonies provide a lifeboat for small fraction of the population of a fast-sinking Earth, space is not the main point. Space is also not a utopia - people are still people, good, bad, or indifferent, wherever they may be and whatever technology (good, bad, or indifferent) they may possess.

These books connect in my mind to a lot of things, including a sobering article in this week's Space Review called "Space and the End of the Future." I guess the future did fail to arrive as sketched by Walt Disney, and I guess there was never any golden age of space where more than a tiny fraction of the world was engaged beyond an "oh wow" at the idea of some guys walking on the Moon, and then yawn, turn back to the game. The connection is this: things are complicated now, and the future won't get any simpler. Things will get even messier. We will break more stuff on Earth before we fix much of it, drown all the polar bears, and even a space elevator won't get enough of us off the planet to make much of a difference here. That's if we make it through the next 50 years or so at all. Lots of short-term risks that could shut down the whole game.

But space (private, public, whatever) could be part of a solution, could be a tool or a lifeboat or even a source of major help for this troubled Earth. Someday we may need every kind of tool we can get, and when we do, we will be glad for whatever preparation we have made in learning to live somewhere other than here. I don't expect everyone to get inspired by it - my most hopeful scenario for educational outreach is that a handful of kids get excited about learning something, get themselves educated, and start to tie a few knots for the flimsy rope bridge we are building toward the future, even while some other kids are playing with matches, trying to light the ropes on fire. And maybe some of the ropes are actually carbon nanotubes stretching thousands of kilometers into the sky.

6 comments:

Paul Gilster said...

Bruce, nice work on Barnes. I'm only familiar with his work by reputation, and I wonder which of his novels you'd suggest I start with?

FlyingSinger... said...

I'd suggest "Orbital Resonance" followed by "Sky So Big And Black" even though "Kaleidoscope" and "Candle" provide a lot of the back story about how "memes" came to be and how awful conditions get to be on Earth - you can pick up what's needed from the context. They function pretty well as standalone books and they are all good reads, though.

Brian Dunbar said...

Kaleidoscope Century,

Fascinating - I had no idea that was part of a series. I did find that book to be disturbingly good.

And digging into the author's wikipedia entry I see that I've read at least one short story by Barnes in that universe. Asimiov's probably - good stuff if it's stuck in my memory all these years.

Anonymous said...

Isn't 'Kaleidoscope' the one in which our narrator turns out to be a rapist and killer? I found that genuinely disturbing.

Ben Sibelman said...

A single space elevator won't get enough of us off the planet. Several hundred of them might. Now if we can just solve that pesky safety problem where one of them gets cut and takes all the others down with it...

FlyingSinger... said...

Thanks for the comments.

Yes, the narrator of "Kaleidoscope" is a very nasty fellow, a mercenary soldier who has taken part in extensive "serbing" of civilian populations in a series of horrible wars. That book is indeed very disturbing as is too much of real life these days. These books can be seen as a series of very imaginative (yet not totally far fetched) cautionary tales. All have some disturbing content, but Kaleidscope is especially dark.

No one knows if space elevators will ever be practical - way too soon to say even if CNT's do have the sufficient theoretical high strength and low mass. Who could predict 747's and modern air travel based on the Wright Brothers' early tests? That worked out and space elevators may or may not work out. But technical problems that seem insurmountable today may not seem so bad in 15 or 40 years.