Read A Step Farther Out Online
Authors: Jerry Pournelle
Tags: #Science Fiction
In 1872 a number of Kiowa and Comanche chiefs were taken to Washington by Quakers in an attempt to show the Indians just what they were facing. When they returned to talk about the huge cities, and "a stone tipi so large that all the Kiowa could sit under it," they were not believed. One suspects that if the Quaker schoolmasters had been magically transported to the Washington of 1979 and then returned to their own time, they would not be believed either. A nation of over 200 million people? Millions of tons of concrete poured into gigantic highways? Aircraft larger than the biggest sailing ships? City streets brightly lit at night? Millions of tons of steel, farmlands from Kansas to California. . .
Building a space civilization in the next hundred years will be simpler than getting where we are from 1879. We already know how to do it. We probably don't know how we
do it; certainly the very act of space exploration will generate new ideas and techniques as alien to us as nuclear energy would have been to Lord Rutherford or Benjamin Franklin; but we already know how we
do it. No basic new discoveries necessary.
In the 1940's I did a class report on space travel. I drew heavily from Astounding, from Heinlein's Future History, from Willy Ley's books on rockets and space travel (and certainly never thought I would someday be science columnist in the same magazine as Willy). My teachers were tolerant. They let me do it. They didn't believe in suppressing their pupils. Afterwards, though, the physics teacher called me in for a conference: I should learn some good basic science, and get my head out of the clouds. That Buck Rogers Stuff was fine for amusement—he read it himself—but in the real world. . .
In the real world I got a letter from that teacher, who had the honesty to send a note in August, 1969, apologizing to me and expressing gratitude that he'd not been able to discourage me from those crazy dreams. I wish he were alive so I could find out his reaction to
It's not crazy dreams. It's not even Far Out. It's only basic engineering, and some economics, and a bit of hope. I may even have been too conservative. It probably won't take a hundred years.
Given the basic space civilization I've described, we'll have accomplished one goal: no single accident, no war, no one insane action will finish us off. We won't
to have outgrown our damn foolishness to insure survival of the race. Perhaps we'll all be adults, mature, satisfied with what we have, long past wars and conflicts and the like; but I doubt it. At least, though, there will be no way to exterminate mankind, even if we manage to make the Earth uninhabitable; and it's unlikely that any group, nation, or ideology can enslave everyone. That's Worth Something.
One suspects, too, that there will be an
diversity of cultures. Travel times between various city-states-asteroid, Martian, Lunar, O'Neill colony, Saturnian forward base, Jovian Trojan Point—will be weeks to months to years with presently foreseeable technology. That's likely to change, but by the time the faster travel systems are in widespread use the cultural diversities will be established. Meanwhile, communication among all the various parts of the solar system will be simple and relatively cheap, so that there will have been that unifying influence; cultures will become different because people want to be different, not because they don't know any better.
OK. In 100 years we'll have built a space civilization. We'll no longer have really grinding poverty, although there will undoubtedly be people who consider themselves poor, just as we have today people who live better than the aristocrats of 1776, but who think themselves in terrible straits. We'll have insured against any man-made disaster wiping out the race. What's next besides more of the same?
Why, we haven't even got started yet! "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the face of the Earth," said the command; soon that will have been done; and some day we'll even run up against a filled solar system.
The first step is obvious. We can begin taking some of the more useless planets apart. They've got all that lovely mass, and it's concentrated so that we can't use it; better to make proper use of, say Jupiter, and Mercury, and someday perhaps even Mars and Venus despite our having terraformed them.
At a thousand tons of mass per person, Mercury, taken apart, could provide living space for 3 x 10
people—that's 300 billion billion, rather a large population. People in the US at present dispose of about 10
ergs per capita each year; small potatoes for a space civilization. Let's figure that our space people will need a million times that much, 10
ergs per each per year, or a total of 3 x 10
ergs for the people living on the skeleton of Mercury.
It's too much. The Sun only puts out 2 x 10
ergs each year, and we can't catch all that. It seems we'll run out of energy before we run out of mass, and that's handy. Back to energy conservation! To support a really large population, though, we'll have to destroy some matter. Obviously that can't go on forever: so, while we're destroying matter, we may as well go elsewhere.
The stay-at-homes will busily take planets apart for their mass, and so fill space with flying cities that they'll soon catch great quantifies of solar energy. You can just hear the asteroid civilizations (what's left of them) complaining about those closer in taking up all the light. Perhaps the Rockrats will be the first to say the Hell with it and leave, looking for a place to live where there's
Just too crowded in the solar system. "Not like when I was a kid, Martha. Not room to swing a cat nowadays."
They can take their whole civilization with them. The negotiations may take some time; the homebodies aren't going to want to let all that nice matter leave the system forever. Perhaps the Rockrats will promise to send back a nice fat planet from wherever they're going. It will take a while to pay off the debt, but they can pay it back with very high interest.
The trip will take many years, but so what? The Rock-rats have taken their civilization with them. They'll miss the Sun, and by the time they arrive they'll have used up most of their asteroid, but by then people will live long lifetimes—and they'll darned well know how to exploit the new stellar system. "We'll do it right, Martha! None of those upstart places like Freedonia!"
Of course they'll already know about the planets in their new system. There's no real limit to the size of telescope you can build in space, and no problem about seeing; and with the lengthy baseline of the orbit of Ceres, or Jupiter's Trojans, or a Saturnian moon, astronomers will long since have discovered all the planets of all the nearby stars. There will probably have been probes sending back high-resolution pictures and making certain our colonists aren't heading for an already-occupied system.
And so it goes; across the Galaxy, as mankind fills system after system, and somebody begins to feel crowded. You'll note I haven't even postulated faster-than-light travel; I have given us matter annihilation, although that's not strictly necessary.
And beyond that? When we've tapped all the resources of easily available planets, and are still running out of metals and just plain mass? Well, there are stars-Take an old star. A red giant, perhaps. Useless. No planets left—all consumed in the nova explosion that formed an ordinary star into a red giant. The poor thing is doomed in a few million years anyway; why not hurry it along? When it blows up, it will give off all kinds of useful materials.
Of course the star is a long way from civilization. The minerals could be picked up after the explosion, but maybe there's a better way: bring your planet-sized spacecraft reasonably near the target star. Turn on the matter annihilators and focus the resulting energy into a rather powerful laser beam. Shine it properly on the star. That's what you're going to do to blow it up anyway, but if you're selective enough about it you can turn the star itself into a rocket. Heat up this side, let it spew out starstuff, and it will move. Granted that's a slow process, and perhaps there'll be no economic incentive; but stranger things have happened in history. After all, the expedition will save its parent civilization; and life aboard the control planet need not be any more dull than, say, living in a colliery town; or going every day down to work at BBD&O. . .
But we needn't think about moving stars, or traveling to other stellar systems, anymore than Columbus and the Vikings had Cape Canaveral in mind. For the moment we need only concentrate on the next hundred years. There's quite enough to do right here.
In fact, I can just hear it now: "What good does it do to get people dreaming about that Buck Rogers Stuff? Why waste money on interstellar research when there's need for the money right here in the Trojan Points?"
Only One Earth indeed.
One nice thing about writing science columns is that I can pick subjects that interest me. With all of science to play with, there's always something fascinating, and I never have to grind away on a dull topic simply because it's due.
All very well until it comes time to collect these essays into a book Publishers insist that books have a central theme, or failing that, at least be neatly organized. Fortunately, when I began work on this collection, I found that most of the columns organized themselves into sections, each with a definite theme. Survival with style, black holes, space flight, energy; all relatively cohesive topics.
But there were a few leftovers. For the life of me I can't think of a theme to unite essays on holographic brains, flying saucers, terraforming Venus, and interstellar empires. It seemed a shame, though, to eliminate them just because they didn't fit into a neat package with the others. Besides, they illustrate just how rich and varied our future can be—and that is the point of the book.
Robots are a favorite science fiction theme. Another is the great computer, much smarter than a man, which one way or another takes over the world. Machine intelligence fascinates us.
Comparatively fewer stories deal with enhanced intelligence, mostly because that's very hard work: how do you write about a character who is very much smarter than you are? One theme I've been working on for years involves implants: you take a small transceiver and put it into a human head (or elsewhere in the anatomy if you like), wiring up the output of the receiver into the auditory nerves.
Now you have someone who can communicate by a kind of telepathy; not only with other similarly equipped humans, but with really large computers. In theory, at least, every bit of information known to mankind will be instantly available to this "terminal man."
Dossiers; reference books; dictionaries; encyclopedias; company records; all the data banks of the government; IRS files; any of this can be his for the asking. A detective could get continuous information on the whereabouts of his colleagues, or on the personal habits of the suspect he's questioning. A company president has but to think the question to know about production, sales, and schedules.
There would be more: all the mathematical capability of powerful computers available in real time. Solve integral equations in your head, calculus of finite motion, orbits, stock market projections, all instantly available at a thought.
It is not very far-fetched; in fact, the concept as given above is too tame. There's no real reason to restrict ourselves to the comparatively inefficient input device of the auditory nerve. Why not simply crack the code used by the brain and squirt in the information? More on that later; for now, what I've described could probably be built today. Prosthetic surgeons
can wire a hearing aid directly into the auditory nerve.
The only problem would be the language used to communicate with the computer. Voice communication in ordinary English is not yet accomplished—although computers can be taught to recognize a surprisingly large vocabulary. My own computer doesn't have a voice board yet, but it would, I am told, be simple to attach one that would let the machine I'm writing this on recognize some 64 different words and commands.
In fact, it is nearly inevitable that before the end of this century there will be at least some humans equipped with the transplant transceiver I've described.
difficult to think like a man who has a 360/95 in his head. I don't recall too many memorable stories in which the real geniuses were the viewpoint characters, for the obvious reason that the author can't think as would the super-intelligent character. Of the two that impressed me the most, "Flowers for Algernon" (movie version was called
and Ted Sturgeon's "Maturity," the central character lost the genius ability before the story ended.
And if there's a mental hookup to a computer in the future of some of the younger readers—and there probably is—there's another possibility also. A robot can be connected to the central brain, and of course there have been a
of stories on that theme.
The only problem is, the central brain doesn't yet exist.
Let's come back to that later.
* * *
There's no reason we couldn't build a central brain, but there's another approach: we may be on the way to
robots; self-contained, not relying on any kind of link with a central data bank, although able to use one if it's available; very strong; and capable of independent action if not thought. Again, the mechanics are not complex. The Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT has had some problems trying to build a robot arm as dextrous as a human arm and hand, but given enough money it could be done. What's missing is the brain.
The human brain weighs, on average, about 1.48 kilograms, or 3 1/4 pounds, in the mature male. (Chauvinists may amuse themselves with the fact that female brains run about 10% less in weight; but they're advised to do it privately.) That little chunk of matter can store some
one million billion
bits of information, which is quite a lot; the best computers don't yet have anything like that capacity, and they're still pretty big.