Elon Musk keeps Mars in the news with his talk of setting up a colony
Musk's got it into his head that "we", the human species, need to diversify ourselves off Earth to guarantee our survival.
Which might fine and dandy if you're living in Star Trek.
In the real universe, living anywhere but Earth requires cutting-edge engineering marvels... and a highly educated, highly motivated population to keep it all working.
That's not just an engineering problem, that's a people problem.
And that's only the beginning. All those "Earth-like" planets you hear about in the news are probably about as like Earth as Venus. Good luck walking around there without a magic-tech diving suit. The jungles of Edgar Rice Burroughs it ain't.
Musk's ideas raise some big questions. What's the point of diversifying into high-tech tin cans if Earth takes a cosmic knife in the guts?
Even if we could do that in principle, what's left of human kind if we went Out There?
Pop culture science fiction taught us all to see space travel as easy
From the old "pulp" tales to John Campbell's nerd-chic "Can Do" tales, right on through to the Wars and Trek franchises...
Space looks easy.
It's just a matter of building luxury liners in space, and finding the right faster-than-light engine, and off we go.
The reality is more interesting, in many ways. Astronomers have found all kinds of weird, bizarre, and strange planets out there.
A lot of them are really old. Lovecraft old. And there's not a peep of life or intelligence that we can sift out of the noise.
If colonization were possible, why hasn't anybody else done it?
Fermi's Paradox makes the very idea of biological persons seem unlikely. Maybe the whole idea of colonizing the universe was all a fantasy that we imported from Victorian and Gilded Age adventures.
Earth gives us a lot of free stuff... air, light, warmth, food.
Space colonists could take none of that for granted.
Then there's the hyperdrive problem
Everybody wants a warp drive. Everybody wants to know if we can send a ship, or even information, faster than light.
Maybe if we had a wormhole.
Here's the downer:
Even if scientists discovered a loophole to make this work...
And even if the engineers could cook up a way to build the thing...
There's no guarantee it would help Musk and crew build out into a Galactic Empire.
We've had rocketry for close to 100 years. The physics and the engineering of rocketships are fairly mature at this point.
And if we wanted, we could send a spaceship to another star right now. Today. Well, practically today, after you build the sucker and launch it.
Put a Space X in orbit, point it toward Tau Ceti and punch it to escape velocity.
It'll get there.
It might take longer than the future life-span of human civilization, but it'll get there.
The problem isn't the science and engineering.
It's making space travel work over human life-spans.
Even if the egg-heads get that Alcubierre Drive working, there's no guarantee that the implementation will allow the kind of cohesive society that you get in your standard space opera.
Galactic colonization stories all hinge on a piece of magic technology
They all discover some way to make it so that a spread-out interstellar society can act more or less the way communities and organizations act on Earth.
Space travel might "only" be as slow as the Age of Sail, taking weeks and months to cross the world.
It could be as fast as hopping the Concorde from Paris to New York.
There's a horizon for the speed of information exchange that allows a coherent civilization to take shape.
In space, spread out between the stars?
The problem is so compelling and nigh-insurmountable that it's debatable if anything like a human organism could survive any realistic colonization drive.
You start to wonder if you'd need a very different kind of life-form to make any real attempt at space colonization.
It might be that even "life" as we know it couldn't pull off a serious interstellar colonization program. Space may be the territory of post-biological machines -- once-living cyborgs integrated with their technology.
That's not so great for the plans of our rocket-launching billionaire overlords looking for a personal bolt-hole to escape from Hell Earth.
But if you're a storyteller who wants to write action/adventure stories in space?
If space travel is magic, your stories might as well own it
If you're writing about spaceships and colonies and all that jazz, you're writing fantasy.
No point pretending otherwise.
Drop the pretense that your science fiction is the hard stuff and more realistic "because space".
You may not have a setting populated by gods and demons and skinwalkers...
But any cohesive civilization with practical star-drives is as much of a fantasy as anything Tolkien ever wrote.
Being brutally honest, I don't even find the spaceship-focused stories to be all that interesting.
They're inevitably focused on a rehash of the same old "tropes" borrowed from Wars and Trek... which were borrowed from Asimov's hyperdrive and E. E. Smith and all the many names I'm not going to try to list here.
It can be done well. Alastair Reynolds told some chilling gothic horror stories on the "lighthugger" ships in his Revelation Space setting.
But for the most part I find this stuff recycled and not all that interesting.
Space opera gets fun when you dig into a distant place.
Dune, for example. Dan Simmons' take on Hyperion. Both owe much to the Mars and Venus of Burroughs, and to the Dying Earth of Jack Vance.
Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, the two warring space-stations of high 90s TV sci-fi.
How'd they get there? Who much cares?
Get your space-priests high on psychedelic worm juice. Open a jump point. Warp 8, engage.
It's all fantasy. Mostly unimportant background to the drama and tension and character. What's so interesting is the setting itself, the kinds of strange people you find, and the weird and unique problems that frustrate Our Heroes.
Elon Musk's fantasies are unlikely to save the human species, but nothing stops the storyteller from going wild.
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