Our First Interstellar Visitor

NASA JPL artist's illustration

NASA JPL artist's illustration

Some of us believe that our solar system has had visitors from other stars, and others don’t. But last month there was concrete proof.

(Actually, it’s probably rock, not concrete, but it is real and it came from “way out there”.)

It’s an asteroid given the name Oumuamua (a Hawaiian word meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first”) discovered by the Pan-STARRS1 observatory in Maui on October 19, 2017. Not a spaceship full of alien invaders, thankfully, but still pretty interesting because it’s the first confirmed sighting of an object passing through our solar system that we know came from beyond its borders. Oumuamua’s regular changes in brightness lead scientists to believe that it’s probably cigar-shaped, perhaps four hundred meters long (about the size of a very large aircraft carrier) and rotating along its length. None of the asteroids in our system are that shape, which only adds to the mystery. It hurtled around the sun in a path resembling a comet’s orbit but it has no tail or accompanying gas cloud, and it entered the system from far above the plane of the ecliptic (the disk-like zone in which the planets and most other material orbit the sun). It wasn’t spotted until after it had already passed close to the sun, a swing-by that gave it much greater speed and a whole new direction. Don’t worry, it’s not going to come anywhere near Earth, although some scientists are so excited about it that they’re proposing an urgent effort to send a rocket chasing after it.

That probably won’t happen, firstly because such projects can’t be put together overnight, and secondly, because the chase rocket would have to go faster than any man-made object yet created. Still, you can understand their interest. Oumuamua is already changing thinking about the composition of solar systems, and who knows what else we could learn with a good close look? Think of how long it must have been wandering through the void; an orphan; a leftover from the formation of another star, flung away from its home by a Neptune-like planet. Even if it isn’t occupied by anything living, it could provide a lot of physical evidence about conditions long ago in a [star system] far, far away.

A science fiction reader learning of Oumuamua will inevitably be reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s landmark 1973 novel Rendezvous With Rama, which won just about every SFF award that ever existed. In the novel, a 50-kilometer-long cylindrical object is discovered passing through the solar system and is found to be a mammoth spacecraft—pretty much an artificial world in a big can (reminiscent of a space colony design that’s known as an O’Neill cylinder). Coincidentally, in the story Rama is discovered by a (then fictional) program called Spaceguard tasked with finding and tracking space objects that might threaten Earth—exactly the same job the Pan-STARRS1 observatory was doing when it found Oumuamua!

Could the roving asteroid actually be an alien spacecraft? Well, there haven’t been any signs of that, but we don’t know nearly enough about it to give a definitive No either. And I’m certain that such a possibility has crossed the minds of those scientists so eager to send a reconnaissance mission after it. How could they help but wonder? Unfortunately, Clarke’s book is set in 2131 when spacecraft technology is capable of chasing and catching up with Rama. Our century has seen the Rosetta space probe rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko—an outstanding feat—but we’re just not up to sending a team of explorers after Oumuamua.

There are similar SF stories, including an excellent novel by Greg Bear called Eon and its sequels, which tell of a giant hollowed-out asteroid that appears in orbit around Earth and includes a long corridor that may lead beyond this universe. Don’t be surprised to see more such tales to come, inspired by the discovery of Oumuamua. Especially since the asteroid approached from a direction called the solar apex, a point in the sky toward which the solar system moves in its orbit through the galaxy.

Which means that wherever Oumuamua came from, we’re headed that way!

GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT PRESERVING SPECIES

I’ve mentioned more than once that Earth is a fragile place. Precarious would be an appropriate description of life here. Scientists believe there have been five mass extinctions of life forms over Earth’s history. The worst one took 96% of marine species and about 70% of land creatures. But species are going extinct all the time, and that sad state has only grown worse as humanity has grown more powerful. We also lose great numbers of crop species as plant breeding and genetic modification, along with the trend to giant corporate farms, drastically decreases the variety of our food crops being planted.

We could do a lot to prevent this just by cleaning up our act—producing less pollution and curtailing our ravenous appetite for the environments other species call home. It’s bad enough that living entities face danger from droughts and other weather fluctuations, predators, pests, and disease, without humans adding to the toll. There’s always the chance, too, that some large disaster will wipe out species on a vast scale. It could be a nuclear war, nanotechnology run amok, an asteroid strike, or even malicious action by an alien force from beyond our atmosphere, whether sentient or microscopic. Earth is still the only place in the universe that we know is home to living things, and that’s a heritage too precious to leave at risk.

There are many efforts to protect life forms here on Earth, including wildlife preserves and parks, but also many seed vaults and gene banks around the world. A reader of this blog named Mike reminded me of them, and has written on his own website about what is probably the most famous: the Svalbard International Seed Vault, a so-called "doomsday vault" on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. There are upwards of 1400 seed vaults around the world, but other facilities preserve genetic material from both plants and animals, and sometimes actual specimens. Some of the very largest are in the UK, US, Russia, and India. All of these efforts are to be commended, yet since they’re all on Earth they still face risk from earthquakes, storms, floods, human conflict, and even rampant industrial development.

Isn’t it time we took a longer view and made efforts to preserve species from Earthbound hazards by creating real “offsite” storage sites—meaning off-planet? Whether on the frozen spaces of the Moon, in a hallowed-out asteroid, or even in the far reaches of the solar system like Pluto, there’d be no worries about weather, oxidation, or corruption by germs. With any luck, it’ll be a while before human conflicts get that far out, too. Yes, we’d have to protect the samples from cosmic radiation and possibly extremes of temperature, but that would mainly be a matter of picking the right sites. Of course, it will be even better when we can take actual living creatures beyond the Earth, but genetic samples are better than nothing.

Since I like to tie my science in with science fiction, I have to admit the scenario sparks my imagination too. Imagine the story potential of sending Earth life out into the void.

Survivors of a planet-wide holocaust could, of course, use the contents of the gene vaults to reproduce Earth life on a new colony world, or maybe even time travel to a prehistoric Earth and seed it with familiar species they know can survive there. Alternatively, they could try to rehabilitate the Earth in their present-day or at a key moment in the apocalypse that would prevent complete destruction.

By happenstance, the contents of one or more gene vaults might end up on another hospitable planet far away and eons in the future, and become exposed to the local environment in such a way that Earth life spontaneously regenerates.

A powerful being or beings might create a duplicate Earth for reasons of their own with a variety not seen in human history.

There are also endless “B” movie possibilities. Radiation, alien microbial life, or tampering by extraterrestrials could mutate our animals, insects, or plants into monstrous forms we wouldn’t recognize (until they suddenly appear in some remote outpost and start eating the crew!)

Invading aliens might use the genetic material to disguise themselves and infiltrate Earth without us ever being the wiser. At the very least, they could learn the most efficient ways of attacking us long before getting close enough to Earth to be detected.

Oops, those examples may have undermined my argument a little (especially the “B” movie ones), but the truth is that every life form is precious and deserving of preservation (OK, mosquitoes are on the borderline) and as the only species on Earth capable of doing anything about it, that task is up to us. Let’s not put it off until it’s too late.

IMAGINE YOUR NEXT HOME HERE...

The Millennial Project.jpeg

In my last blog post I suggested that overcrowding on Earth isn’t sufficient reason to colonize other planets because there are still lots of alternative places we could inhabit right here on Mother Earth, like the deserts, the oceans, or even Antarctica. But getting a little more creative, there are still more interesting options to look at.

Underground: There aren’t a lot of practical reasons we can’t live underground, more or less in giant skyscrapers that go down instead of up, at least in places amenable to digging deep holes (not in flood plains or coastal areas). A lot of SF books, including the hugely popular Wool series by Hugh Howey, have suggested that we might have to live that way in the event that some catastrophe makes the surface unliveable. We can get water, air, and energy down there, and the temperature is consistently warm. We just don’t like living where we can’t see the sun. But it’s conceivable that we might be able to manufacture sun lamps whose rays are very close to the real thing. Or even develop ways to channel real sunlight deep into the ground without much loss. Colonies on our Moon or the moons of the gas giant planets would likely be underground too. Even surface habitats beyond Mars would get very little sun.

Up in the Air: One of the most exciting visuals in SFF movies is the floating city, which would probably require the discovery of antigravity. But there are other ways to live the high life. Airship technology using Kevlar fabric and recent energy and motor developments enables the creation of some truly gigantic platforms that can ply the stratosphere up above all that inconvenient weather, where solar power is abundant. The first commercial applications will probably be the stratellites being built by Sanswire and Tao Technologies for wireless communications, but who’s to say we won’t see stratospheric luxury condos sometime soon? It might not be feasible to house large populations that way, and access to staples other than energy (like food and water) might be problematic, but the available space is there.

Mountains: There’s a lot of territory that’s unpopulated because flat floor space is at a premium. That said, we have lots of experience with construction on slopes (as opposed to, say, in a vacuum), and the main difficulty, as with airships, would be delivering food, water, and other goods to the homestead. But perhaps some improvement of the old pneumatic tube mail delivery system used in early office buildings could serve. Or maybe a variation based on magnetism. I’m not an engineer, but transportation and delivery of commodities is something we also have a lot of experience with, and the invention of new technologies might not be necessary.

And finally…

Digital space? Maybe Ray Kurzweil and others who herald the coming Singularity are right, and humanity will at some point dispense with physical bodies and merge with artificially intelligent machines or otherwise upload our consciousness into digital (i.e. virtual) real estate. Our physical space requirements would certainly drop (though no one really knows how much hard drive space a human would take up!) Especially if quantum computing becomes reliable, including storage media. You may say that’s much farther off in the future than Martian colonies but I’m not so sure. Information technologies have been developing at a faster rate than space tech lately, and its impossible to predict what sudden breakthroughs could arrive in either field and change the picture overnight.

Even if you’re someone who’s intent on seeing humans colonize other worlds, futurists like Marshall T. Savage, author of the book The Millennial Project—Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps suggest that creating self-sustaining colonies in Earth environments like our oceans is important practice before we take the big step beyond our friendly ocean of air. Let’s make sure we can get it right here before we put lives at risk “out there”.

From the perspective of a science fiction writer, I’ll still write about space colonies. It’s fun! But I just might direct a little more imaginative focus toward the creative ways we could use to keep calling Mother Earth home.

STILL LOTS OF ROOM ON EARTH?

IMAGE COURTESY OF NASA

IMAGE COURTESY OF NASA

Colonizing other planets in our solar system, or even orbiting other stars, is a perennial element of science fiction. It’s fertile ground for stories of every kind. But, practically speaking, will it be worth the tremendous effort required anytime soon? We could do it out of curiosity, or even the sheer joy of adventuring. In my personal opinion, the most pressing reason to spread Earth life to other planets is the “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” philosophy. Earth, or any single planet, is vulnerable to any number of doomsday scenarios, and we owe it not only to each other but to all of this planet’s life forms to preserve them here and ultimately protect them by transplanting them “out there” too.

What doesn’t pass the logic test is the assertion that we should colonize other planets because we need the room—that we’ve overcrowded our home and need to find new hospitable real estate. Yes, the most people-friendly land areas of Earth are overcrowded, but that’s actually a rather small percentage of the planet. Of Earth’s land mass, about a third of it is desert (defined as receiving less rainfall than it loses by evaporation) and a quarter is mountainous. So a little over 40% is more easily habitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s all inhabited. Huge tracts of boreal forest making up much of Canada and Russia are only lightly inhabited, partly because it requires a little more effort to eke out a living there, but mainly because people tend to crowd together along coastlines and large river basins. If we occupied all of the so-called habitable land space with the population density of the average city, we could house many times the current human population of seven billion. Of course, that’s not practical because, for now at least, we still need a lot of that land to produce food.

Contrast that with the habitation needs elsewhere in the solar system, where all food, water, and even air will have to be produced or imported. Even if we used up all of Earth’s easily-habitable land surface, there are lots of other places we could live on this planet with much less difficulty than creating extraterrestrial habitats.

The oceans: The most obvious (though not necessarily easiest) alternative living space on Earth because they’re a lot larger than the land—71% of the planet compared to the dry 29%—and they offer a lot of vertical territory as well as horizontal. In a brilliantly forward-thinking book I’ve mentioned before called The Millennial Project—Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps author Marshall T. Savage proposed colonizing the oceans first for practice and practicality. He envisioned floating colonies grown much like a coral reef, producing energy and fertilizing vast algae beds by drawing deep ocean water to the surface. The algae and other mariculture products would be a plentiful food source not only for each colony’s own inhabitants but exported around the world. There are other ideas for living on the ocean, but Savage’s is a good example. The ‘vertical real estate’ I mentioned—quantities of water to great depths—would be primarily for food production. Underwater habitation might be possible, but it would present many of the same challenges as a space colony.

Deserts: Possibly the easiest target for our expansion plans because the only real barrier to their habitation is the lack of water, and irrigating them would nearly double our habitable land space. If we can come up with a technology to produce ready supplies of water from the air, deep underground, or from the nearest ocean via desalinization plants and pipelines, we can render desert areas habitable even if they’re not necessarily fertile because of poor soil.

Antarctica: The south polar continent is included among Earth’s desert spaces, but offers even greater challenges because of its cold weather. Still, it’s not as cold or dry as the Moon or Mars (Mars can see temperatures in the area of 20C but also down to the -150C’s!) and other places we’re considering colonizing in the Solar System are even harsher. Heating is a factor of energy, and as we become more proficient at tapping the inner heat of the Earth, or maybe develop practical fusion energy, the Antarctic cold will be less of an issue. Not to mention that global warming may yet take hold there!

So far, I’ve looked at other geographical places where we might live, but in my next post we’ll get more creative and investigate some really interesting new digs, and the real meaning of “living the high life”.

HOW MUCH OF THE FUTURE WOULD WE RECOGNIZE?

woman in futuristic outfit.png

I’ve been on a bit of a classics binge lately. I don’t mean Homer or Euripedes, or even Shakespeare, but some of the classic science fiction writers of early last century, including a couple of novels by Harry Harrison and Marion Zimmer Bradley set in far future eras when the human race has spread to hundreds of other worlds. A pan-galactic human civilization was a pretty common SF trope in those days (still is). The stories were creative and entertaining, but in spite of taking place hundreds, if not thousands of years from now, an awful lot of the everyday trappings of life would be perfectly recognizable today.

I’m talking about things like guns, cars, and ordinary furniture like chairs and tables, not to mention clothes we might wear today (even if only to a Halloween party). To be fair, they didn’t say the cars had wheels and internal combustion engines. Maybe we’ll still call them cars even if they look more like Luke Skywalker’s land speeder. Some of the guns were ray guns instead of projectile weapons. And, really, how many different contraptions can be invented to accommodate the human butt in a seated position? Plus, for as long as we continue to wear clothes, I suppose shirts, pants, and jackets will remain pretty similar. But still, we’re talking about highly advanced civilizations. To build an interstellar empire is going to require faster-than-light travel—very high tech stuff, if it isn’t impossible.

In such a far-flung future will we need—or want—individual cars to get us around? Weapons that have to be drawn from a holster and gripped with the hand? Seems likely to me that if we still need to cover our bodies, those coverings will be in the form of something we’ll spray on, spread on, or extrude from our skin. Who knows if we’ll even have organic bodies that need covering? Or any physical bodies at all?

I’m not criticizing the classic writers. For one thing, they hadn’t experienced the explosion of technological progress of the past fifty years, especially information technology and nanotechnology. My point is not that they were wrong, but that—just maybe—they were right.

There are many ways our future could unfold. From where I sit right now, it’s easy to think that computer tech and connectivity will continue to increase until we experience something like the “Singularity” that Ray Kurzweil and many others predict, when we might actually upload our consciousness into artificial brains of some kind. By that route, or some other, we could end up having no physical bodies at all within a few centuries from now. Even if we choose not to do that, we’ll almost certainly develop technologies that will eliminate the need to sit on anything (how about electromagnetic suspension fields, or antigravity?), or grasp a weapon (isn’t it more likely we’ll have wearable weapons, or even weaponry built right into our bodies?), or drive a vehicle somewhere we want to go (Beam me up Scotty!)

But that’s just the most intuitive trajectory from our current perspective. Maybe it’s totally wrong.

Maybe we’ll just keep on using stuff we’re familiar with for nostalgia’s sake. Or we’ll decide to keep a lot of it because it’s tried and tested and we don’t feel it can be significantly improved. Because we like the solid feel of a chair. Because wearing mix-and-match clothes lets us express our individuality (and our tribe memberships too). Because we get really bored being chauffeured around everywhere when we could be driving ourselves. It’s not knowing these things that makes being a science fiction writer fun.

I guess it’s also worth mentioning that a 100% accurate portrait of the everyday paraphernalia of life a thousand years from now wasn’t the point of these stories. They were created to evoke emotions, express opinions, illustrate themes. They featured relatable characters following intriguing plots that made you want to find out what happens next. Weighing down such stories with too much technical detail or imaginative decoration can actually get in the way of the deep connection between reader and story.

So how much detail about futuristic SF settings do you expect your favourite authors to deliver? It’s fiction writing, not rocket science…or should it be?

Personally, I enjoy it when a writer has gone to the work to understand technology and creatively applied it to invent technical gizmos, transportation systems, digital currency infrastructures, or other detailed worldbuilding that feels true. But I don’t care how smart you are, there’s no way you can predict what human society and its everyday trappings will look like in a thousand years with any accuracy whatsoever. And that’s OK.

Good stories are good stories. I didn’t enjoy these classic tales any less because a character worked in an office with a desk that had papers piled on it.

I guess I’m saying that, even though we’re writing science fiction set in the future, unless the minutiae of your imagined world are the point of your story, it’s OK not to sweat the small stuff.

CASSINI'S SACRIFICE

Photo of Enceladus courtesy of NASA/Cassini-huygens mission/imaging science subsystem

Photo of Enceladus courtesy of NASA/Cassini-huygens mission/imaging science subsystem

After nearly twenty years in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft met its end this week. Launched on October 15, 1997, it reached Saturn seven years later and has explored the giant planet, its rings and moons, ever since, until being sent hurtling to its destruction in Saturn’s atmosphere in the morning hours of September 15th.

By any measure, the Cassini-Huygens mission must be considered one of the most successful exploratory space journeys ever. Among other things, it discovered that Saturn’s moon Titan has weather and geological processes similar to those on Earth that create our lakes and rivers, except with liquid methane and ethane instead of water. And the complex soup of organic chemicals in Titan’s atmosphere could be a nursery for emergent life. It found that Saturn has a gigantic, hexagonal-shaped hurricane raging endlessly around its north pole. It showed that Saturn’s awesome rings, mostly composed of water ice, aren’t static (components coalesce and break up constantly) and aren’t flat (vertical textures cast long shadows when the lighting is right). And one of Cassini’s most important discoveries was that the moon Enceladus is covered with a surface of fissured ice over a briny ocean—water, lots and lots of it. The stuff that’s the basis for life as we know it.

In fact, the reason mission command deliberately sent Cassini to its doom is because they feared that, once out of fuel and beyond their control, the spacecraft might collide with Titan, Enceladus, or some other moon that could hold the germs of life in some form, and contaminate that environment with elements from Earth. It must have been a painful decision, but it was the right one (even though the Huygens probe had already landed on Titan in 2004, its potential for contamination would be much less than a disintegrated bus-size Cassini).

Saturn’s moons aren’t the only likely candidates for extraterrestrial life in the solar system. Jupiter’s moon Europa also has a vast ocean beneath miles of ice, and both Callisto and Ganymede might have water deposits beneath their rocky surfaces. Water on Mars could possibly host microbial life, or it might even exist in the upper atmosphere of Venus, floating on the fierce winds.

As a science fiction writer, I have to wonder: how will it change our cosmic viewpoint if we discover life somewhere beyond Earth? After all, Galileo was persecuted for producing evidence that the Earth moved around the sun and therefore wasn’t the centre of the universe. Granted, that was a long time ago, but would the discovery that Earth is not the only home of life produce a similar backlash? Or have scientists been preparing us for such news for long enough that ultimate confirmation won’t come as a shock?

If you believe in a God who cares even for the lowliest sparrow (and by implication, every life form on Earth), then I don’t think the revelation of life on other worlds should reflect a reduction in status for humankind. There’s also no reason for Titan microbes to be regarded as essentially different from terrestrial slime moulds in some kind of cosmic hierarchy. But it would eliminate Earth’s status as the sole Cradle of Life. Some people are bound to take that badly. I’d hope that the revelation of non-terrestrial life would stir an even greater curiosity to learn what lies beyond our own planet and even our own stellar neighbourhood.

Just as difficult are the questions of what we should do about new forms of life that we discover. The Cassini mission team decided that alien life must be left undisturbed to develop along its own path, but human history doesn’t exactly shine with examples of the “hands off” approach. We more typically look for ways to exploit anything and everything we find, and non-terrestrial life isn’t likely to be any different. (Movies like the Alien series in which bad guys hope to use deadly alien life forms as weapons are, unfortunately, not hard to believe!) It’s time we gave real teeth to proposed “space law” that would protect against contamination and exploitation of potentially life-bearing environments (current treaties vaguely seek to protect Mars from being contaminated while the search for life there is carried out, but they don’t go nearly far enough).

Of course, if we were to learn that life-sustaining worlds are actually numerous elsewhere in the galaxy, who could resist the urge to explore or even colonize them? It is a fine ethical line to tread. The prospect of new worlds bursting with verdant growth would prove irresistible to our species’ drive to expand our territory. May we learn greater wisdom as we do so.

And our cosmic view is bound to change entirely if we ever discover other intelligent life. I’ve seen the calculations of those who insist that we’re alone in the universe—the odds that various chemicals will randomly combine, form organic molecules, mutate, evolve, and eventually produce intelligent beings truly are mind-bogglingly low, even given many millions of years. But when I look into the vastness of the night sky, I simply can’t accept that we’re the only self-aware beings among so many billions of stars and worlds. Unfortunately, once we know that we’re not alone in the universe, suddenly questions of territory, rights, and destiny will arise. And humans have never been particularly good at sharing with others outside our clan!

I prefer to be optimistic. I believe we will discover other life within the solar system, and then elsewhere, and then the unmistakeable signs that other thinking, creative entities are “out there”. So we should start preparing ourselves now, mentally, philosophically, and judicially. And, perhaps inspired a little by the sacrifice of Cassini, we should commit ourselves to doing what’s right in the service of all Life.

SOLAR ECLIPSE: COINCIDENCE OR DESIGN?

Image courtesy of NASA 2017

Image courtesy of NASA 2017

A solar eclipse is a rare and awe-inspiring event: within the path of the Moon’s shadow day becomes night, and a black circle in the sky is ringed by a golden halo. Did you watch August’s eclipse and think, “Isn’t it amazing that the Moon is just the right size and distance from Earth to exactly block the sun?” The sun is roughly 400 times bigger than the Moon but also about 400 times farther away. Coincidence? Well, millions of years ago the Moon was closer to Earth and would have blocked out much more, and millions of years from now it’ll be too far away to block the sun completely, so we’re lucky to be around at just the right time to see this phenomenon. Or was it planned for us?

[Just as a side note: without the Moon (and such a large one) the Earth would rotate much faster (giving us 6 – 8-hour days), be much flatter at the poles, get hit by many more meteors, and have an axial tilt that might change radically from time to time, drastically altering our seasons (I can’t even wrap my head around the kind of seasons we might get if Earth rolled horizontally on its axis like a barrel in water!) It’s very possible that humans wouldn’t have survived without it. Thanks, Moon!]

If the precise sizes and distances that provide a solar eclipse were arranged by someone, it was nice of them to provide such an extravaganza for our viewing pleasure. But there are many more “cosmic coincidences” that have a greater impact on our well being. Without them, life as we know it wouldn’t exist at all. They’ve led scientists to say that we live in a “fine-tuned universe”. (Although it is slanted toward religious faith, this video provides a succinct overview.)

All matter in the universe is governed by four main forces: gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the so-called weak and strong nuclear forces that dictate the actions of sub-atomic particles. If the force of gravity had been just the tiniest bit weaker than it is, the kind of stars needed to support life couldn’t have formed. If the ratio of gravity to the electromagnetic force was any different, either planets wouldn’t form, or supernovae wouldn’t happen and there would be no carbon or heavier elements (so no carbon-based life like us).

If the nuclear forces were just the slightest bit different, the universe might be filled with only hydrogen—nothing heavier—or there might be almost no hydrogen at all, meaning no fuel for suns to burn.

If the mass of neutrons and protons were not precisely as they are, all protons would have decayed into neutrons soon after the Big Bang, and no complex atoms could have formed.

If the Big Bang had created equal amounts of matter and antimatter, all such particles would have cancelled each other out, leaving nothing behind.

If the universe had contained only a tiny fraction more matter than it does, it would have collapsed back into itself before life could form; any less matter and it would have expanded much too quickly for matter to condense into stars and planets (let alone people).

If any one of these, and many other characteristics of the cosmos, was not exactly as it currently is, the universe as we know it wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t exist.

The odds that everything could turn out this way by pure chance are so astronomically small as to be unimaginable. There are simply too many factors involved and the precision required of each one of them is mind-boggling. So what gives?

There are a few possibilities. Some claim that the universe has to have an intelligent, conscious observer in order to exist, so it simply had to be exactly the way it is (this is known as the anthropic principle).

If you accept the concept of the multiverse (see my blog post about it here) then in an infinite number of possible universes there was bound to be one with the conditions just as we see them, and we happen to exist in that one.

There are also many people who believe that the cosmic coincidences are proof of intelligent design—that some being very carefully created the universe exactly the way it is, presumably to produce intelligent life like us. That being might be God (which always prompts sceptics to ask who fine-tuned God’s universe to produce Him?) Or it could be aliens from another dimension. Or maybe intelligent beings from an earlier version of the universe before the Big Bang. From a science fiction writer’s point of view, it’s a great workout for the brain to imagine universes where something is different, and the kind of life that might exist there (intelligent gas clouds, or living sunbeams?) It’s also a lot of fun to speculate about who did the designing, and how. Think of how many choices had to be made! Picture super-intelligent beings debating about whether to base life on carbon or silicon, or even metal. About whether intelligence should arise in flesh-and-blood animals or plant life or rocks?

Maybe the universe was designed by a committee.

No wonder it’s taken so long to get where we are!

HOW MANY WORLDS DO WE NEED?

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A few months ago UK astronomers published some findings that might be evidence of universes parallel to our own. You can read an overview here. It raises a subject much beloved by both physicists and science fiction writers.

Maybe I should have asked, “How many worlds do we need to explain the state of the universe?” Maybe more than we could ever count.

Quantum theory is the science of trying to understand the behaviour of the very smallest particles and energies that make up everything we see and touch. At that level, things get really weird—often contrary to what we’d expect from our observation of the larger world around us. One of the key tenets of quantum theory (according to the widely held Copenhagen interpretation) is that particles exist in a state of probability. For example, an individual electron is located within a kind of cloud of possible locations until we somehow observe it or interact with it. It exists in a state known as the quantum waveform until the act of observing it causes the waveform to collapse and reveal a precise location. To make things more confusing, that observed location of the electron is only relative to the observer, not necessarily to the wider universe. If you’re thinking that this makes the universe feel incredibly imprecise, I can’t disagree. Not only that, but the implication of the theory is that the existence of everything depends on there being an observer (kind of the ultimate expression of the age-old dilemma: “if a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”) So who is this observer? Us? God? An alien on planet Zyglug?

There are other problems with the interpretation too (look up “Schrodinger’s Cat” if you’re not already familiar with it) so in 1952 David Bohm proposed an explanation called decoherence which suggested that the waveforms don’t actually collapse, but the information (ie. the location of the electron) leaks into the world outside the wave and can be observed. Then in 1957 Hugh Everett theorized that, in essence, the electron exists in every possible location in a multitude of separate universes which never interact with each other—no waveform collapse required (but an infinity of different dimensions!) This came to be known as the many worlds interpretation.

On the scale of our everyday human life, science fiction writers took this to mean that whenever we face a choice (even as small as deciding to turn left or right at an intersection) we actually do both, creating two new universes that then proceed along new, separate paths. See why I used the word infinite? Because this doesn’t just apply to every human being and every possible decision we make, but to every single particle in the universe and every possible motion each particle could take.

Naturally, science fiction took to this idea like a cat to cream, and hundreds of stories have since been written involving alternate realities, alternate histories etc. with interesting variations. I recently enjoyed how a novel called Time Machines Repaired While U Wait by K.A. Bedford combined the many worlds concept with time travel. In Bedford’s future world, time machines are a consumer item, and you can go back in time to change some things (maybe to reverse a terrible decision that ruined your life) but while you might go on to enjoy a new and improved timeline, the old one still exists with the original version of you still schlepping through the same bad life. Not a perfect solution!

I’ve always objected to the many worlds interpretation just because it’s so unwieldy—a whole separate universe for every possible motion of every single particle in the cosmos? Seriously? But my scepticism hasn’t prevent me from occasionally riffing on the idea myself in my fiction. Have a look at a story of mine called “No Walls” in which the protagonist tunes himself in and out of other dimensions in order to pass through solid objects like a ghost (and runs afoul of some major pitfalls).

The many worlds interpretation provides writers with a truly endless list of potential plots and settings, but it also forces me into an interesting conclusion:

If the multiverse theory is true, then everything that’s possible (including what’s possible in alternate universes where even the laws of physics are different) actually exists. In that case, there is no such thing as science fiction and fantasy, because even the most complex futuristic societies and the most exotic fantasy realms are reality…somewhere.

No more arguments over whether Star Wars is SF or F—it’s just mainstream fiction set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (in another dimension!)

WORLD-BUILDING: CREATIVE INDULGENCE OR SFF NECESSITY?

I recently listened to a presentation about world-building in science fiction and fantasy by SFF author J.M. Frey (she has the best world-building tool/questionnaire I’ve ever seen. It fills me with equal parts admiration and shame!) It got me to noticing what a wide gap there is between hastily-written space operas or Tolkien wannabees and the great works from authors like Frank Herbert, Larry Niven and others. Obviously not all science fiction and fantasy is about describing a really alien culture—after all, a lot of SF especially is meant as allegory, holding our own society up to a mirror. When the Planet of the Apes movies explore the subject of racism, it wouldn’t serve that theme to make the ape society radically different from our own. But when fiction is meant to stretch our minds, it’s almost mandatory that the setting be full of novelty. Right?

How many high fantasy stories have you read whose characters wear armour, wield swords, and drink beer in roadside taverns? If it’s meant to be an alternate history or parallel Earth, OK. But a true fantasy world or alien planet? What if steel was never forged in that world? Most likely they wouldn’t use edged weapons because blades of rock and wood dull too quickly. Their armour would be more like thick padding to protect against hits from wooden staffs or hurled projectiles. Or maybe they use some kind of complex chemo-hormonal negotiation to solve conflicts instead of fighting! Without scythes they might never have harvested grain in quantities large enough to ferment into a drink. Heck, who says these people even developed a taste for fermented juices? What would their social structure look like then? What would replace the smoky tavern with grizzled patrons glaring suspiciously at every stranger who darkens the door? Something interesting, I’ll bet.

How many space stories have you read where the aliens use money, trade sex for favours or currency, eat together in social gatherings, and have elected councils or hereditary oligarchies for government? Religions, workforce structures, and family trees that are just off-kilter versions of our own with a made-up name? Yes, when your primary aim is to roll out an action plot or explore a significant moral issue, these things can be shortcuts that keep the tale from becoming too confusing or bloated, but do they create an immersive reading experience so compelling that it’s unforgettable?

My point is that, if you’re going to present a truly non-human society—alien or magical—it’s a cop-out to fill it with direct equivalents to the familiar elements of our world, even thinly-veiled ones. There must be lots of different ways a species can address the necessities of life other than the paths humans chose, and exploring those is challenging and fun for both author and reader.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye is still one of my favourite depictions of an authentically alien species, in fact the “Moties” include an impressive number of specialized subspecies, too. In Dragon’s Egg Robert L. Forward presents the Cheela, aliens that flow along the magnetic fields on the surface of a neutron star. The Oankali of Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy stand out in my memory for their creatively-developed sexual and social relationships. But there are many great depictions of non-human cultures out there. Their alienness doesn’t keep us from relating to the characters, nor does it handicap the presentation of “universal” themes (by definition). What it does do is enrich the reading experience, and I expect it also goes a long way toward reducing our natural xenophobia—our resistance to the “other”. That’s not only a good thing if we ever are visited by aliens, but it could sure help our own world run a little smoother here and now!

If this sounds suspiciously like a lecture to my future self, you’re right. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing, and this is one of them.

Obviously there’s a balancing act that has to be performed. If the reader has to expend too much mental energy trying to keep track of all of the different names, class structures, sexes, languages, forms of exchange etc., they may well give up on the exercise as not worth the effort. And if the invented threads of your tapestry aren’t logical and consistent, they’re distractions at the very least—at worst, they can cause the whole credibility of the story to unravel.

But let’s never forget that the stories we love have a rich heritage of broadening the mind. And there’s a reason we call SFF the literature of the imagination.

WEATHER WEIRD ENOUGH TO INSPIRE SCIENCE FICTION

Strange weather is happening all around us. Devastating heat waves and floods, soaring numbers of wildfires, rampaging storms of almost unprecedented frequency and ferocity—we’ve been warned about climate change for decades, yet many still refuse to believe that, a) it’s happening, b) we caused it, and c) it’s very unlikely that we can stop it. Most critically, some powerful world leaders are still trying to deny it (yes, I’m talking about you, Donald) and refuse to take the steps that might give us a fighting chance of at least reducing the disastrous effects still to come.

While some high-profile science fiction works have addressed the subject (including Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and its two sequels, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl) there’s not as much as I would have expected. Science fiction has a strong tradition of cautionary tales—spotting dangerous trends in society and extrapolating the potential pitfalls so as to warn our fellow humans which paths not to take. Climate change is not only a deadly precipice toward which we’re racing, but it’s brought about by things we’ve done and are still doing, and there are ways we might yet escape the worst of it if we take bold action in time. Plus, as with all things related to weather, it will affect every single human on the planet in a myriad of individual ways. In other words, it’s tailor-made for enough unique science fiction stories to fill a bookstore. I could argue that we might even have an obligation to write about it, because the alarm has been sounded and too many people just aren’t listening.

[Based on numerous interviews with climate scientists, David Wallace-Wells writes in New York magazine that the newest mass extinction event in Earth’s history has now begun and that we’re likely to become victims of it. Maybe it’s a worst-case scenario, but maybe not!]

Is it that we think the reading public has been oversaturated with climate news in mainstream media? Are we afraid to write about it because the potential effects are more suited to tales of the zombie apocalypse? Or is it because describing what we really see ahead on the road for humanity is simply too grim without enough real hope? After all, even disaster fiction (one of my favourite sub-genres) usually offers some form of happy ending, especially if brilliant scientists can come up with a last minute stroke of genius that saves the planet and everyone on it.

But climate change has been allowed to gain too much momentum for it to be solved by any single human solution, no matter how ingenious. So do we steer away from a subject that won’t give us that satisfying “quick fix”?

The top experts on climate change no longer talk about us preventing it—it’s already occurring, and while we must take drastic measures to reduce our carbon emissions, that will no longer be enough on its own to avoid disaster. We’re going to have to take proactive steps to remove carbon from the air and mitigate the warming of the atmosphere in other ways. Ideas being proposed already sound like science fiction (seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphur dioxide, or reflective particles to turn back sunlight. Giant sun shields in orbit.) So why not go all out and let our SF-trained imaginations run free? After all, it’s not only about trying to prevent further devastation, but how we’ll all cope with the unavoidable effects.

The potential plots are limitless: a family of refugees struggles to navigate the no-man’s-land between nations in a perpetual war over habitable land and water resources; a team of engineers races to create emergency colonies on the Moon or Mars in an attempt to save as many humans and other endangered species as possible; medical researchers frantically search for a cure for a deadly organism released by thawing permafrost (possibly even of alien origin); workers suddenly unemployed and destitute band together to build a new kind of nation from the ashes of the old. No matter what kind of book you like to write, you’ll find plenty of fodder in a world facing radical climate change.

Maybe the time has passed to write purely cautionary tales about it, but human beings facing  terrifying scenarios with gutsy sacrifices and ingenuity is the stuff of compelling fiction. And maybe there is hope. Especially if we can help by pointing the way to the light.