I’ve always felt a bit awkward that I’m not more interested in outer space. I feel like I should be fascinated by it. When I was doing that Future Studies course, plenty of people there were fascinated by space exploration and where it would lead our distant collective future. The campus was just round the corner from Johnson Space Center — I even lived by Moon Rock Drive — but in 15 months I never visited the place. Similarly, these days many friends seem excited by space and our collective attempts at exploration, while I’ve never been hugely bothered.
But this weekend I had my first tastes of excitement about the possibilities. They’re a bit silly, but still, it’s always nice to be excited.
The first thing was this auto-tuned Carl Sagan remix:
It’s very funny but somehow, in gently sending up Sagan’s serious and overblown visions, and coupling them with some suitable beats, it becomes beautiful and inspiring. It’s silly, it makes me laugh, but it also gives me a wormhole of a vision towards an almost inconveivable far future. One that seemed exciting for the first time since I was a science fiction-obsessed kid.
The next day I was playing Halo 3 and, towards the end, I looked at some of the scenery and, again, suddenly felt dwarfed by the scale of a future for humanity that sees it spread across the galaxy. Here are some screenshots, although it’s probably best to turn the sound off for this one:
If we casually gloss over the scenario’s endless inter-planetary slaughter there are amazing sights that made me think about whether or when humans might see such things. It was the first time I’ve felt sad that I wouldn’t live long enough to leave Earth and see such sights (which seems a little dumb seeing as I’ve barely travelled beyond Europe and North America, but anyway).
A far future of settling distant worlds is an odd kind of scenario. It’s both over-familiar and unimaginable, like an optical illusion that requires great effort to perceive the other way.
It’s over-familiar because after countless films and novels the idea of people living on other worlds is almost banal. It’s not a new idea and everyone has in their head an image of how it might look. Whether its dusty moon-bases or forested domes it would take some work to generate gasps from audiences and readers.
At the same time such things shouldn’t be easy to imagine. I can barely picture the size of the Earth in human terms, never mind the distance from it to another solar system. And, whatever our science-fiction visions of life in the year 2100 or 2500 or 4000, the reality will be nothing like what we now imagine.
Think how someone in 1909 might have imagined 2009 and how different today is. Whatever we think life on Earth will be like in a few hundred years time, chances are we’re mostly wrong. And that’s just imaginging life on Earth. How about life on a distant planet in 1000 years time? Have a guess.
Nope, you’re wrong.
It’s odd to feel excited and inspired by something we can barely imagine. It’s humbling. It’s a reminder that, while it sometimes feels like we’re living in the future, this is someone’s distant past. Yes, the Internet, or your phone, or whatever newer technologies appear over the next few years are pretty impressive. But one day people will think back from whatever planet they’re living on, to people on Earth at the turn of this millennium and see us as primitive and laughable. We’re just a tiny step, part-way along an impossibly long timeline.
Which could be depressing. But it’s a reminder that we’re never at the end. Even our inter-planetary descendants will one day, in turn, be viewed by their descendants as backward and simplistic. We’re permanently on a journey with no certain destination. We should, I guess, simply be trying to make the journeys of those ahead of us as extraordinary and as just as possible.