Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Starfarers and Seladorians

In Poul Anderson's Starfarers, the spaceship Envoy leaves the Solar System at an unspecified date in our future and returns eleven millennia later. The surviving crew members have aged mere months in transit and only a few years at their destination.

Earth has been peacefully united by the philosophy of Selador for three thousand years. As in Anderson's The Boat Of A Million Years, robotics and nanotechnology have made all necessities and many or all comforts:

", like air and sunshine. There was presumably some way to control their distribution and maintain a stable population, but whatever coercion this required was not obvious." (1)

But why control distribution of something as free as air and sunlight? Why should coercion be necessary? If some can perceive a necessity and try to coerce others, then why instead cannot all agree on the necessity? Indeed, a starfarer speculates:

"Probably social pressure does most of the work...The great majority like things as they are." (1)

Interstellar exploration has stopped because the distances to new systems have become too great at sub-light speeds. Interstellar trade has almost stopped because extrasolar colonies have become self-sufficient. Terrestrial science has ceased to be an enquiry and become a body of knowledge. Artistic creativity has ceased.

"Most effort went into exploring and re-enacting the accumulated works of the ages. No one lifetime sufficed to exhaust that heritage." (2)

Anderson and his starfarers (I think) see free necessities, cessation of exploration and trade and scientific and artistic stagnation as forming a pattern but I suggest that it would not have to be like that. If Earth is at the centre of a sphere of interstellar colonisation several light centuries across, then I can understand that few terrestrials would want to embark on exploratory trips beyond known space but this would not prevent them from engaging in scientific enquiry and artistic creation within the Solar System, which still involves observing the universe beyond the System, and some of the colonists at the frontier could certainly retain an interest in exploring further and thus founding new colonies with which it would be profitable to trade.

Previous speculations on equal distribution of abundant wealth have presupposed a human population actively engaged in using modern industry to produce that wealth. If instead we imagine nanotechnology producing everything, then we also imagine an entire population freed to engage either in re-enactment of the past or in new discoveries and, given human diversity, some would do both. They would certainly have the means to do both.

A terrestrial tells a starfarer:

"We of Earth today seek what we may find in ourselves...You seek elsewhere, outward." (2)

But this seems rather a simple dichotomy. Nothing in their circumstances is preventing terrestrials from looking outwards and they can certainly explore the external universe even if not many of them want to make ten or eleven thousand year round trips in the process.

(Anderson elsewhere imagines not only nanotech producing everything but also AI superceding humanity but that does not happen in Starfarers.)

(1) Anderson, Poul, Starfarers, New York, 1999, p. 450.
(2) ibid., p. 460.

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