Inner Space vs Outer Space

Much of Science Fiction takes place in Outer Space.  Boundless adventure!  Endless opportunity!  Formidable challenges!  There are so many opportunities for exploration, for intriguing storylines, for villainy and heroism.  Space is simply the best.

But there are a good many problems with this fascination.  Space in reality is a whole lot less appealing than space in the fantasies of Science Fiction.  First and foremost is the problem of time.  In fictional narrations, travel between planets is envisioned as a brief passage into and out of hyperspace.  Journeys that would take many years at the speed of light are compressed into mere seconds.This is an absolutely necessary literary device.  The fastest that any human made vehicle has ever traveled is about 1,000,000 miles per hour-- that is the speed at which Pioneer I and II are leaving our solar system for the realms of our galactic neighborhood.  At that rate it would take almost 3,000 years to travel to the nearest star.  Imagine trying to sustain a 3,000 year long narrative while your hero journeys to a neighboring solar system-- yawn.
 
So Science Fiction has invented hyperdrive and warp drive and jump drive and wormholes and even "traveling without moving" all in an attempt to wave away the problems one must confront when considering the vastness of real outer space.  Distance and time are the two great enemies of the Science Fiction author.  How to reduce the immensity of just our galaxy to something comprehensible, something to be vanquished and turned to our advantage, something across which the story of humanity can be written.  Why must we be subject to Einstein's infernal speed limit?  Why must we be limited by the thought that the galaxy is simply too enormous to explore in a human lifetime?
 
The usual argument is that man has conquered every obstacle-- crossed the oceans, ascended into the skies, broken the sound barrier, traveled to the Moon.  Why should breaking Einstein's laws be anything other than yet another challenge?  Every rule is made to be broken; surely human ingenuity will prove sufficient to shatter even the most fundamental rules of our physical world.
 
But this particular rule is one that is woven into the very essence of space.  Heisenberg's famed Uncertainty Principle can be derived from the rules of Einstein's Relativity Theory.  Breaking the rules of Relativity will most certainly not be easy.  It is dimly possible, perhaps, but from all that we know about the laws of physics it can only come at the cost of an immense expenditure of energy.  Perhaps one day faster-than-light travel will be demonstrated in a physics laboratory, but there is at present no reason to believe that it will ever be economically feasible.  And that's the real key.  Faster-than-light travel isn't really very useful if it costs more than any civilization, however advanced, could ever afford.
 
Another possibility imagines that our interstellar spaceman will be anesthetized and then frozen for the duration of the journey.  On arrival the ship's computer system will awaken him and his 3,000 year journey will seem like a long night's sleep.  This is an option that may actually be possible.  It would require some technology that doesn't presently exist, but at least it doesn't require that we turn the laws of physics inside out.  But it still doesn't remove the 3,000 year distance between our hero's time of departure and that of his arrival.  Anyone he knew at the time that he left Earth would long since have been dead at the time that he opens the door of his spacecraft to breathe in the air of his new home for the first time.
 
A third option is to construct digital libraries of the genomes of a range of terrestrial organisms-- including humans-- and then to send these libraries off into the galaxy to seed uninhabited planets with the familiar life forms of Earth.  This too is feasible, but it doesn't reduce the time it would take for our traveling libraries to reach the stars.  Of the various methods of galactic colonization we've discussed, this one is certainly the most feasible.  It should be the cheapest of the methods we've discussed, and therefore it is most likely to be the one that is ultimately adopted.  Unfortunately, this is not the sort of option that makes for an engaging storyline.  Our hero is simply an unmanned ship with a powerful computer that will use its store of digitized genomes to reconstitute the ecologies of Earth on other planets as it slowly-- at sub-light speed-- wends its way through the galaxy.
 
And this is the ultimate problem of outer space.  It is simply too huge.  Without a method of transporting humans from one planetary system to another in a matter of days, hours, or seconds rather than in thousands of years, the fiction author's narrative options are severely constrained.  And if humans were indeed distributed throughout the galaxy they won't have any means of staying in contact in any meaningful sense unless they have a technology capable of sending messages instantaneously from one planet to another.  In Star Trek this problem was solved with "subspace," whatever that is.  Subspace transmission enabled nearly instantaneous transmission from one part of the Federation to another.  There isn't actually any known way to accomplish this sort of transmission, but without it the Federation would simply be impossible to govern.

So perhaps Science Fiction should turn its attentions away from Outer Space to Inner Space-- that is, to the infinite possibilities and capabilities of the human mind.  That, we must recognize, is a rather drastic change of venue.  The human mind, we know, is encumbered with the remnants of millions of years of evolution.  It is a magnificent wonder, capable of composing the highest glories of music, mathematics, poetry, philosophy, science.  But it is also capable of the most banal and depraved acts of lust, addiction, persecution, pillage, slaughter.  And yet there is nothing that is more quintessentially human than the human mind.  It is the seat of our awareness of the world and of ourselves, and it is the maze that conceals everything we hope and desire.  Yes the hunger to explore the vast reaches of space are certainly a common human yearning.  Yes it is certainly possible to write the story of human hope and desire across the stars.  But to tell such stories in a way that doesn't reflect the hard realities of space science as we currently know it is to overemphasize the fiction of Science Fiction.

 In any case this was a central motivation for me in choosing to write about Mind Space.  I do love a good space opera yarn about galaxy-wide battles against invading aliens.  But ultimately the success of such stories is predicated on the contest of villainy and heroism, of hope and cynicism, of honesty and deceit-- that is, on the essence of human character.  And character is the product of all that brews in the inner workings of the human mind.

Copyright (c) 2012 David S. Moore.  All rights reserved.