The Writer's Blueprint #002: Future civilizations & galactic conundrums
As my journey into the #science behind #sciencefiction continues, I have been reading about how civilizations advance and what other intelligent lifeforms in outer space might look like. One of the most intriguing questions that science fiction addresses is how and when we will meet 'the aliens', provided they even exist. In The Future of Humanity, Michio Kaku states his belief that we will make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization sometime in this century, so I suppose we will found out soon!
In fact we have already detected what might be evidence of an advanced civilization in space: The star KIC 8462852 which is about 1.400 light years away from Earth has been observed to dim periodically by as much as 22% since 1890. Whatever is responsible for dimming its light, it must be 22 times as large as Jupiter. Plausible explanations such as a planet plunging into a star can be ruled out, leaving the possibility of an alien civilization.
This civilization might utilize a so-called Dyson sphere, a gigantic sphere built around the star to harvest energy from the massive amount of light it emits. It might just be a sort of huge sphere orbiting the star. Or might be an entirely different machine built by an advanced civilization – probably a type II on the Kardashev scale.
Imagining future civilizations
The Kardashev scale classifies civilizations based on how much energy they utilize and was first proposed by a Russian astronomer. This might also be used in science fiction worldbuilding.
- A type I civilization utilizes all energy of sunlight that falls on its planet
- A type II civilization utilizes all energy its sun produces
- A type III civilization utilizes the energy of an entire galaxy
Based on energy utilization calculated in watts, we are currently a type 0.7 civilization but will likely advance to a full type I in another one or two centuries.
Some science fiction writers portray humanity as a melting pot of cultural influences all taken out of context and mashed together. As someone who finds different cultures fascinating, I was reassured to read that Kaku does not think globalization will threaten our local cultures and customs.
In most third-world countries today, the elites are bilingual, fluent in the local language and also a global European language or Mandarin as well. In the future, people will likely be bicultural, fluent in all the customs of the local culture but also at ease with the emerging planetary culture. So the richness and diversity of Earth will survive even as this new planetary culture arises.
If we are on the cusp of becoming a type I civilization, imagine what a type II or even type III civilization must look like!
There are a bunch of common questions science fiction writers will likely encounter in their worldbuilding, mostly concerning the possibility of planet colonization or large-scale space travel. Of course, writers don't necessarily have to explain or even address these problems in their work but I'm just too much of an insatiable architect not to think about them.
- If humankind were to venture out from Earth en masse, we would most likely try to colonize other planets or moons. How would we terraform planets like Mars or the icy moons of the gas giants? Or would we change our own bodies to inhabit them? Transhumanism, bioengineering and even gene modification will likely play a bigger role in the future.
- For stories of galactic scale, traveling at light speed will likely be a significant question for which a variety of plausible answers have been imagined, including fusion drives, warp bubbles and even passing through wormholes as seen in the film Interstellar.
- When traveling at light speed, asteroid collisions will have to be avoided as well which might be achieved through force fields or even powerful quantum computers charting the safest course based on probability calculations.
- If we were traveling near the gas giants or wormholes, radiation would be a serious issue. Becky Chambers addresses this in her thought-provoking novella To be taught, if fortunate by giving her explorers engineered skin that absorbs radiation, converting it into nutrients.
- Provided we meet other civilizations in outer space, how advanced would they be? How would their planetary and galactic environment have shaped their evolution as opposed to how we evolved on Earth?
I have been thinking about the light-speed travel conundrum in particular and while I haven't found my own answer yet, I am keeping an eye out for how other science fiction writers have addressed it in their works.
Have you encountered any other interesting answers to these questions in fiction or nonfiction? Let me know on Twitter!