What I Write
Excerpt from a short essay, published 23 April 2015:
Certain genres of science fiction really love busy, talky universes, full of interesting alien species with which the heroes can interact. The beloved Lensman series of E. E. “Doc” Smith is probably the ur-example, with its galactic “Civilization” made up of hundreds of cooperating species. Today we can see more superb examples in literature (David Brin’s Uplift universe), in cinema and television (Babylon 5, Stargate, Star Trek, and Star Wars), in tabletop gaming (Traveller), and in video games (Halo and Mass Effect).
It’s an appealing set of tropes. Aliens provide us with the opportunity to build an interesting Other, against which our characters (or our readers!) can measure themselves. But today I’d like to look at some of the implications of a setting like that.
When we’re considering what kind of tropes to use in a science-fictional setting, we need to be aware of an observation most commonly called the Fermi Paradox. It goes something like this:
• The galaxy is very large (at least a hundred billion stars) and very old (billions of years).
An astute reader will notice that there’s all manner of hand-waving in that argument. When Enrico Fermi walked through it back in 1950, we didn’t know very much about the galaxy around us. Most of the probabilities and quantities implicit in the argument were unclear. Today we have more evidence for a few items – we know that most stars probably have planets, for example, because we’ve detected thousands of them in recent years. Still, at a lot of points we’re arguing from a sample size of one – our own situation – and that’s always dangerous.
It’s entirely possible that Fermi’s observation isn’t a paradox at all. Perhaps life is much rarer than we assume. Or perhaps complex life is vanishingly rare – the universe may be crammed full of bacteria, with the appearance of big tool-using animals like us as an aberration. Or perhaps high-technology civilizations almost never figure out the trick of interstellar travel, either because they don’t survive long enough, or because interstellar travel is even harder than we think. We need more data.
On the other hand, when we want to design a space-operatic setting, we have to implicitly assign values to several of those quantities. So it behooves us to assign values that make sense together, and don’t run us straight into Fermi’s Paradox at warp speed.
I’d like to suggest the following rule of thumb:
If a given science-fiction setting has multiple interstellar civilizations, and the typical civilization undergoes territorial expansion at a rate of 1% per year, then no civilization should be expected to survive longer than 1,000 years. For every factor of ten by which the growth rate is reduced, the allowable lifespan for interstellar civilizations will increase by a factor of ten.
|What I Write||
Science fiction and fantasy author. Writing and editorial work for the tabletop gaming industry (1995-2006). Recovering fan-fiction author. Currently pivoting toward writing and trying to sell original genre work.
GURPS Greece (Steve Jackson Games, 1995) (author)
My Write-a-thon Goals
By midnight Eastern time on 31 July 2015, I will produce at least 30,000 words of new material. This may be some combination of essays, fan-fiction, and original fiction. However, as part of this effort I will finish and submit for professional sale at least two original short stories.
UPDATE: as of 28 July, I’ve counted a little over 31,000 words, submitted one story, and finished a second. I still need to polish up the second story and send it off, but it looks as if both goals will be met.
To be determined.