The Stars Are Not Too Far

Later this month, Tor Books will publish my new novel, The Children of the Sky. This is an adventure on the Tines World, a sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep.

Over the years, I’ve written about the likelihood of a Technological Singularity, that is, that we humans may soon use technology to create or become beings of superhuman intelligence. If the Singularity happens, interstellar travel will probably become very easy, even without faster-than-light travel: AIs could probably fit in starships the size of a can of soda, boosted by almost-ordinary lasers. Such minds could tune their own consciousness so that the missions would seem as fast as they please. See Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando for a brilliant vision of interstellar travel in a Singularity era.

On the other hand, the decisions and even the motives of superhuman minds are beyond our ken. Back in the 1960s, editor John W. Campbell, Jr., rejected my attempt at a godling story with the comment (close to an exact quote): “I’m sorry, Mr. Vinge. You can’t write this story — and neither can anyone else.” Brief forays are possible (as with Accelerando), but writing sustained adventure in a post-Singular universe is a hell of a challenge. All space opera writers face this problem, even if they themselves don’t believe in the Singularity; after all, many of their readers do think the Singularity is coming. So we writers have come up with a number of explanations for why the Singularity is irrelevant to our space stories or why the Singularity never happens. For instance, there are the Zones of Thought in the universe of A Fire Upon the Deep.

I think the Technological Singularity is the most plausible noncatastrophic scenario for our near future. On the other hand, anyone who is serious about the future (science-fiction writer or not) should also be thinking about what the consequences will be if the Singularity does not happen. See my own talk about this at the Long Now Foundation.

If there is no Singularity, humanity could be destined for something like the space operas we enjoy so much — and the Twenty-First Century could be the time when we step onto the interstellar stage. Science fiction readers and writers are not the only people who think this: by the time you read this posting, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) should already have held their 100 Year Starship meeting in Orlando, Florida.

I’m attending that meeting and I plan to contribute my own $0.02 worth to the conversation. Spreading civilization beyond this Solar System is the best long-term assurance of human survival. Even without the Singularity, it could be begun in this century — if we can achieve industrial production on an interplanetary scale.

But decades can pass with virtually no progress. Now in 2011, we know several methods for interplanetary space flight that could reduce travel in the inner solar system to the scale of sea travel in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The problem is that we can’t use such methods until we are already at least in orbit. And that is the key technical bottleneck: even after adjusting for inflation, the price of delivering a kilogram of payload up to low-earth orbit is about the same in 2011 as it was in 1969.

Another forty years of such disappointing progress will leave us with nothing but faded dreams. Without drastically cheaper launch systems, money spent on probes and manned space flight is limited to small and super-expensive payloads — and research about other aspects of spaceflight operations is condemned to be theory without benefit of practice.

Developing a cheap orbital launch system may be a hard problem; certainly no one has demonstrated a solution and the last forty years have shown us how inapproprate a government-controlled megaprogram can be for problems without sure solutions. In my Long Now talk cited above, I make suggestions for how this impasse may be broken. A military arms race between Earth’s superpowers would probably do the trick; having short-term, deadly deadlines can work miracles, but such a military path would also be a ghastly, dangerous thing. There are other ways, safer ones. I suggest:

  • Privately sponsored competitions such as the X-Prizes. These give companies and small groups a motive to demonstrate key technological solutions, with the risks borne by those groups and companies.
  • Real economic prizes in the form of promises from governments and/or the largest corporations: “Give me a price to orbit of $X/Kg, and I’ll give you Y tonnes of business per year for Z years.” Again, the financial risks are taken by the developers who accept the challenge.
  • We should abandon the idea of a government program to develop the “one true method”. In particular, there should be no government money up front. In an era where cheap launch solutions are still waiting to be discovered, such funding simply suppresses all other methods — most likely suppressing the one(s) that would really work.

If we can break the launch-price bottleneck, this century can be the time when humankind spreads across the inner solar system out to the asteroid belt. Twentieth Century science-fiction dreamed of the power of such a civilization, and those dreams may still be the truest prophecy of our time: At the end of the Twenty-First Century, with asteroid-based industries supporting GDPs a million times what we have now, interstellar flight will be a doable adventure!

The stars are not too far.

Vernor Vinge is the Hugo-Award winning author of A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. The Children of the Sky — A Fire Upon the Deep‘s sequel  — will be released on October 11th.


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