John Schellenberg has an article up on Aeon noting that, while we seem to have no problem accepting deep time in the past, there isn’t much discussion of deep future, that is, the future millions or billions of years in the future. It’s an interesting article (aside from an unfortunate plea for us to take Thomas Nagel’s views on consciousness and science seriously), and I think he has a point.
If you’re a science fiction fan, then you’ve probably read many stories set centuries or millennia in the future, but how often do you read a story set millions of years in the future, or even billions? Those stories do exist (Olaf Sapledon’s ‘Last and First Men‘ come to mind), but they’re fairly few and far between, and they’re certainly not mainstream.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the further you contemplate into the future, the stranger things get. When you look millions of years down the road, even in the unlikely event that we haven’t started engineering our own evolution, the old fashioned natural kind will be doing its work, and humanity as we know it won’t exist anymore, having evolved into another species. (Assuming of course that we haven’t gone completely extinct.) And that’s a very weird concept for people to wrap their minds around.
Still, it seems to me that science fiction’s job is to present us with challenging concepts, and I can’t see any real reason why stories can’t take place hundreds of thousands, millions, or even billions of years in the future. Will it be strange? Yep, and hopefully wondrous. But it seems to me that’s what the genre is for.
Of course, while most people understand the concept of deep time, none of us can really think of it as it is. When we do think of it, most of us look at it somewhat logarithmically, that is, mentally seeing billions of years as just a little beyond millions of years. It’s very difficult to keep the concept of a million years being one thousand times one thousand years, or a billion being one thousand times one thousand times one thousand years.
That’s one of the reasons I sometimes like to look at as percentages. From that viewpoint, Earth was 99.9% of its current age before anything we’d broadly call human evolved, and it was 99.9998% of its current age before anything resembling civilization started.
It takes serious imagination to envisage what things might be like when the Earth is 1% older than its current age.
- A Concise History of Science Fiction Short Stories (jameswharris.wordpress.com)
- Oversized rats could take over Earth after next mass extinction (cbsnews.com)
- It’s time to start reading hard science fiction again (io9.com)
- Lets talk about our Gods. (scarletbynight.wordpress.com)