Deep history, and deep future?

Go to the Future
Go to the Future (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

10 thoughts on “Deep history, and deep future?

  1. The Dune series is set in the distant future, in a kind of post-religious, post-AI world. But despite some exotic features it still has humans, not so different to us. It’s hard to write stories with post-humans or non-humans. Charlie Stross has done it, as per your recent review, but his robots are similar enough to humans to be stand-ins.

    When popular scifi like Doctor Who visits the far future, it always turns out to be inhabited with people just like ourselves.


    1. Good examples. I think Dune was groundbreaking for the sheer alien nature of the human society, but it was only set 20,000 or so years in the future. Stross’s ‘Neptune’s Brood’ is set, I think, about 7000 years in the future. Asimov’s Foundation originally was 50,000 years in the future (before he retconed it into his robot series and made it only 20,000 years from now).

      There was an anthology, ‘One Million A.D.’, where all the stories were set at least a million years in the future. One of the stories was expanded by Alastair Reynolds into ‘House of Suns’, an excellent novel.

      One of the things I like about Doctor Who is that the writers are pretty fearless about exploring concepts, including very far in the future (billions of years sometimes). Of course, every alien or far future human basically looks like us, but I tend to take that as simply a necessary compromise of a TV series.


      1. It might have been possible for Dune to have some evolutionary divergence among human populations. 21,000 years isn’t super-long in evolutionary terms, but when you’ve got a bunch of worlds where the populations mostly don’t interbreed with each other for thousands of years, it’s possible.

        As long as you don’t have a collapse in technological civilization, I don’t think human populations would evolve that much. We can already screen pregnancies for some congenital defects, and in the future we might be able to screen them for all kinds of negative genetic predispositions. That’s the type of thing that would tend to curb selection pressure on humanity.


        1. I know where you’re coming from. I used to think to that as long as civilization endured, it would stop natural selection. But the scientific evidence shows that, if anything, evolution has accelerated.

          If you think about it, screening for genetic defects is a type of selection. And of course, sexual selection is still in full swing. Civilization itself is a type of selector, a different one than the state of nature humans lived in before civilization.


          1. Yes, I used to think that evolution had stopped. It’s a legacy of the “survival of the fittest” meme. If even the sick can be cured, nearly all can survive.

            But that’s wrong of course. International migration must be hugely accelerating the genetic mixing of the population. And as couples postpone starting a family to later in life, I wonder if that will increase longevity, as those who remain fertile longer are more likely to conceive?


  2. Firstly thanks for the link, I appreciate it 🙂

    I am an avid sci-fi fan, I think that like Carl Sagan said in Cosmos if we where to encounter a civilization a million years beyond ours they would seem like gods. For us to even conceive of that is a hard ask, you just have to look back at old Sci-fi and see how badly it fares, Mostly.


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