The other day, I did a post engaging in speculation on, assuming we don’t discover a completely new physics, what I thought an interstellar civilization might look like. In summary:
- Given special relativity, travel faster than the speed of light is impossible. This has been verified by innumerable experiments, and nothing in nature has been observed to travel faster than light, at least not yet. There are various notions of ways around this (wormholes, Alcubierre drives, etc) but they are very speculative, requiring the existence of either exotic or cosmological amounts of energy.
- Even getting a decent sized spaceship to an appreciable percentage of the speed of light requires appalling amounts of energy. This has led some scientists to conclude that humans will never explore beyond the solar system.
- Sending a small probe (possibly microscopic) is still extremely expensive, but conceivable.
- A fleet of small probes could be sent to other stars. Once there, they could find local raw resources and bootstrap a communication and exploration infrastructure.
- These probes could even manufacture copies of themselves to be sent to stars further out.
- Over time, an interstellar communications network could be developed, allowing information from throughout the galaxy to be transmitted back to Earth, and AI (artificial intelligence) entities could be sent to the stars to explore.
- If mind uploading of some form or another is possible, human minds could be sent to the stars. If mind uploading is not possible, humanity may have to content itself with the information it receives from its interstellar network.
Wyrd Smythe pointed out to me that this was more or less the vision that Greg Egan has with his Amalgam stories. Egan is a science fiction author who has explored the concept of mind uploading extensively in his fiction, perhaps more than anyone else so far. I’d read some of Egan’s work before, but had missed the Amalgam ones. The Amalgam is the name of the interstellar civilization in the stories.
The Amalgam is introduced in the short story, ‘Riding the Crocodile’, which is available for free on Egan’s web site. Egan calls the self replicating probes “spores”, which I think is a pretty descriptive label. He describes the operation of the spores in the opening pages of another story, ‘Glory’, which is also available for free. If the idea of this type of civilization interests you, I highly recommend both stories. (I actually had read ‘Glory’ some years ago, but hadn’t realized the Amalgam background to it.)
If you find yourself with a burning desire to know more about the Aloof, the mysterious alien network in ‘Riding the Crocodile’, then you can read Egan’s novel, ‘Incandescence‘, which gives insights into them. I should warn you that, while I mostly enjoyed ‘Incandescence’, particularly all of the fascinating ideas that it explores, I often found it tedious. Most of the novel is about aliens working out the principles of general relativity, which it describes in what I found at times to be excessive detail. (Egan’s stated attitude is that it’s okay for a fictional book to require you to take notes to keep up. Not sure how many readers will agree. I didn’t take notes, but can’t say I always kept up either.)
Egan gives insights into the Aloof, but only indirectly. The reader has to piece them together from the clues left by the two plot threads. Many readers finish the book in a state of confusion. If you do read the book, and find yourself in that state, at least with regards to the Aloof, my recommendation would be to read the opening pages again, up to the point where the Aloof is described, then reread the final page.
While I think Egan’s Amalgam concept has a lot going for it, there are a couple of things about it that I find a bit dubious. The first is that the society described is very utopic. Everyone in the Amalgam just gets along with everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live in such a society. It follows a common vision in science fiction, of the post-scarcity civilization. While it’s nice to hope for that, I’m not sure how realistic it is. Even if your resources span the galaxy, there will still only be so much of those resources, which means economy and conflict will likely still be facts of life.
The other is that the Amalgam is an conglomeration formed from multiple alien species. I’ve given my reasons why I think that’s unlikely. Egan does leave room for the possibility that some or all of those other species are “uplifted” ones, species whose intelligence has been boosted by other intelligent species, which I think is more plausible.
Egan’s vision is the closest I’ve seen in science fiction to what I think is the most realistic vision of humanity reaching the stars. Of course, even the most educated guesses of what reaching the stars will look like is probably as far off as a 15th century monk’s speculation on how humans might reach the moon. But the Amalgam strikes me as more likely than the common Star Trek like visions. (Not that I’m not a fan of Star Trek.)