Thursday, April 09, 2020

A Brief History Of Far Future Fiction

Future time far outruns time past. The universe exploded out of the Big Bang a mere 13.8 billion years ago, but its last end, when even black holes have evaporated, all matter has disintegrated into fundamental particles and everything everywhere is at a uniform temperature approaching absolute zero, is reckoned to be 10100 years down the road. Since any substantial voyage into that vast ocean of time will leave the present far below the horizon, it isn't surprising that most science fiction is content to kick about in the shallows. To stick within hailing distance of the reassuringly familiar shore of now and tell stories that are recognisably rooted in the present. Even so, a small but significant body of fiction attempts to find human meaning in the long evening of the universe, and tell cogent stories about distant futures when almost everything that can happen has already happened long ago.

In H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, the famous forerunner of forays into the far future, the conflict between the Eloi and the Morlocks a mere 800,000 years or so distant from the Time Traveller's present is an amuse bouche for the final vision of a haunted beach on a dying Earth under the fading ember of the sun, thirty million years in the future. The idea of a dying sun and the end of all life on Earth was fixed in the Victorian mind; according to the dominant theory of solar physics developed by Hermann von Helmholtz and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), the source of the sun's thermal energy was gravitational contraction, which would be exhausted within a mere hundred million years. As Wells explained in a lecture given in 1902, a few years after publication of The Time Machine, 'there is reasonable certainty that this sun of ours must radiate itself towards extinction and that this earth of ours ... will be dead and frozen, and all that has lived upon it will be frozen and done with.'

Eleven years later, when gravitational contraction was supplanted by theories that radiation was the sun's heat source, Wells added a footnote to that lecture, saying that 'the discovery of radio-activity has changed all this.' But while we know now that the sun will not leave the main sequence and bloat into a red giant for 4 - 5 billion years, the idea that its life-giving heat and light will be extinguished within the span of the human species has long persisted in science fiction, allied with visions of entropic decay and reversal or corruption of evolution. In William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, the sun has gone out, nightmare monsters prowl the Earth, and the last of humanity has taken refuge in a fortress keep. Humankind is saved from heat death when the dying sun is reignited in Clark Ashton Smith's story 'Phoenix', while time travellers from the present rescue the remnants of mankind from extinction in Raymond Z. Gallun's 'When Earth is Old' and John W. Campbell's 'Twilight'. And at the end of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun its hero and unreliable narrator sets out to rekindle ancient Urth's dying sun.

A few fictions attempt to give a human perspective to histories of cosmic scope. Thanks to time dilation at near lightspeed, the crew of a damaged starship witness and survive the collapse of the universe and its rebirth in Poul Anderson's Tau Zero. In Stephen Baxter's Timelike Infinity, the second novel of his ambitious Zeelee sequence, the physicist Michael Poole is hurtled into the far future and translated into a discorporate observer wandering a dying universe littered with relics of war; a conscious echo, perhaps, of Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, in which the nameless narrator swoons into the night sky from a contemporary hillside, witnesses to a 100 billion year history of intelligent life, and encounters the universe's creator, the titular and rather grumpy Star Maker.

Such cosmic perspectives are rare. For the most part, the entropic decay of the universe is figured in the long evening shadows and ambiences of exhaustion and ennui that haunt stories set on dying earths, or expressed as the decadent decline of empires and human endeavour, as in Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique stories, Jack Vance's Dying Earth sequence, M. John Harrison's Viriconium stories and novels, and Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time trilogy. Gods behave like spoiled children; magic either supplants science or becomes indistinguishable from it; every possible story has been told and retold; and the world threatens to end, like the universe, not with a bang but a whimper.

My new novel, War of the Maps, mixes up the entropic, cosmic and decadent flavours of far future fiction. Its world is the whimsical creation of minor-league posthuman godlings: an enormous sphere wrapped around the white dwarf remnant of Earth's sun and inhabited by the descendants of human playthings. An abandoned toy that's slowly coming apart under a sky figured with the aftermath of the collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy. All of which is the background for the old, old story of a lone hero intent on bringing his nemesis to account, and a journey towards the battlefront of a transformative alien invasion.

The hero's search for relevance in an artificial world whose maps are littered with the signifiers from five billion years of human history turns out to be very much like writing late-stage science fiction. Both are haunted by monsters and archetypes from older stories, and try to find fresh meaning in shopworn tropes passed down through the generations. At the far end of the far future is the end of the Earth and the sun, the end of history, the end, in the end, of everything. But here and now there is not yet, I hope, an end to new stories about it.


Blogger Mark Pontin said...

"The universe exploded out of the Big Bang a mere 13.8 billion years ago."

Well, maybe.

'Disturbing Implications of a Cosmological Constant'
Lisa Dyson, Matthew Kleban, Leonard Susskind

'In this paper we consider the implications of a cosmological constant for the evolution of the universe, under a set of assumptions motivated by the holographic and horizon complementarity principles. We discuss the ``causal patch" description of spacetime required by this framework, and present some simple examples of cosmologies described this way. We argue that these assumptions inevitably lead to very deep paradoxes, which seem to require major revisions of our usual assumptions.'

April 09, 2020 9:46 pm  

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