I’ve been thinking about the future lately. I mean that in a purely science-fictional sense (of course).
The real initial event that really got me thinking about the future was a video a fellow did, which I saw on io9.com. The fellow goes to great lengths to outline how he would have made Phantom Menace, although he presented his video as how Phantom Menace could have been a great film. My first reaction to the video was, “Hey, the guy has some decent ideas.” The second reaction was, “Get Over It.”
For the past 13 years, we’ve had Star Wars fanboys complaining about how awful the prequel movies were. That was long ago enough that it’s like that a lot of the ones complaining actually didn’t see the movies in the theater when they were released. Look, I agree — the prequels weren’t very good. News flash — the original movies weren’t all that great, either. (No, not even Empire.)
That begin said, the Star Wars movies — all of them, prequels included — were great fun. They were also inspirational. The problem is that they have inspired a lot of creative bitching and not enough original creativity. My thoughts on this are simple — if you didn’t like the prequels, write your own stories that do what you wished the prequels had done. Create your own background, your own characters, your own stories.
So, that’s what got me started, at least most recently.
The thing about Star Wars is that it really isn’t science fiction — it’s purely fantasy that just uses technology instead of magic (although it has magic, as well — The Force and all).
Here’s the situation in Star Wars. In the original movie, Ben tells Luke that the Jedi Knights had been guardians of the Galactic Republic for a thousand generations. It’s possible that George Lucas simply didn’t do his math, or that he was being metaphorical, but a thousand generations — human generations — works out to about 20,000 Earth years. As it turns out, the creators of the Expanded Universe have run with that figure, placing the origins of the Galactic Republic at least 20,000 years in the past — so far in the past that the history of the origins of the Republic have been lost. And when they say Galactic Republic — or Galactic Empire — they aren’t being metaphorical, either. In Star Wars, the stage is literally the entirety of that galaxy far, far away.
Current estimates suggest that there are perhaps 100 billion planets in our galaxy. That puts things sort of in perspective, doesn’t it?
When you take all those things into consideration, then it becomes apparent that the background of Star Wars is ridiculous. There’s no way that one could have a galactic-sized culture that measures its history in millennia and also have it be, frankly, as primitive as the Star Wars universe is portrayed. It simply isn’t acceptable — my willing suspension of disbelief is broken.
Most of the space opera backgrounds I’ve developed of the years have all been much closer to our current time frame — 500 to 1,000 years in our future. And yet, when I think about it, even at those scales, can we really imagine what the future will really be like? No. No, we really can’t.
Assume that humanity continues on the trajectory of progress that we’ve enjoyed for the past 500 years. Within living memory — just barely, but still — we’ve gone from having technology that, for the most part, would be recognizable to a significant portion of the human species that had lived in the previous several thousand years to what we have now, which even some of us using it find difficult to comprehend. What will the next 100 years bring? If we assume that we don’t destroy ourselves completely, and that even with setbacks, we continue in a generally upward arc of progress, then by the time our grandchildren are our age, they world they live in would be virtually unrecognizable to us.
What if we extend that progress out further? What will things be like in 10,000 years? 25,000? It staggers the mind.
What would happen to the human species if our technology advanced to the point that we achieved complete understanding of the physical world? A complete understanding of physics and biology? What if we develop technology that allows us to alter our own biology so that we are genetically perfect — devoid of the flaws that lead to disease and death? What if our understanding of physics and engineering advances to the point where we have absolute control over matter and energy, with the ability to transform one to the other effortlessly, perfectly?
If we were able to achieve those goals, what would time mean to the humans of that era? Would it mean anything at all?
The Aborigines of Australia have a concept called the Dreamtime, or the Dreaming. This is the sacred era in the past in which the ancestral spirits formed creation. That’s a simplification, though, as the Dreaming exists eternally. And not just the Aborigines — after a certain point, everything that was “the past” gets blended together in people’s minds. Pretty much everything that happened before living memory gets merged together into anachronistic place that is eternally “then, not now.” Wouldn’t that be sort of what the future outlined above would be, except that there wouldn’t really even been a sense of “then,” only an eternal “now?”
From the perspective a storyteller in the present attempting to create a background that allows one the sweep and epic of something like the Star Wars movies yet retains some degree of believability that will allow the willing suspension of disbelief, the most difficult thing is to create a background that contemporary audiences could relate to. It would be relatively easy to come up with a background that takes into account what we expect to develop in the next few decades. And we can just chuck that out the window and go all the way to the Dreamtime of the future. In doing so, however, how do we create a background and characters that are not so alien that the audience is completely, well, alienated?
It’s a trick. That much is sure.