I’m reading through the Traveller books. The interesting thing I notice the most is that the technology is limited. Aside from FTL, the tech is equivalent to what could be possible in fourty to sixty years from now. It’s possible that I could live to see it all happen.
Specifically, things like Nanotech is kept out of the books intentionally because they would end the need for trade. In reality, things like the internet have eliminated the need for a lot of the commerce that used to happen in physical locations. 3D printers have the potential to greatly alter physical trade too. If you think about it, more and more trade is becoming information. And there seems to be very little limit to what information is available for free.
Another thing that frequently bothers me about space opera settings is that, unless we’re missing something important, a starship would be able to destroy a planet with relative ease. Either through kinetic energy, relativistic effects or the immense amount of power it would wield.
What would humans be in 100,000 years? Assuming humanity isn’t going to be wiped out by some world altering event, would we even recognize ourselves? I think games like Sufficiently Advanced probably reach the far end of the kind of progress I’m thinking about. The average space opera wants to hit a nearer term level of advancement than that though.
Games like Eclipse Phase do a lot to touch on near term advancement. I’m dubious about being able to encode a human’s brain into computer data as it’s portrayed though. After all, the human brain is the most complex object in the currently known universe. We can’t get close to the complexity of a single cell yet. The brain is orders of magnitude harder to replicate. If we could emulate a human brain, it would be at best, a rough approximation.
So what am I thinking of as a level of technology? We can almost print human organs on demand. We can already print plastic, metal and concrete with only raw materials a printer and a design. What about printing food? What about recycling genetically altered bacterial cells into food or even organs to extend out lives. Food becomes a non-issue.
This would alter medicine greatly. Loss of limb is no longer an issue. Print a new one. Spare parts a plenty.
What of disease? Persistent disease is, to our scientific knowledge an issue of genetics, either a viruses’ genetics, the bacteria’s or ours. In theory a mastery of genetics would go a long way to eliminating most disease.
The other thing it would mean is humans would have a huge knowledge of the nanotech structures that genes code for. Already scientists are hijacking biological structures for use in nanotech. Why would that slow down or stop?
What if a nano reactor could provide for you, nearly any type of cell or virus you wanted in a matter of hours? Then the 3D printer could arrange them for you? Why not print your own living organisms? Want that perfect cat? Pull down the file, use some algae as raw material and in a few hours, there it is. Again, the problem remains for reconstructing the brain of the cat. But maybe if you could approximate it, you could get close enough. But why would you limit yourself to approximating the programming of a cat? Why not eliminate the behaviors that you don’t like, or don’t have a purpose in a human dominated environment? Maybe you could mix and match different animal behaviors into your cat.
What if you printed a wi-fi circuit into it’s skull and you gave it a parrot’s vocal cords. . . What if your cat could talk to you and tell you what that web page says?
At what point is it a replicant of an animal? At what point is it a robot?
What happens when you start printing human bodies and putting in approximations of human brains? What about human sized animals with human brain approximations? What about getting rid of all that human behavior that proves problematic?
If anything, the limitation would be the size capacity the printing speed and resolution of your printer. How important would that technology be to the average home? Would you dedicate an appliance the size of a refrigerator to it? Almost certainly. What about a room? You’re not making anything in the kitchen anymore, why not?
What about printing an Elephant with human programming and the ability to do advanced calculations, linguistics and a wi-fi chip? Give it hands while you’re at it. Could it become a kind of internet appliance? An online entity that uses it’s huge brain to protect your online presence?
On a totally different front, let’s examine the implications of a star ship. Any vessel capable of traveling at near the speed of light, must be enormously powerful. Where would we get this power? There’s the current nuclear power sources but they’re dangerous and very difficult to replicate at the moment. Maybe nanotech could be used to make uranium easier to mine and concentrate but that’s still dangerous and toxic and problematic. LENR reactors, if they’re actually possible to make, would be one source of energy that would be far safer.
Another possibility would be energy teleportation. If you were able to tap into a star, you could have Yottawatts of power available. The equipment that drew power from the star would be enormous. Maybe making a “jump” would require authorization from the teleportation plant. Maybe getting a backdoor or an inside man is the secret to an off the books star voyager? This kind of facility would be the backbone of an interstellar society.
In the end though, ships that travel between stars would realistically outstrip our current concepts about power. Gigawatts would be puny power measurement for minor ship functions. The engines would dwarf our current power use measurements even with something like vacuum engineering to create a warp drive.
With that in mind, as long as we’re not talking about dimension hopping and going into a “hyperspace”, which has no basis in any physics we currently understand, the ship is traveling as a physical object and dropping a one ton mass out of your warp bubble onto a planet is going to do a lot of damage. Firing a Yottawatt laser would have planetary implications too.
That isn’t even venturing into the realm of artificial gravity. If gravity manipulation is even possible. An artificial gravity field would be capable of ripping the atmosphere off a planet, causing seismic shockwaves or immense tsunami waves.
Even simpler is towing a decent sized rock out of an asteroid belt and dropping it on a planet.
Starships are bad news for planets. Obviously a planet would have to mount it’s own defenses and formidable ones at that. What form would they take? They’d have to be extreme to protect against a vessel traveling faster than light since you couldn’t actually see them coming. They’re outrunning the light that would tip you off. The best you could possibly do is try and stop the rocks they’re dropping on you.
Would the elite, leave the relative hazard of living on planet and live in their own starships? Would living planetside be for the poor huddled masses? If we were no longer tied to the Earth for food, what would prevent people from just heading off in some random direction in a generation ship and forgetting the rest of the human race? It would certainly be a tempting option for some.
The other possibility is that FTL is possible by worm hole or jump gate. A possibility that is made all the more fascinating considering some speculation that quantum entanglement may actually be the physical manifestation of worm holes. We just didn’t know that’s what we were looking at.
In the end, future technology is likely to move in directions we can scarcely imagine. Our current technology looks very little like what was envisioned for us sixty years ago. An “accurate” portrayal of a space faring society is likely to be far different from anything imagined in our past up until now. What would a young Wernher von Braun say if he saw fiction written that accurately described our current technology? He’d probably dismiss it as too nearsighted in some ways and too fantastic in others.