The Future Back On Earth

Looking out at what might have been.  This edition published by Corgi Books 1970.

Looking out at what might have been. This edition published by Corgi Books 1970.

The physicist JD Bernal gave us one of the seminal works on the interstellar future of humanity in his 1929 book The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Inquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. He speculated on what would effectively be a split in the human race between a minority who would choose to be transformed into a higher form of person through what we might now call medical and genetic engineering, and the majority who would not want to change. It would be the former who would see their future in space, living in space colonies and spreading through the universe, leaving the masses of the “untransformed” in possession of the Earth.

In 1972, shortly after Professor Bernal’s death, the theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson gave a lecture at Birkbeck College London in his honour, in which he observed that “biological engineering is the essential tool which will make Bernal’s dream of the expansion of mankind in space a practical possibility.” However, he focused less on the transformation of human beings themselves, and more on the adaptation of plant life to currently inhospitable environments, along with the proliferation of self-reproducing machines to enable the creation in space of “the freely floating cities that Bernal imagined for human habitation.”

On this basis, humans, or at least some of them, would spread through the Solar System and beyond, representing the positive future that the race has ahead of it. But one should spare a thought for those left behind, who choose not to charge off to the stars in transformed bodies. Or, perhaps more specifically, for their descendants who would not have had any choice in the matter.

In the 1974 science fiction film Zardoz, we get the message that interstellar travel has been a non-starter for the human race, which remains on Earth but has separated into two groups – the Eternals who were once the elite scientists living in immortal luxury in sheltered zones, and the mass of the Brutals who eke out a precarious existence in the wastelands outside. The Eternals suggest what life might be like, several generations down the road, for intelligent people who have been left out from the development of the human race as it might have been amongst the stars – an endless search for some purpose in what is otherwise a seemingly aimless attempt to while away the time.

Arthur C Clarke’s 1956 novel The City and the Stars is a particularly effective description of a human civilization that has not participated in the challenge of interstellar expansion. In the far distant future, the inhabitants of the city of Diaspar are restricted to the Earth, indeed just to the city itself, and merely look out at the stars. Although they are in many respects immortal, only a few being alive at any one time to live in the city with the majority being stored in the main computer system’s memory, their outlook is limited and insular.

And, as is the main focus of the story, they will have their history to explain why they are staying on Earth and not venturing into space, possibly even creating their own myths to justify the situation. In time, generation after generation, it could well be difficult to separate the two.

For any group of people, such justification might become a practical necessity. If you are stuck somewhere, with no hope of leaving for something possibly better, you try to make the most of it and convince yourself it is for the best.  And if it was good enough for your ancestors, it should be good enough for you. Following Professor Bernal’s predictions that most people would stay behind, you might persuade yourself that it was right that the will of the majority should have prevailed. Alternatively, you might resent it as having been something less acceptable – the “tyranny of the majority” to use a recent expression (or, as we used to call it in the old days, democracy).

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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