Science Frictions

“There’s one thing that really grinds my gear about some popular science fiction,” he began, then stopped to light his pipe. The auditorium was almost empty, only a scattering of students had stuck around for the old professor’s question-and-answer session. It was not because he was unpopular, but more to do with the looming mid-terms and previous night’s regional basketball finals, which the home team had won and caused more than a few hangovers.

Satisfied that he had lit a decent cherry, he took a deep puff and continued. “Let me make that two things,” he said from behind a growing haze of smoke. “First, the continuation of naval tradition into spacefaring. The use of the terminology. It bugs me. Ship, vessel, craft, those I let slide though there are times when I think we’d be better off using avionics-related vocabulary. It’s the militarized aspect, the ranks and the files, that some of these writers use. Why on Earth would we have admiralty?

“You only need look as far as the headlines to see why this is so completely off-base. I suppose there’s another excuse in the shifting of the times, or perhaps few minds could really grasp the concept of who would get us into space first. After all, we’d been relying on society at large for so long that it perhaps had become inconceivable to imagine that anyone other than the government would free us from our Earth-bound existence. But who is pushing our science into space now? I mean, physically pushing us out there? You think the government is building and launching rockets now? The government has very little interest in extra-terrestrial matters. There’s no profit in it. There might be a small amount of nationalistic pride we could squeeze out of dropping a flag on some asteroid or moon, but it far outweighs the cost. No, the only ones with the means of getting us out into space are the cash-rich corporations.

“It will be big computer manufacturers, oil and mineral interests, and pharmaceutical companies that make the first interplanetary jaunts, mark my words. They’d be fools to use the old seafaring terminology up there. They’ll likely invent new terms or stick with ones that make sense to them, like manager or corporate officer.” He puffed on his pipe, content with his answer.

A student cleared her throat and called out. “And the other thing?” The professor blinked.

“Oh right, yes. Second,” he said, “is how so many apocalyptic visions assume that humanity is something easily crushed out of existence. You see it all the time: some pandemic or big war or zombie infection that turns the lights out. It’s the biggest plot hole ever written. We’ve become so interconnected and intelligent that it’s impossible to wipe us out. I doubt we’d even lose power in certain parts of the developed world. And when you stop and think about it, the more people you lose to a global disaster the more stuff there is for the survivors. Do you really think we’d be reduced to some Mad Max-esque barbaric banditry between isolated pockets of survival?” He laughed, and coughed, then choked. His aide leapt to the rescue, clapping him on his stooped back until he recovered. “Well,” he rasped, “that’s all for today. There are extra readings on the website, do investigate them if you have the time.”

2014.11.13 – 2023.06.23

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