Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Retro Science Fiction

Retro SciFi is a name invented here to categorize one type of doomer science fiction, where society, in whole or in part, regresses to an earlier state. Technology is abandoned beyond a certain date, or perhaps a bit more finely, such as where electronics is abandoned, but mechanical gizmos keep getting invented and added to the collection of things the society in the retro scifi is concerned with.

This amounts to a very elementary writer’s trick, in that somehow a story or a novel has to be mostly familiar to its audience, with just a few novelties to make the events interesting. If one sets the novel in the recent past, the audience can immediately jump to a high level of familiarity, as we all know how the previous generation or maybe even the previous one to that had to live, what they did with their time and what problems they faced. Even if we don’t, the change back to these eras is not so large as to tax anyone’s imagination. So with this trick, the writer is free to throw in whatever he wants to as the innovative part. Perhaps it is some personal interactions, or a conflict between factions or regions, all conducted within the context of prior technology.

The reason for the abandonment of technology could be anything, after all, these are stories or novels which are wholly imaginary, and written without any restrictions. Could be some war happened, or some catastrophe that was attributed in part to some technology, or people just decided they didn’t like it anymore, or some key resource was exhausted or deeply depleted, or anything at all. This scenario might be considered for an alien civilization, which has progressed farther in development that we on Earth have, and has reached the threshold where the catastrophe happens, and technology no longer progresses, but regresses, either in one burst or gradually, down to some level where the civilization can sustain it, despite the catastrophe.

If we take this theme seriously as a possibility for alien civilizations, it would mean that the expected ordering of grand transformations, maybe starting with the use of fire, and then stone and wood, before moving onto the hunting grand transformation, followed by the agricultural, the industrial, and finally the genetic, after which asymptotic technology is available and the civilization reaches a stasis, would not run to completion. Because we are in the middle of our industrial grand transformation, current retro scifi concentrates on returning to an early phase of industry, perhaps the mechanical part, and never passing into later stages for a second attempt at the climb to the peak of technology. If this was an unavoidable consequence of prior technology development, or inevitable based on some universal evolutionary traits that all alien species would have, then it would certainly answer the question of where all the aliens were. They would all be stuck on their home planets, reduced to very pedestrian lives.

The scenario of technology level peaking and then falling back is a generic one, and does not have to be solely concentrated on the different phases of the industrial revolution. Maybe 99% of alien civilizations run out of large prey animals and slip back down through the hunting grand transformation to being tool-using fruit gatherers. Maybe agriculture doesn’t work on most alien planets for very long because of soil depletion, and so the societies go back to being clans hunting large animals. Maybe something happens with robots after they become highly prevalent, and the usual alien civilization just abandons them and AI as well, and goes back to some age similar to our own present one. Perhaps genetics has some unforeseen side effects, maybe ennui sets in, and the society goes back to having evolutionary reproduction and no new invented species, or even very smart pets.

While it is interesting to think about such possibilities, and certainly much good can come of going into details here, it is more relevant to think about why such a regression would be temporary rather than permanent, and therefore would not be the dominant reason why all the alien civilizations in the galaxy have not visited us. Technological progress has been happening for millennia on Earth, perhaps even for a million years if controlled fire was the first tool that was utilized by mankind’s predecessors. Why does it happen? Because humans and alien equivalents have needs and technology satisfies those needs. Stoicism is the philosophy that espouses not seeking anything for one’s life other than the minimum needed to sustain it. Can such a philosophy last for long? It never has on Earth. Human brains are simply computational devices used to satisfy needs, and seeking such satisfaction is the driving force behind activities, both of humans and necessarily of any aliens, no matter what shape they take.

Yes, catastrophes can happen and wars can occur and revulsion against some change or invention can happen, but as the civilization ages, technology as a means of solving the problem of satisfying needs will repeatedly be advanced forward. The group with the best technology out-competes other groups, if there is any such competition. Popular opinion against some type of technology might last for a few generations, but sooner or later the utility of technology will overcome the remnant memories of why some technology was abandoned earlier. We can expect the alien brain, in any alien species, to have the ability to be creative, and that allows the invention of new technology, or, in the case of a retro scifi scenario, the re-invention of technology. It simply proceeds onward, like water flowing downstream, moving around rockpiles or boulders in its way.

This is once again a reason why science fiction is not a good substitute for alienology, the careful and thoughtful exploration of what alien civilizations might be like. Science fiction has its own goals, principally the income of the authors, while alienology was devised to help understand the possibilities for intelligent life on other planets, and possibly its implications for our own lives.

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