It dawned on me over the weekend that Centauri Dreams will soon enter its fifth year of operation, the anniversary being in mid-August. On Sunday I walked the neighborhood, musing over the changes the site has seen and thinking back to its inception. I realized that the actual germ of the idea goes back not to 2004 but to 1986. In those days I was, among other things, writing wine and restaurant reviews, and I found myself in Winston-Salem NC, where I had been sent to review some hot new bistro or other. That night in my hotel room I watched a news item on Voyager, which had just encountered Uranus, and reflected about human futures.
The thinking went like this: Launched in 1977, the Voyagers could accomplish their prime mission easily within the lifetimes of those who sent them (their extended mission beyond the heliopause wasn’t much discussed back then). But I began to imagine truly long-haul missions that would be brought home not by the people who sent them but by the next generation, or perhaps the one after that. The idea of handing off ideas and technologies went into the Centauri Dreams book that I wrote almost two decades later, and the imperatives of long-term thinking continue to be a major thematic focus for the site that has evolved from it.
On Friday, I ran into a 1984 paper by Thomas Sebeok, cited on the Long Now Foundation’s site. Sebeok was writing about the problems of communicating with the future. Specifically, how do you let people for a period covering the next 10,000 years know that a nuclear waste site is dangerous? The author’s proposal was to divide up the 10,000 year period — approximately 300 human generations — into much shorter periods, perhaps three generations long. That way you can leave messages in modern languages that can be understood, supplementing them as necessary with pictorial information whose cultural background would be relatively familiar.
Sebeok goes on:
This message, however, would have to be supplemented by a metamessage — coded in the same combination of familiar verbal/averbal signs — incorporating a plea and a warning that the object-message at the site be renewed by whatever coding devices seem to be maximally efficient, roughly, 250 years since. That future object-message should, in turn, incorporate a similar metamessage for the generation 500 years from now to act comparably, and so on, and on, up to 10,000 years ahead.
It is the meta-message that keeps the concept alive. And so we have another instance of information being handed down, a particular ‘artifact’ that must be preserved and understood over hundreds of generations. Science fiction writers have toyed with the concept of information handoffs for a long time. You can see something of the concept in fine novels like Brian Aldiss’ Starship (originally published in Britain as Non-Stop), where the basic parameters of the mission are gradually lost and must be reacquired by the crew on a multi-generational voyage spanning thousands of years. Heinlein, of course, plays with this familiar trope, as have many writers, and we’ve seen the multi-generational starship being explored by groups such as The Ultimate Project today.
My hope for Centauri Dreams actually fits into this paradigm. I would like to think that I can keep this site active for a long time, promoting the spread of news about interstellar subjects as well as a philosophy of engagement and exploration of the cosmos that will resonate with like-minded people and perhaps win over some who are skeptical of the whole notion of going into space. But when I do stop working, I would like to hand Centauri Dreams off to someone who will keep it going. If I can indulge an extravagant notion, I would hope to see Centauri Dreams in some form survive to keep pushing these ideas through different successors until the first interstellar mission actually leaves the Solar System.
Sure, this sounds preposterous. Who knows when and if an interstellar mission — especially one with a human crew — will every fly? But even if it takes centuries, there should always be a core of people fascinated with the interstellar idea who continue to work on it. The premise of the Tau Zero Foundation is to build incrementally (ad astra incrementis), so that while none of us may live to see such a mission, the steps we take now will have played some small role in arriving at that outcome.
Image (above): An interstellar ramjet, one of the many concepts developed by 20th Century theorists to manage the daunting distances between the stars. How will these ideas change in our century? Credit: ITSF/Manchu.
Think of the familiar computer voice on Star Trek’s Enterprise. Somewhere in that circuitry is a digital history recording every possible scrap of human history. It would be a thrill to think that a future star mission might have in some tiny corner of its vast computer memory the history of the earliest days of the interstellar effort, and that the words assembled here might one day be read in such a setting, by some historian trying to follow the development of the idea and how it played long before.
Fanciful? Sure, and who’s to say that a nuclear-tipped civilization will survive long enough to build starships? I certainly don’t have the answer, but building toward an interstellar future demands optimism of the sort I hope these pages convey. We all try to get through the next 24 hours doing the best we can in the context of an envisioned future that will be better than today, carrying the conviction that hope is not a futile thing. Civilization is all about handing off knowledge, to the people around you and those who come after. Eventually that knowledge gets re-coded, like Sebeok’s constantly re-written warning, but the meta-message is the key. It tells us to keep renewing what we do to bring the idea home.