Walking along dark streets this morning, as autumn leaves gusted past under a deepening lunar eclipse, I realized that there was a reason for my recent foray into what I called ‘Stapledon thinking.’ The reason: Landscape by moonlight.
What these early walks remind me of is the beginning of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker, in which the narrator takes a similar walk in the darkness, musing on his personal relationships as well as his place in the larger structure of the cosmos (I’m using the word ‘structure’ there deliberately, as we’ll see later). The narrator walks to a hill overlooking houses below, somewhere near the sea.
There is a lighthouse. He sits down on the heather. And now ‘the hawk-flight of imagination,’ in Stapledon’s lovely phrase, takes over. An astral journey begins:
Imagination was now stimulated to a new, strange mode of perception. Looking from star to star, I saw the heaven no longer as a jeweled ceiling and floor, but as depth beyond flashing depth of suns. And though for the most part the great and familiar lights of the sky stood forth as our near neighbors, some brilliant stars were seen to be in fact remote and mighty, while some dim lamps were visible only because they were so near. On every side the middle distance was crowded with swarms and streams of stars. But even these now seemed near; for the Milky Way had receded into an incomparably greater distance. And through gaps in its nearer parts appeared vista beyond vista of luminous mists, and deep perspectives of stellar populations.
Image: William Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950), whose novels on humanity’s future depict a cosmos that dwarfs human understanding and challenges all our philosophy. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
My flight of imagination the other day was hardly as dramatic, but the memory of the opening of Star Maker informed my thinking and led to my musings on the Fermi Question. For Stapledon’s narrator will travel deep into the cosmos in his astral form and, along the way, perceive things that pose deadly challenges to our anthropocentrism. Stapledon corresponded with H.G. Wells and was an influence on writers as disparate as C.S. Lewis, Brian Aldiss, Bertrand Russell and Vernor Vinge. He became a major factor in Arthur C. Clarke’s thinking – ponder Childhood’s End (1953), with its Overlords and transcendent ‘Overmind.’
Even more pointedly, consider Clarke’s Diaspar in The City and the Stars (1956), and the multi-hued seven-star asterism created by a long departed galactic empire in the novel. We’re getting at the roots of ‘Stapledon thinking’ when we talk about things of inconceivable (to us) scale being shaped by intelligences that may or may not be transcendent. Stapledon’s imagination knew few boundaries, a thought underlined by the fact that the idea of a star enclosed so that a civilization could use all of its energy was actually one of the tamer things his Star Maker traveler would encounter. Here is how the idea of such a sphere appears in the novel. The narrator sees the galaxy developing into a single intelligence subsuming its parts:
This whole vast community looked now beyond itself toward its fellow galaxies. Resolved to pursue the adventure of life and of spirit in the cosmical, the widest of all spheres, it was in constant telepathic communication with its fellows; and at the same time, conceiving all kinds of strange practical ambitions, it began to avail itself of the energies of its stars upon a scale hitherto unimagined. Not only was every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use, so that the whole galaxy was dimmed, but many stars that were not suited to be suns were disintegrated, and rifled of their prodigious stores of sub-atomic energy.
And there you have what we generally call a ‘Dyson sphere.’ Let’s pause here to note that Freeman Dyson told everyone who would listen that he drew his concept originally from Stapledon, which is why I chose ‘Stapledon thinking’ as my focus even while elsewhere referring to ‘Dysonian SETI,’ the latter being the search for artifacts like such spheres around other stars. It would be just – and Greg Matloff does this – to refer to Stapledon/Dyson spheres, just as we might call the Kuiper Belt the Edgeworth/Kuiper Belt, after Irish astronomer Kenneth Edgeworth, who first predicted it in 1943. In the case of Dysonian SETI, the term seems right because it refers to a scientific search for artifacts, whereas Stapledon’s thinking was deeply philosophic in intent.
That philosophical aspect of Stapledon runs through his entire output and in Star Maker embraces a view of the universe that nudges toward the religious but then draws back from comfortable comparisons to suggest a cosmos that is beyond any human understanding, much less communion. From a SETI standpoint, we are confounded. The narrator’s astral journey encompasses universes within universes, pushing into civilizations that have emerged as global minds that are themselves finally aware of the Star Maker, an even more powerful intellect that cares not at all for the universes it has been creating, but simply makes, and evidently abandons, its earlier work. The narrator, indeed, calls the Star Maker an ‘artist.’ A calculating one, who chooses, when one creation doesn’t measure up (ours does not), to move on to another:
Here was no pity, no proffer of salvation, no kindly aid. Or here were all pity and all love, but mastered by a frosty ecstasy. Our broken lives, our loves, our follies, our betrayals, our forlorn and gallant defenses, were one and all calmly anatomized, assessed, and placed. True, they were one and all lived through with complete understanding, with insight and full sympathy, even with passion. But sympathy was not ultimate in the temper of the eternal spirit; contemplation was. Love was not absolute; contemplation was.
Here I’m reminded of Yeats as much as Stapledon:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer…
Star Maker contains many ideas that can conceivably evolve into technologies, even while exploring these deeply metaphysical realms. ‘Stapledon thinking,’ then, couples creativity and conjecture with philosophy, with the suggestion that the exploration of such concepts can be a forerunner of later science. Kepler had conceptions of a structured and mathematically tuned system of planetary orbits that would eventually produce his familiar laws of planetary motion. The ‘Platonic solids’ had nothing to do with it, as it turns out, but the laws he discovered still pertain.
I suggest that such thinking gives us insights into the Fermi Question in that ‘Where are they’ offers no solutions – to this point, anyway – but only a deepening series of probes. This is science fiction’s eternal ‘what if’ pushed about as hard as it can go. Because if there are other civilizations out there, we have no way of knowing how they function, or indeed think, or indeed perceive. We are on the shoals of ignorance.
Olaf Stapledon’s work echoes through science fiction to this day, and perhaps no more tellingly than in the work of Canadian writer and futurist Karl Schroeder. His question: Does our own ignorance about extraterrestrial civilizations imply that if life is indeed common in the universe, it must evolve to a point where its works are indistinguishable from nature? In his essential survey of Fermi ‘solutions’ The Great Silence: Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox, Milan Ćirković spends a good deal of time with Schroeder, recognizing how thoroughly the writer has explored these questions in novels like Permanence (Tor Books, 2002) and Lockstep (Tor, 2014), where outcomes that fit our lack of SETI success flow out of unusual premises.
‘Indistinguishable from nature’ is, of course, Schroeder’s canny nod to Clarke’s ‘indistinguishable from magic,’ and here is what he means (as drawn from The Deepening Paradox, an essay on his website. The italics are mine:
If the Fermi Paradox is a profound question, then this answer is equally profound. It amounts to saying that the universe provides us with a picture of the ultimate end-point of technological development. In the Great Silence, we see the future of technology, and it lies in achieving greater and greater efficiencies, until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted. After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.
If a civilization produces no waste heat, is it somehow manipulating the laws of thermodynamics? We can push this conjectural realm still further. It was through Ćirković that I learned about Stanislaw Lem’s “The New Cosmogony,” which is included in his collection A Perfect Vacuum. Here we find a conjectured universe populated by the first civilizations to emerge into awareness, billions of years ago. Their operations are so embedded in the natural world that we perceive them as essential characteristics of the laws of physics, which they in fact manipulate to their own advantage. They have done this through all stages of the universe’s evolution. The work of these ‘Players,’ as Lem styles them, is utterly beyond our observation, or perhaps better to say, beyond our comprehension – we do observe it as nature itself.
We are indeed latecomers, whether the fantastic notions of Schroeder or Lem have traction or not. The formation of terrestrial-class planets could have begun as much as eight billion years before our own Solar System emerged, making the questions of how intelligence appears and how long civilizations last a pointed issue indeed. Ćirković notes about the Fermi Question that “…the very richness of the multidisciplinary and multicultural resources required by individual explanatory hypotheses enables us to claim that it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science.” His taxonomy of Fermi ‘solutions’ explores the entirety of this conceptual space as currently conceived.
Consider, for example, the matter of post-biological evolution, which Larry Klaes brought up in his recent essay. Is such evolution inevitable? If so, it would have an impact on how we do SETI. Here’s Ćirković:
Coupled with the ideas of interstellar colonization and astroengineering, postbiological evolution changes the entire game: we need not – and indeed should not – target habitable planets and circumstellar habitable zones in our SETI searches. Instead, we ought to focus on regions with the greatest amounts of resources, including metals and energy, as well as low working temperatures, as the best locales for optimized computation. Surveying warm, wet places would not make much sense.
And we’re clearly going to be finding further ‘solutions’ to the Fermi question as we proceed, for increasing capabilities in our instrumentation will suggest new prospects for discovery. The incontrovertible fact is that about other civilizations we have no data, and I am not one of those who is content to avoid speculation until such data arrive, if this ever happens. ‘Stapledon thinking,’ then, points to an amalgam of musing that is as much at home in hard science as it is in Plato or the films of Alain Resnais. It calls on us to pull out the stops and ask questions that some might find more comfortable to discuss in a pub than a faculty lounge. Or perhaps the pages of a science fiction novel, a field in which Stapledon’s influence will always loom large.
That such matters take us outside the realm of science and into philosophy and metaphysics should not surprise us. But it is equally clear that the science we practice on our species’ place in the universe inevitably raises questions it cannot yet answer. We probe, we analyze, we conceive of possibilities. We assume answers are out there.
We keep looking.