Welcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.
Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.
1. Humanrien: Due to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.
One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…
2. Post-Apocalyptic: Whether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.
At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.
3. Dog Days: The world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.
The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.
In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.
No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.
4. Technological Plateau: Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.
It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.
Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.
Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!
5. The Green Revolution: The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.
Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.
This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.
Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…
6. Intrepid Explorers: Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.
These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.
This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.
One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…
7. Post-Humanity: Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.
Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.
It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.
Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.
8. Star Children: Earth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.
Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.
If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…
Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!
The secret to the creation to life in our universe appears to be seeding – the proper elements in the right mix in the right places to form the right kind of molecules. Only then can these molecules evolve chemically into more and more complex structures, thus following a general pathway toward biology. The pathway for life as we know it starts with carbon, but one which is specific organized and structured.
Recently, a team of astronomers at the ALMA Observatory reported the discovery of this very element while probing distant galaxies. What they found was not just interstellar carbon, but a form of carbon with a branched structure. The discovery was made in the gaseous-star forming region known as Sagittarius B2 – a giant molecular cloud of gas and dust that is located about 390 light years from the center of the Milky Way.
Simple carbon chains aren’t particularly unusual in the cosmos, but complex carbon is a different matter. It is what the researchers, based at Cornell University and the Max Planck Institute, describe as finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack. The actual molecule in question is isopropyl cyanide, and it was discerned thanks to the miracle known as radio astronomy.
Within clouds of interstellar dust and gas, elements find themselves shielded from the harsh radiation of open space and are, thus, free to form into more complex arrangements. These molecules don’t just sit there, but instead move around within their cloud-homes and bump into each other. The result of this activity are radio signals which can be detected light-years away – in this case, by radio telescopes here on Earth.
Every molecule has a different radio signal, so it’s possible to pick apart the contents of interstellar junk by examining a cloud’s frequency spectra. NASA, via the Ames Research Center, even maintains a radio-emission frequency database to aid in the tracking of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a form of molecule thought to contain much of the universe’s carbon stockpiles.
The branching carbon structure of isopropyle cyanide is of particular interest because it’s thought that this arrangement is a step on the way to the production of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and hence organic life. The discovery gives weight to the increasingly popular notion that life, or at least many of the key steps leading toward life, actually occurs off-planet.
Life on Earth may have been well on its way while the planet was still just space dust waiting to come together into our rock-home. What’s more, the molecules discovered by the ALMA team probably aren’t alone. As the authors, led by astronomer Arnaud Belloche, wrote:
[Isopropyle cyanide’s] detection therefore bodes well for the presence in the [interstellar medium] (ISM) of amino acids, for which such side-chain structure is a key characteristic… This detection suggests that branched carbon-chain molecules may be generally abundant in the [interstellar medium].
The discovery follows a general progression in recent years adding more and more life-ingredients to our picture of the ISM. A 2011 study revealed that complex organic matter should be created in large volumes from stars, while a 2012 report study found that conditions within the ISM are uniquely suited to the creation of increasingly complex molecules, “step[s] along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively.”
Also in 2012, astronomers working for ALMA found basic sugar molecules hanging out in the gas cloud around IRAS 16293-2422 – a young star located some 400 light-years from Earth. The particular form, glycoaldehyde, is thought to be a key component of the reaction behind the creation of DNA. Indeed, more and more, the universe is looking less and less like a harsh environment in which life must struggle to emerge, to a life factory.
In the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.
But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.
For starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.
Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.
But above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.
Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…
1. Near-Future/Far Future:
When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.
By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.
Other, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.
In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.
Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.
Instead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.
For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.
Star Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.
The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.
And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…
2. Stellar or Interstellar:Here is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?
Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.
But that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.
And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.
Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.
In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…
3. High-Tech or Low-Tech: What would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.
In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.
With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism. But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.
In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s SprawlTrilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.
By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.
And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.
At the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.
At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.
In Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.
But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!
4. Aliens or Only Humans: Another very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.
For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.
As case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.
In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.
Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.
In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.
The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.
Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.
The Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and divisiveness are still very much a part of us.
But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.
In B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.
However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.
This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.
After making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.
This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!
5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous: Finally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.
Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.
Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.
And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.
In the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.
Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:
Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.
But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.
As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.
After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.
This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.
In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.
And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.
Summary: These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.
In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!
The Big Bang Theory has been the dominant cosmological model for over half a century. According to the theory, the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago from an extremely hot, dense state and then began expanding rapidly. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled and began to form various subatomic particles and basic elements. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars, galaxies, and eventually planets.
And while it has its detractors, most of whom subscribe to the alternate Steady State Theory – which claims that new matter is continuously created as the universe expands – it has come to represent the scientific consensus as to how the universe came to be. And as usual, my ol’ pal and mentor in all things digital, Fraser Cain, recently released a video with the help of Universe Today discussing the particulars of it.
Addressing the particulars of the Big Bang Theory, Cain lists the many contributions made over the past century that has led this so-called theory to become the scientific consensus has come to exist. They are, in a nutshell:
Cosmic Expanion: In 1912, astronomer Vesto Slipher calculated the speed and distance of “spiral nebulae” (galaxies) by measuring the light coming from them. He determined most were moving away. In 1924, Edwin Hubble determined that these galaxies were outside the Milky Way. He postulates that the motion of galaxies away from our own indicates a common point of origin.
Abundance of Elements: Immediately after the big bang, only hydrogen existed and compressed into a tiny area of space under incredible heat and pressure. Like a star, this turned hydrogen into helium and other basic elements. Looking out into the universe (and hence back in time) scientists have found that great distances, the ratios of hydrogen to basic elements is consistent with what is found in star’s interiors.
Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Radiation: In the 1960’s, using a radiotelescope, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered a background radio emission coming from every direction in the sky, day or night. This was consistent with the Big Bang Theory, which predicted that after the Big Bang, there would have been a release of radiation which then expanded billions of light years in all directions and cooled to the point that it shifted to invisible, microwave radiation.
Large Scale Structure: The formation of galaxies and the large-scale structure of the cosmos are very similar. This is consistent with belief that after the initial Big Bang, the matter created would have cooled and began to coalesce into large collections, which is what galaxies, local galactic groups, and super-clusters are.
These are the four pillars of the Big Bang Theory, but they are no means the only points in its favor. In addition, there are numerous observational clues, such as how we have yet to observe a stars in the universe older than 13 billion years old, and fluctuations in the CMB that indicate a lack of uniformity. On top of that, there is the ongoing research into the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, which are sure to bear fruit in the near future if all goes well.
In short, scientists have a pretty good idea of how the universe came to be and the evidence all seems to confirm it. And some mysteries remain, we can be relatively confident that ongoing experimentation and research will come up with new and creative ways to shed light on the final unknowns. Little reason then why the Big Bang Theory enjoys such widespread support, much like Evolution, Gravity, and General Relativity.
Be sure to check out the full video, and subscribe to Universe Today for additional informative videos, podcasts, and articles. As someone who used to write for them, I can tell you that it’s a pretty good time, and very enlightening!
As I learned not long ago, today is the 540th birthday of the late great man who definitely proved that the Earth revolved around the sun. And so I thought I’d take some time out of my busy (not so much today!) schedule to honor this great man and the massive contribution he made to astronomy, science and our understanding of the universe.
Given the importance of these contributions, I shall do my best to be pay homage to him while at the same time being as brief and succinct as I possibly can. Ready? Here goes…
Background: Born in Toruń (Thorn), Poland on 19 February 1473, Mikolaj Kopernik was the youngest of four children to be born into his wealthy merchant family. Given his background, Copernicus’ family was able to provide an extensive education for their son, which took him from Thorn to Włocławek to Krakow, where he attended university. In this time, he learned to speak many languages – including Polish, Greek, Italian, German and Latin (the language of academia in his day) – and also showed himself to be adept at mathematics and science.
During this time, he also received a great deal of exposure to astronomy, since it was during his years in Krakow (1491-1495) that the Krakow astronomical-mathematical school was experiencing its heyday. He was also exposed to the writings of Aristotle and Averroes, and became very self-guided in his learning, collecting numerous books on the subject of astronomy for his personal library.
Leaving Krakow without taking a degree, Copernicus moved to Warmia (northern Poland) where he turned to the study of canon law, perhaps in part because of his family’s strong Roman Catholic background. However, his love for the humanities and astronomy never left him, and he seemed to devote himself to these subjects even as he worked to obtain his doctorate in law. It was also during his time in Warmia that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.
Under Ferrara, Copernicus traveled to Bologna, Italy and began critiquing the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – that would eventually lead him to doubt both models. In the early 1500’s, while studying medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, he used the opportunity to pour over the libraries many ancient Greek and Latin texts to find historic information about ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems.
In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. It was here that all of his observations about the movement of the planets, and the contradictions in the current astronomic models, would crystallize into his model for the heliocentric universe. However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to official sanction from the church, he withheld his research until a year before he died.
It was only in 1542, after he had been seized with apoplexy and paralysis, that he sent his treaties, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) to Nuremberg to be published. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book.
Impact and Legacy: The immediate reaction of the church to the publication of Copernicus’ theories was quite limited. In time, Dominican scholars would seek to refute based on logical arguments and Aquinism, ranging from the positions of planets in the sky to very idea that Earth could be in motion. However, in attempting to disprove Copernicus’ theory, his detractors merely fostered a debate which would provide the impetus for reevaluating the field of physics and proving the heliocentric model correct.
And in time, with the help of such astronomers and mathematicians as Galileo, the debate would come to a head. Using the telescope, a technology he helped pioneer, he was able to demonstrate that the size of the planets during various times in the year did indeed conform to the heliocentric model, and that it was only through distortions caused by observing with the naked eye that made them seem larger (hence, closer to Earth) than they really were.
And although Galileo would eventually be forced to recant and placed under house arrest for his last few years on this Earth, the Copernican system became the defacto model of astronomy henceforth, and would help to launch the Scientific Revolution whereby several long-established theories would come to be challenged. These included the age of the Earth, the existence of other moons in our Solar System, Universal Gravitation, and the belief in the universe as a giant, rationalized clockwork mechanism.
Naturally, there are those purists who would point out that he was not the first to propose a heliocentric planet system. In fact, the concept of a universe with the sun at the epicenter dates back Ancient Greece. However, Copernicus would be the first astronomer to propose a comprehensive model, which would later be refined by Galileo Galilee.
Other purists would point out that his system, when he developed it, had numerous observation and/or mathematical flaws, and that it was only after Galileo’s observations of the heavens with his telescope that his theories were made to work. But it is precisely because he was able to realize the truth of our corner of the universe, sans a reliable telescope, that makes this accomplishment so meaningful.
In Copernicus’ time, the rigors of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models were still seem by the majority of astronomers to be the correct one, regardless of church doctrine or religious bias. In purely mathematical terms, there was little reason to make an intuitive leap and suppose that the great minds on which Scholastic science was based had got it all wrong.
So when it comes right down to it, Copernicus was an intuitive genius the likes of which is seen only once in a lifetime. What’s more, his discoveries and the publication thereof helped bring humanity out of the Dark Ages – a time where learning and the hearts and minds of men were still under the iron grip of the Church – and helped usher in the modern age of science.
And if I could get a bit polemic for a second, I would like to say that it is unfortunate then that much of what Copernicus helped to overcome is once prevalent in society today. In recent years, long-established scientific truths like Evolution, Global Warming, and Homosexuality have being challenged by individuals who claim they are lies or merely “theories” that have yet to be proven. In all cases, it is clear what the agenda is, and once again faith and God are being used as a justification.
In fact, despite the monumental growth in learning and the explosion in information sharing that has come with the digital age, it seems that misinformation is being spread like never before. Whereas previous generations could always blame ignorance or lack of education, we few who are privileged enough to live in a modern, secular, democratic and industrialized nation have no such excuses.
And yet, it seems that some decidedly medieval trends are determined to persist. Despite living in a time when the vast and infinite nature of the universe is plain to see, there are still those who would insist on making it smaller just so they can sleep soundly in their beds. As if that’s not enough, they feel the need to villify that which they don’t understand, or openly threaten to kill those who preach it.
Sorry, like I said, polemic! And on this day of days, we can’t help but remember the lessons of history and how so often they are ignored. So if I might offer a suggestion to all people on this day, it would be to choose a subject they feel uninformed about and learn what they can about it. And do not trust just any source, consider the built-in biases and political slants of whatever it is you are reading. And if possible, go out and hug a scientist! Tell them you accept them, do not fear what they have to say, and will not be sending them death threats for doing what they do.
Singularitarian. That’s a good name for someone who embraces the idea of the coming Technological Singularity, which I believe I mentioned somewhere… Yes, these days a lot of high-minded terms get thrown around to describe what may very well be possible somewhere in this century and the next. Extropian, Post-Human, Clinical Immortality, Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Ethics, Transhuman, Mind/Machine Interface, Law of Accelerated Returns, and so forth. It can be kind of confusing to stay up with it since all the lingo is kind of complex and esoteric. Lot of big and obscure words there…
Luckily, Mr. Charlie Kam has decided to explain. Setting the ideas to the tune of “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”, he tells how the idea works and what the eventual aim is. Basically, the idea is all about improving the condition of humanity through the ongoing application of technology. By preserving our cells, our memories, lengthening our lives, we will ensure that humanity will live on and achieve more than we previously thought possible.
Since we don’t yet know how to do this, we will achieve the first step by either merging our own minds with technology to enhance our thought processes and expand our awareness. Or, we could just create machinery that could do the job for us (aka. AI). Then, applying this superior intelligence, we will unlock the mysteries of the universe, create nanotech machines, medicines that can cure all diseases, and machinery that can store human memories, senses and impressions for all time.
Some big names got thrown in there too, not the least of which was Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video. If nothing else, its good for a laugh.
I’ll admit it, I don’t watch a lot of Anime. I know, that probably makes me a bad geek. But what can I say? You gotta be into that kind of thing and apparently, I’m not. But over the years, I’ve managed to find a few titles that I did like. Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, and – best of all – Akira! Yes, not only was this the best piece of Anime I’ve ever seen, it managed to tell a story that still intrigues me years later. Not long ago, I watched it for what felt like the umpteenth time and found that it I still get wrapped up by its stunning visual effects, existential ideas, and its post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk theme. I tell ya, the animators spared no expense when it came to visuals, and the story-writing and direction was reminiscent of Kubrick in a lot of ways. Much of what is happening is shown, not told, and those watching it might therefore feel the need to see it more than once. But enough gushing, time to get to the review!
The movie Akira was actually based on the Manga series of the same name by Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also brought in to direct the movie. The movie condensed the storyline of the six original Manga novels, but kept all of the major themes and plot elements. Much like the comic, the movie is set in Neo-Tokyo, a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future city where biker gangs rule the streets and an authoritarian government is hiding secrets about human experiments. It was well received by critics when it was first released in 1988 and has gone to become one of the top-rated animated movies of all time, and of course it attracted a cult following in the process. However, there were also some critics who panned it, claiming that it did a poor job of condensing six volumes of Manga into one two hour movie and cut corners in the process (fans of the Dune series can no doubt relate!) These critics tended to be in the minority though, with fans and critics alike hailing the end product for its visual style, its imaginings of a dark future, and its attention to detail. I, if it hasn’t been made clear already, am one of them!
The movie opens on a silent, birds-eye view of Tokyo in 1988, right before it is vaporized by what looks like a nuclear attack. The entire city is engulfed in light and things white out. The scene then changes to an orbital view, where the white light fades and we see what look like thermal images of Tokyo harbor. The white turns to red, which turns to blue, and the outline of a new city, build on the ashes of the old, appears. And then, a close up on the massive crater that was Tokyo and the name in big red letters… AKIRA! What is awesome about this scene is that there is virtually no sound at the beginning. You hear what sounds like a strong wind, but that’s all until the title rolls and a caption tells us that the setting is Neo-Tokyo, 31 years after WWIII. When the sound rolls, its just a series of loud, metallic pangs that chill you to your bones! An effective opening, conveying a sense of apocalypticism and dread, punctuating the visuals and making it clear that more horror and fright are on the way!
We then move to the streets of Neo-Tokyo where we meet the main characters of Shotoro Kaneda, the leader of a Bosozoku biker gang, and his buds. They’re up to their usual thing, battling the Clowns (a rival gang) and making a big mess of the streets in the process. Meanwhile, student and civilian protests are taking place not far away and the riot police are out in full force trying to contain them, shooting them with tear gas canisters and beating them with truncheons. In between all this, a man who is clearly a member of some underground cell is running through the streets and trying to stay ahead of the police. With him is a small boy who he appears to be rescuing, and we can tell he’s no ordinary child because his skin is blue! The resistance man is then shot when they run into the riot police’s barricade, and the boy gives us a preview of some freaky powers when he screams and shatters all the windows in the area, sending everybody running. In the crowd, a young girl and an older man are watching, themselves members of this same underground, and become perplexed when they see the blue boy disappear.
We go back to Kaneda and his biker gang, who appear to have routed the Clowns and are now chasing them down. Tetsuo, the obvious runt of the litter, gets seperated as he tries to chase down too Clowns, and ends up running into the blue-skinned boy. A mere second before impact, the boy freaks out again and Tetsuo’s bike explodes, sending him into the pavement. Kaneda and the others show up just in time to see him wounded but not killed, and the blue boy as well who’s appearance shocks them. Military choppers and shadowy figures show up seconds later, with some big mustached Colonel and an older, blue-skinned person leading them. The boy is taken away, the elder one scolding him for trying to get into the outside world where they don’t belong. Tetsuo is taken as well, with Kaneda and the rest unable to help because they are at gunpoint and face down on the asphalt.
This sets off the three intertwining plot elements that make up the movie. One the one hand, we have Kaneda and his friends trying to find Tetsuo, all the while trying to survive in the hostile environment that is Neo-Tokyo. We have the resistance looking to get back into some government facility so they can free these blue-skinned kids – known as the Espers, clearly the subject of experiments and covert activities. And we have the Colonel, who’s running said facility, overseeing the experiments on these individuals, and trying to figure out what to do with Tetsuo. It becomes clear after just a few scenes that his exposure to this small child is changing him, in the psionic sense, and now they must figure out what to do about it. While he presents an interesting phenomena, a normal person changed through accidental exposure, there are hints that this chance encounter could bring disaster.
In between all this, we get numerous snapshots of what life is like in the post-apocalyptic city, and all of it is interesting and awesome. The police are overworked trying to control a population that is beginning to become unruly after the shock and horror of a nuclear holocaust and the push to rebuild. The public school system is clogged with orphans who’s parents died in the war and who have to turn to biker gangs and deviant behavior to express themselves. And behind it all, there is the shadowy government project being run by the Colonel, who is haunted by the visions the blue kids are showing him and a name which might be a person, a phenomena, or both… Akira! At one point, in a scene that is both expository and foreshadowing, we are shown an underground facility where a massive cryogenic unit sits and waits. As they inspect it, the Colonel is reminded of conversations he had with the resident scientist about the children could be the next phase in evolution, how it is frightening, and how he fears for the city. In any case, we see a name on the big cryogenic unit… AKIRA! Whoever or whatever this is, its clear that the blue kids are related, and that the war itself might have had something to do with it.
At about this time, Tetsuo manages to escape from the military facility. He finds his girlfriend, Kaori, steals Kaneda’s bike, and makes plans with her to get out of the city. Unfortunately, some Clowns find them and begin beating the crap out of them. Luckily, Kaneda and his buds were on their tale and manage to intervene, but clearly something’s wrong. In the course of taking his revenge on one of the Clowns, Tetsuo begins to lose it. When they try to stop him, he starts to lose it and says that someday he’ll show all of them (case of foreshadowing here). To make matters worse, he starts experiencing intense migraines and has apocalyptic visions. He sees the city crumbling, his body falling apart, and hears the name Akira ringing like a shrill bell in his mind. And, wouldn’t you know it, the military shows up again and hauls him away! It seems that whatever is happening to Tetsuo is beyond his control, and naturally, his friends are even more determined now to find him and figure out what’s going on.
Paralleling this, we get a scene where one of the government bureaucrats is meeting with the leader of the resistance. The two watch a public protest where a religious cult begins burning TV’s and other “decadent” possessions, calling forth the name of Akira as some sort of messianic prophet and saying that the time for atonement has come. The bureaucrat explains how this is a sign, how the city is saturated and begiinning to rot like “an overripe fruit”, and how Akira is the seed that will soon fall and grow into a new order (clever metaphor). We are still not sure who or what Akira is at this point, but its clear that whoever or whatever it is, everyone is looking to it for deliverance. The resistance and their bureaucratic ally want it to pave the way to the future, the government wants to keep it under wraps, and the people on the streets see it as the name of the messiah. Real cool! From all of this, we see that at all levels of society, the name Akira is a secretive, powerful, and dangerous thing.
Along the way, Kaneda finds out about the resistance and begins making common cause with them. This begins when he notices that a particular young woman named Kei, whom he is obviously infatuated with, has a way of showing up repeatedly wherever and whenever shit is going down. At first, he was just trying to nail her; but in time, he comes to realize that she is part of an underground cell that is looking to expose a government secret, the same one that Tetsuo is now part of. They agree that they can help each other, mainly because she and her friends can get inside the facility and she is sympathetic with Kaneda’s desire to save his friend. Eventually, they succeed, but their attempt at a rescue coincides with another, scarier development.
In the facility, Tetsuo is still changing, and the process is getting beyond all control. His psionic abilities are reaching dangerous proportions, and he wants answers! He has come to see that there are others like him (the Espers), which happens after a psychedelic episode where the children enter his room in the guises of childhood toys and transform them into nightmarish creatures that try to devour him. It’s not quite clear why they do this, perhaps they grew scared of him and wanted to put him in his place. It is clear to them from their visions of a catastrophic future that Tetsuo is a threat, so perhaps this was their way of telling him to behave. In any case, this scene is nothing short of art! At once nightmarish, hallucinogenic and psychedlic, it manages to intrigue, creep out and terrify, in that order. And, ironically but fittingly, it ends when Tetsuo accidentally cuts himself and the children are terrified by the site blood and flee. However, Tetsuo is now angry and abundantly aware that he is not alone. He sees in his mind’s eye where the Esper’s nursery is, and sets out to find it, them, and the answers he seeks.
In the process, a number of attendees and guards try to stop him, but he makes short work of them all. Yes, Tetsuo has come to understand that whatever is changing him has given him some freaky powers, including the power to kill with a simple thought. As he walks along the hallway, he kills numerous people in sick and ugly ways, a clear indication of his descent into madness and a preview of what’s to come. Once he reaches the blue kids’ nursery, they begin fighting it out with their crazy mind powers, and the effects used to illustrate this are not just cool, they’re crazy! One really gets the sense of the psychic and psychotic; music, effects and dialogue all coming together to intrigue and scare the viewer! In the course of all this, Tetsuo gleams a name from their minds. Seems their is another like them, someone who is even more powerful than the Espers and Tetsuo combined. Tetsuo wants to find this person, this… Akira! He even manages to get the location from their minds before they are interrupted.
That interruption comes in the form of Kaneda and Kei who have successfully broken in amidst the chaos. They have a brief rendezvous, but Kaneda’s attempts to get Tetsuo to leave with them fail. Seems Tetsuo thinks he’s beyond Kaneda’s help now, and that he’s in charge and ready to show him what’s what, as promised earlier. The Colonel and more men enter and attempt to stop Tetsuo, but he kills even more people, destroys the nursery, and flies from the facility (much to his own surprise). Seems his body is now flying him on autopilot and taking him out into the city to find the last known location of the fabled Akira. The Colonel and his troops are then forced to declare martial law, in part because of Tetsuo’s escape, but also because the government has decided that he is not fit to run the program anymore and try to arrest him. After a brief scene where some bureaucrats show up and a minor gunfight ensues, the Colonel orders his troops to arrest all members of the government and get their asses to where Tetsuo is heading! He means business now!
Meanwhile, Kaneda and Kei have been arrested and stuck in a cell. Here,Kei begins to explain exactly what they think Akira represents. In a word: evolution! Essentially, Kei says that the power that has driven single cell organisms and reptiles to evolve into spaceship-making, atom-splitting humans is still at work. Harnessed in the human genome is a ton of energy that is just waiting to manifest itself in the form of freaky powers, the kind that Tetsuo and the Espers now demonstrate. Kei begins to become distant as it is made clear that one of the Espers, the young girl, is speaking through her. She explains that in the past, this process went horribly wrong, but someday soon, it would become a reality and their kind would exist freely. Kaneda is totally lost, but that doesn’t matter for long. Kei snaps out of her dream-like puppet state and reveals that the door to their cell is now open. Seems the Espers are pulling strings to make sure the two of them get out.
With the help of voiceover, they even say that they plan on using the girl to stop Testuo. And they don’t make it far before they put that plan into action. After meeting up with Kai, another member of the biker gang, Kaneda is told that a rampaging Tetsuo killed one of other members. He’s pissed, but is made even more pissed when the Espers show up and make Kei come with her. She walks away (on water, no less), and leaves Kaneda fuming angrily over how helpless he feels. Caught between a friend who’s gone rogue and some freaky kids who are using his would-be girlfriend for their own purposes, all the while caught up in plot he can’t begin to understand, he decides to set out on his own to find Tetsuo and end him!
Speaking of which, we meet up with Tetsuo next and see that he’s been stalking the streets and killing anyone who gets in his way, all the while seeking the other secret facility where, as we saw earlier, Akira is housed. This is without a doubt one of the best parts of the movie, as the street people, seeing some psionic boy in a red cape (yep, he fashions himself a cape!) become convinced that Tetsuo is Akira and start following him like a messiah. They all die, naturally, as Tetsuo’s is forced to fight his way through soldiers and his powers cause untold amounts of collateral damage. When he finally reaches the facility, just outside the uncompleted Olympic Stadium (bit of a side story to that one), he runs into Kei again and they fight. Not so much “they”, more like the Espers fight Tetsuo through her, but of course he beats them/her and breaks into the facility anyway. As soon as he cracks open the cryogenic seals that hold Akira, the Colonel arrived outside the stadium and begins to fill him in via a megaphone.
We then get the big moment of truth: turns out the facility was holding the remains of a boy, a boy named Akira. He is what caused Tokyo’s annihilation in 1988, as he was an evolutionary curiosity that evolved beyond anyone’s control. After the explosion, which started WWIII since everyone thought Tokyo was under nuclear attack, his remains were sealed away for future study. That’s it, that’s all! No mind-blowing conspiracy, no earth-shattering answers, just a bunch of test tubes and tissue samples in formaldehyde. And as for the conspiracy, that was just the government trying to keep the truth of Akira under wraps so they could study it in the hopes of preventing the same thing from happening again. Hence why they’ve been holding the Espers in a sealed location, seems they were Akira’s fellow potentates who survived the obliteration.
Tetsuo is obviously phased and disappointed, but he’s quickly snapped out of it with the arrival of Kaneda. The two get into it as Kaneda tries to talk him down, but a fight quickly ensues with Kaneda employing a captured laser gun and Tetsuo using his freaky powers. The government jumps in and tries to kill Tetsuo with their orbital laser satellite, but this only manages to critically injure Tetsuo by blowing off his arm. The kid proves beyond their control again, and flies into orbit where he takes over the satellite and then crashes it. This, however, gives Kaneda, Kei, and Kai a chance to escape.
A lull follows as the Colonel and his forces lick their wounds, Tetsuo fashions a new arm out of random machine parts, and Kaneda, Kei, and Kai recharge the laser gun and keep each other company. Some time later, they all meet up inside the stadium, where Tetsuo has placed the remains of Akira on a sort of shrine and is sitting in the chair he has fashioned into a sort of throne. Symbolism! The Colonel urges Tetsuo to come home, but he refuses. He is once again losing control and its beginning to show in his body, which is sprouting amorphous blob-like appendages! He is also losing his mind, at once amused and in terrible pain over what’s happening all around him. The Espers show up and begin praying to the remains of Akira, hoping to get some kind of instruction or deliverance. Seems they too revere him since he was the first to undergo what they are experiencing now.
Tetsuo’s girlfriend Kaori is also drawn to the stadium, but she soon dies as Tetsuo’s loses all control over his body and it consumes her. Kaneda returns, shooting his laser and trying to bring Tetsuo down, but the attempts appear to be in vain. Even Tetsuo is being killed by his own abilities now and there doesn’t appear to be any way to stop it. And the scientists watching it all are stunned when the queer instruments they have that measure psionic abilities go off the charts and begin to show the “Akira pattern”. And then, in a blinding burst of revelation (destructive, apocalyptic, revelation!) Akira appears to the Espers! His white light, much as it did at the beginning, starts consuming the stadium and Tetsuo’s amorphous body. Kaneda is willing to risk his own life to pull Tetsuo from the expanding ball of light, but the Espers decide they will take Tetsuo with them and save Kaneda by sacrificing themselves. Essentially, they are going into the light, which means either death, transcendence, or a little of both. Kaneda, Kei, and everyone else, will be sent back in the process so they can live on.
However, Kaneda is still inside the light for a moment and experiences what can only be described as a taste of transcendence, or possibly the afterlife. It is a totally mind-blowing scene, biggest one of the movie, as he watches entire city blocks get mangled in the light, catches glimpses from their and Tetsuo’s life, and hears the Espers speaking to him about the meaning of it all. He gets a chance to say good-bye to his friend, who appears before him as a blinding ball of light, and sees moments of their lives together. He then wakes up next to Kei, safe and sound. Might sound cheesy, but trust me, its sad, meaningful, and above all, awesome to behold. All the more so because you’re not being told what’s happening, you gotta figure it out on your own. The vivid imagery and passing bits of explanation paint a picture, but you’re left pondering what it means.
Meanwhile, the city is once again in ruins, even though Kei, Kai and Kaneda survived. The Colonel has also survived, having found shelter in a nearby tunnel when the apocalyptic light show began. Clearly, they are the survivors of this new apocalypse, and it is to them that the responsibility to rebuild once more falls. The Espers end things by reiterating their final message, how things are changing, and though the world may not be ready, someday what they have will become a reality. “It has already begun…” they say at the end. By it, of course, they mean the next leap in human evolution, where we will evolve beyond flesh and blood bodies and become unrestrained forces of pure consciousness, with all kinds of freaky psionic abilities! Yes, the day will come when we shall all be… Akira!
Okay, I’m feeling mind-blown just recounting all this. Like I said before, this movie did things right, relying on a sort of show-don’t-tell philosophy, psychedelic and existential themes, and an attention to detail that is unsurpassed. From a technical standpoint, there was also the stunning visual effects and a great combination of music, sound and visuals to punctuate the plot and dialogue. But the thing I liked most was the depth and development shown by the plot and thematic elements of the story. For example, the clear religious themes: First off, there was the coming of the messiah and the End of Days. There was also the Garden of Eden or Deluge Myth that was present at the end. Lastly, there is the Fall. All of these were present at one time or another, the first being a recurring theme while the others became clear closer to the end. The fascinating and gritty use of them all was awesome, terrifying and hugely intriguing.
Then, of course, there was the plot. You’d think that with the archetypal and religious tones that were at work, you’d get some cliches or cardboard cut-out characters. But, interestingly enough, the characters were pretty damn realistic throughout. They are at once cynical, greedy, scared, brutal, and sympathetic, no one a crystal-clear good guy or bad guy. Whether it was the overwrought bureaucrats, the cautious and troubled Colonel, the street toughs who see each other as a family, the fallen Tetsuo or the romantic scientists, every character felt genuine and justifiable. Just like real people, everyone is motivated by their own combination of things, no one is perfect, and everyone just wants to do what they think is right. That, plus the fact that the story doesn’t end happily, but with some hope, was also very realistic. In the event that human beings actually began manifesting psionic powers, we can expect that the results would be frightening and probably disastrous. And in all likelihood, it would take a few disasters before humanity found a way to control it or live with it.
That being said, the movie could also be a bit daunting at times. Towards the end, the action sequences and dialogue did get a little drawn out and could even feel emotionally taxing. Like with a lot of movies of its kind, there were moments where I was just like “enough death and destruction! Get on with it, already!” But for the most part, this is effective in that it conveys the right feel and attitude. After all, death, destruction and the apocalypse are not neat and tidy things. They are painful, demoralizing and downright brutal! One would expect scenes or total destruction and terrible strife to be sad and terrible, so I can only say that Katsohiro’s direction was realistic in that respect and in keeping with the overall tone of the movie. Speaking of which, the movie also showed some very obvious insight into the mentality of destruction and holocaust. All throughout the movie, there is a sense of shock and horror at work, and it comes out in full force at the end. But unlike your average disaster movie, the destruction in Akira wasn’t some cheap attempt at action-porn, it was the real deal!
And you really get the sense that this speaks directly to a sense of cultural experience, Japan being a nation that has not only experienced earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes regularly in the course of its history, but is also the only country on the planet that has experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack. When one sees the blast at the beginning, the flashing, cooling orbital view, and then the big, black crater, one immediately thinks of Hiroshima, and not just the physical impact but the terrible psychological toll it took as well. All the scenes involving the orphaned kids, the apocalyptic dreams, the post-war reconstruction; you really feel like Katsohiro was relying on the real-life experiences of those who had been there.
Oh, and one final note: I’ve since seen two versions of the movie, the original VHS release that was available back in the 90’s, and a more recent version which was clearly dubbed in Japan. The Japanese dubbed one is actually more faithful to the original dialogue, but my advice would be to get the version that was dubbed by Hollywood studios. The translation was better, and the dialogue and voices more effective and less cheesy. Don’t know what it is about Japanese voice actors, but the men sound too gruff and the ladies too high-pitched! Also, in what I am assuming was the original Japanese script, the dialogue was also remarkably less subtle. If you can see both versions and compare for yourselves, you’ll see what I mean.
But other than that, this movie is an enduring classic for me. Its appeal is cultish, its style awesome, and its effects stunning even though they are over twenty years old by now. I look forward to the live-action American remake of this movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set for release sometime in the next year, or possibly 2013. One has to wonder how they will spin things and if they plan on sticking to the grit and realism of the original. I sincerely hope so, otherwise I might have to give it a scathing review!