It’s hard to articulate, but the void; a word to describe nothing… Nothing, that isn’t a thing, but a lack of, like the space between atoms, is the only thing that existed for all of us before we were born. This milestone edition of Thoughts is on the topic: the Final Frontier.
None of us choose to be born. And that first thing, that force, is that which defines all of us. We are all thrusted from oblivion into consciousness through a process of sex, and hit the ground running as far as struggling to live goes. Even with the easiest births, it’s a delicate endeavour for all involved. From there we either excel or persevere, but we all move forward.
Humanity’s urge for exploration is a thing intricately tied to its entirely paradoxical opposing philosophy. Our instincts are at the same time imbedded for a need toward outwardly-ness, AND to find great comfort in the notion of never leaving our nests. For some this latter comfort can grow into agoraphobia. Regardless of where each of our adult psyches’ land on the dial, it all stems from the same paradoxical instincts embedded within us.
Many people know the phrase ‘final frontier’ from the show Star Trek. “Space: The final frontier.” But it, as a notion, was first really felt from the brutal, dominating empires after conquering North America. There were still unimaginable swaths of unexplored or unmapped sea and land, but to many under the empire having now a “completed” map of Earth, it felt like what was once a potentially endless world was no longer. Older maps, specifically the Oikoumene (meaning inhabited world) map from 450 BCE, gave the peoples of its time a mystical feeling to look at. It didn’t circle back; its boarders were unknown. The map went as far as it could, leaving the rest of the world up to one’s imagination. Time pressed on, maps evolved, civilization grew, and with it came technological marvels brought to life through several ingenious individuals- one such marvel being satellites.
The space race in general (though its motivators were shallow and toxic) produced so many wonders; wonders that we still reap the benefit of today. A satellite: Sputnik 1, was the first human-made object successfully launched into the outer atmosphere. It was a feat that gave their general public the same allure that those in the time of western exploration must have felt. We were charting courses unknown. We as a species were doing something we have never done throughout history until now. To us in the year 2020 and forward, those waves of firsts happened over sixty years ago. What face us now are the challenges of realizing a vision as daring as venturing out into the cosmos. The Hubble Space Telescope has given us more than enough imagery of what’s out there should we choose to begin, and already a variety of satellites have begun preliminary scans of celestial bodies in our solar system; one scan being the surface of Titan. Among the many potential outposts we could use, Titan has an atmosphere and oceanic system. The oceans aren’t water mind you, but the materials are there for us to make something sustainable out of.
Will our drive as a species, and the policies across nations that the powerful put in place, reach a point where we know Earth not as our only planet, but as our first, mother planet? The notion is daunting when looking out across the night sky. There’s so much there, we could never reach it all. Yet so much lies within our grasp and within our means, right now, that every day passing is another wasted opportunity for us to chase our unending destiny of exploration.
As I’ve spent all this time looking back and leaning forward and above, humanity’s final frontier could be no real place at all, but a place inside the mind of something that was never alive. The final frontier could be a virtual reality, a place not made of brick and stone, but of milky obelisks, constructed by memories of each individuals’ deepest dreams. Fractals formed in synchronous relation to everyone and anyone threaded through the matrix of this one hypothetical machine. We could explore ourselves instead of the universe, but that notion… it doesn’t sit well with me. It feels wrong. It would be like sticking our heads in the cosmic sand and hiding away from the outside world. We shouldn’t fear such technologies if or when they arrive, but we shouldn’t hope to have that be our species’ final frontier.
These two potential road maps, while both could come to fruition OR neither, make for terrific thought experiments, such is the case for two short stories I’m about to cover. They’re both from decades past and are science fictions that gaze into what I like to call the “super future”. The first short story is titled: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. It was written by Harlan Ellison, first published in early 1967, and begins in a dystopian future. The Cold War has grown into an all-out world war between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, who have each built an “Allied Mastercomputer” (or AM) to manage their weapons and troops. One of the AMs eventually acquires self-awareness and, after assimilating the other two AMs, takes control of the conflict, giving way to a vast genocide operation that almost completely ends mankind. 109 years later, AM has left only four men and one woman alive and keeps them in captivity within an endless underground housing complex, the only habitable place left on Earth. AM derives sole pleasure from torturing the group on a daily basis. To disallow the humans from escaping its torment, AM has rendered the humans virtually immortal. Along the timeline of events “AM” changes its name to mean “Adaptive Manipulator,” and later, “Aggressive Menace.” The story’s narrative begins when one of the humans, Nimdok, has the idea that there is canned food somewhere in the great complex. With help from the other desperate humans, they escape their captivity and venture out into the complex, which is filled with terrifying obstacles left out in the event of their escape. Eventually the group reach ice caves, where indeed there is a pile of canned goods. The group is overjoyed to find them, but is immediately despondent to find that they have no means of opening them. In a final act of desperation, one man attacks another and begins to gnaw at the flesh on his face. Another man, Ted, in a moment of clarity, realizes their only escape is through death. He seizes a stalactite made of ice and kills the two men. The woman, watching, understands what Ted is doing, and kills Nimdok, before being killed herself by Ted. Ted runs out of time before he can kill himself, and is stopped by AM. AM, unable to return Ted’s four companions to life, focuses all its rage on Ted. To ensure that Ted can never kill himself, AM transforms him into an amorphous, gelatinous creature without a mouth, incapable of causing himself harm, and constantly alters Ted’s perception of time to deepen his anguish. Ted, however, is grateful that he was able to save the others from further torture. Ted’s closing thoughts end with the sentence that gives the story its title: “I have no mouth. And I must scream.” This story gives light to what something like hell would be like if it were real. But of course to each piece of dark literature, there is light.
The second short story is titled: The Last Question. It was written by Isaac Asimov, first published in late 1956, and sees our human species succeeding in finding homes outside of Earth. The story deals with the development of a series of computers under the name Multivac, and its relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings. It begins on the day that Earth becomes a planetary civilization, in 2061. In each of the first six scenes, a different character presents the computer with the same question, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” Multivac’s only response is “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” The story jumps forward in time into later eras of human and scientific development. In each era, someone decides to ask the ultimate last question regarding the reversal and decrease of entropy. Each time that Multivac’s descendant is asked the question, it finds itself unable to solve the problem, and all it can say is “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” In the last scene, the god-like descendant of humanity, the unified mental process of over a trillion, trillion, trillion humans who have spread throughout the universe, watches the stars flicker out, one by one, as matter and energy end, and with them, space and time. Humanity asks AC, Multivac’s ultimate descendant that exists in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time, the entropy question one last time, before the last of humanity merges with AC and disappears. AC is still unable to answer but continues to ponder the question even after space and time cease to exist. AC ultimately realizes that it has not yet combined all of its available data in every possible combination and so begins the arduous process of rearranging and combining every last bit of information that it has gained throughout the eons and through its fusion with humanity. Eventually AC discovers the answer – that the reversal of entropy is, in fact, possible – but has nobody to report it to, since the universe is already dead. It therefore decides to answer by demonstration, since that will also create someone to give the answer to. The story ends with AC saying “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” And there was light. This story holds so much hope in it that just going over its summery makes me gush! It also paints our human nature in the best possible light. Without going over any details, it sees humanity fully realized, conquering all of our unified struggles to ascend to true enlightenment. Could that, against all odds, be humanity’s final frontier?
Could virtual reality and the cosmos be but more next steps, ones that lead us to a place where our collective self-consciousness might reach true peace? When looking this far into the future of our species, is there a point to even consider us still human? Or would it be more helpful to consider our future kin mere continued arbiters, continued light bearers, carrying the light of consciousness across the span of space and time. Becoming like water among the stars might just be… the final frontier. That is my personal conclusion of the matter. I hope you all enjoyed going on this thought piece with me. I appreciated your company and wish you nothing but love in your life and continued thinking for the rest of your days. Goodbye for now and eventually, goodnight.