My personal perception of science-fiction of the past decades is that there seems to be an absence of the great visions of how technological advances will change life in the future. From the 50s to 70s, such stories seem to have been all the rage. When I look at popular “science-fiction” today, it’s mostly “post-apocalyptic distopia”, “superheroes”, and the occasional “space adventure”. None of which really deal with the finer aspects of science or technology. If there is amazing technology, it’s generally handled just like magic, with no actual scientific basis. I think part of it might quite possibly be that we had an unusual boom period of scientific discoveries in the late 19th and early 20th century, that is a highly exceptional moment in human history. Quite often we believe that the trends of the last two or three decades will continue forever, with progress accelerating always faster. But I don’t think that’s the case. What happened in the late 19th century was truly extraordinary with whole new fields of science and technology being opened to us, which eventually lead to nuclear power and digital computers a few decades later. But since the 60s, progress has been mostly refinement instead of huge breakthroughs, which I think is a much more normal state for scientific and technological progress. A hundred years ago we made a huge leap forward and have been riding that wave ever since. But of all the possible problems of engineering and nuclear physics, it was the easiest ones that people figured out first. There are still many great discoveries to be made and we’re probably never going to run out of them, but with each one the bar is set higher for future scientists and inventors. A hundred years ago, two people could make a huge discovery by working a few months in a drafty shed. Today it takes hundreds of people working for decades with a massive budget. And the usefulness of any new discovery will be ever more difficult to anticipate in advance. At least until someone has another huge breakthrough that opens up a completely new field of science that nobody had imagined to exist. But that certainly makes it a lot more challenging for science-fiction writers to understand the research that is currently going on and make educated guesses how those future discoveries might change everyday life.
Personally, I don’t expect that life in 2115 will be as drastically different from life in 2015, than how life now is different than from life in 1915. While my interest in fantasy is much greater than in science-fiction, it still entertains me to think what kind of world I would predict if I were to write science-fiction stories set in 2115.
- Fusion Power: We will have fusion power only 30 years in the future. At least, that is what they have been saying continuously for the past 60 years. And who knows, maybe people in 2115 will still predict fusion power to become true by 2145? But fusion power is a really big deal. Possibly one of the biggest game changers since the discovery of fire, and certainly equal to the invention of gunpowder and steam engines. Because of a quirk of physics, when two light atoms are fused together to form a larger atom, the new larger atoms weighs a tiny amount less than the combined weight of the two small atoms that made it. This tiny amount of matter that would be left over is converted to energy. (With heavy elements the opposite is true. Energy is consumed when they fuse but released when they break apart, which creates the energy in a uranium or plutonium reactor.) The energy can then be used to heat water, create steam, and drive a steam turbine that creates electricity. Just like a coal plant or nuclear power plant. The amount of energy that is relased is incredibly huge. The problem is that fusion only takes place under very high pressure and at very high temperature, similar to conditions inside the sun. Technology already exists that can create these conditions and cause atoms to fuse, but the machines we are currently using are not very effective and require even more power to run than the fusion creates. But with each new generation of experimental reactors the efficiency becomes better, and hopefully one day more power will come out of them than they need to run. The effects on human civilization would be unimaginable. There are way more than enough raw materials on Earth to create food and products for all people in the world. But getting these raw materials into the desired form and transporting them to the people who want them always takes energy. There’s enough water for everyone, but getting the water to the people who need it can take a lot of energy. Money is only a tool for trade, the real bottleneck for wealth and prosperity has always been energy. From slave labor, to wood, coal, and oil. All our modern wealth and standard of living is because coal and oil power is so incredibly more efficient than human labor. As dirty as uranium based nuclear power is today, the modern industrialized world could not have come into existance without it. Sources of energy have always been scarce, but with fusion power that would no longer be the case. Building fusion power reactors would be very expensive at first and it will likely take many decades until the technology becomes common throughout the world. But fuel would be pretty much unlimited as you could extract it from sea water. In a process that requires much less energy than you’d later get out of the fusion reactor. I can’t really imagine the long time consequences of efficient fusion power. But it probably would be one of the great turning points in all of human history.
- No faster than light travel or communication: Based on everything I know about current physics research, I don’t think sending objects or signals at speeds faster than light will ever be possible. And within the next century, I also don’t see getting space ships even to a just 1% of that speed. Which means there won’t be any travel to other stars. I am certain that alien life exists on other planets and very confident that some are equally or more advanced than humans. But all we can possibly hope for is to detect signs of alien activity on distant planets that are hundreds or thousands of years old. We won’t ever meet any of them, and it’s very unlikely that there will ever be any communication. If there will be, it will include waiting times of hundreds of years between messages send and replies percieved.
- Space Planes: Specifically the “single stage to orbit” type. Everything we have to this day that can get things into space has to be lifted to a high altitude by some kind of booster rocket before it can make its way to a stable orbit or outer space. These boosters then simply fall back to earth, usually being destroyed or heavily damaged in the process. The space shuttle was an attempt to have at least some pieces that can be reused several times, but it wasn’t very cost effective and usually you have to build a completely new spacecraft every time you want to go into space. I have pretty good hopes for a concept of vehicles that work mostly like jet planes, but also carry with them an additional supply of liquid oxygen. It would start from a runway like a normal jet and then fly as high as it can until the air becomes too thin for jet engines to work. At that point the oxygen tank is opened and both fuel and oxygen pumped into the engine at the same time, basically turning the jet engine into a rocket engine. This concept has a number of advantages. Because air resistance is strongest near the ground where the air is thickest, you need a lot of power right at the start of a rocket launch. The higher you get, the less energy is needed to overcome air resistance. A plane with jet engines doesn’t need to go straight up but instead can slowly climb to higher altitudes while making use of lift generated by the wings, which uses much less fuel. Jet planes have reached hights well above 30 km, by which point the air pressure is aleady down to less than 1% of what you have at the surface. Not only do you save fuel, you also don’t need to bring any oxygen for the first leg of the trip because you can just use the oxygen from the air, which makes the amount of liquids you need to carry even smaller. One of the challenges involved with such an approach is that wings and jet engines that are efficient at low altitudes are not very efficient at high altitudes and vice versa. But you want only a single set of engines, as having different engines for different sections of the trip would make the craft a lot heavier. In theory it’s very simple, but figuring out the optimal design for the hull and engines is quite tricky in practice. I don’t think we’ll see anything of this kind within the next 30 or 40 years, but I think eventually it will becomes a well established technology.
- Space Habitats: Now 2115 might possibly be a bit too ambitious, but I think building small cities in space will be possibly within maybe the next 200 or 300 years. They most likely will take the form of rotating rings or cylinders with very large diameters, as this is probably the only way you could simulate gravity. Artificial gravity as in Star Trek or Star Wars doesn’t seem physically possible to me. Even if you could, your ship would have to be shaped like a ball, so everyone would be pulled towards the single gravity generator in the very center of the ship. But standing inside a rotating ring and being flung outward towards the “floor” would be a very simple solution, at least as far as the physics are concerned. However, the diameter of the ring would have to be pretty big, a few hundreds of meters or so, because the percieved pull towards the floor depends entirely on the distance from the axis of rotation. On the outer edge it will be greatest, while at the very center there won’t be any pull at all. It looks pretty neat in the movie 2001, but with a ring of that diameter the percieved gravity (it’s not actually gravity but feels very similar) would be much weaker on your head than at your feet. When you sit down, your head suddenly becomes heavier, and when you stand up it becomes lighter. Even worse, everything that moves around the ring in the same direction as the rotation would be moving faster around the the axis of rotation and becomes heavier. Everything that moves in the other direction would become lighter, which would be terrible disorienting. Imagine handing someone a cup of coffee that becomes heavier or lighter depending on which direction you are facing. It would be very funny, but no way to get any work done. But if you make the diameter of the ring larger, the difference between your head and feet becomes smaller until eventually you no longer notice it. It would still be there and probably take a while for people to get used to, but you’d probably be able to get your “space legs” within a few days. Having gravity when living in space is hugely important. Without your body being constantly pushed down to the floor, muscles and also bones become very weak. And it also really messes up a lot of other bodily functions that can lead to all kinds of health damages. It’s hard enough on adults who spend a few months in space. On children growing up in space the effect would probably be quite disastrous.
- No colonies on other planets (except possibly one): The issue with gravity it also one of the reason I don’t expect to see any permanent settlements on the surface of other planets. Aside from the gas giants, which are ruled out by default for obvious reasons, almost all the other large objects in the solar system are pretty tiny compared to Earth and their gravity very weak. Mars and Mercury have only 38% the gravity of Earth. (While Mercury is much smaller than Mars, it’s also incredibly dense, having about the same mass.) And after that it drops down very quickly. The large moons of Jupiter and Saturn have only between 12 and 18% the gravity of Earth, which is similar to the gravity of our Moon. They also all lack atmosphere or strong magnetic fields, so radiation from the sun (or from inside Jupiter as well) would be really bad. There is however one other place in the solar system with conditions very similar to what we have here on Earth. Venus has almost everything we need. It has over 90% the gravity of Earth, a magnetic field, and a thick atmosphere. The only problem is that the air is 90 times thicker than on Earth and 460 degrees hot. The surface is the most inhospitable place in the solar system other than the surface of the Sun or the inside of gas giants, but about 30 km above the surface of Venus the air becomes much thinner and cooler. There is almost no oxygen and traces of sulfuric acid in the air, so you couldn’t go outside without a protective suit. But you could quite pleasantly drifte around in big airships and that close to the ground you still would have pretty much full gravity. Again 2115 might be too ambitious, but I think the cloud cities of Venus are by far the most probable and practical option for long term habitats on other planets. Much more so than anything on Mars, which really is just terrible in every way.
- No Star Wars: Whether there will be any space warfare within the next century is highly questionable. I personally expect it not to be. But if there would be space battles, the only type of weapon I see being viable for shoting at other space ships are missiles. Because missiles can make course corrections when the target is moving. Railguns are also a fun concept, but even at huge speed, hitting something moving in space before it moved out of the way would be very difficult. Because in space there is not stealth. Anything that uses power creates heat, which is visible as infrared light. There is nothing to hid behind, so two space ships build for battle would see each other from very far distances. And why let your enemy get close so you can shot short range weapons at them? You want to hit them before then can shot back, and the best way to do that is missiles. Ships would also be relatively small. All you need is an engine and weapons. Missiles can be fired from pretty small crafts so there is no need to build something like a Star Destroyer. Look at any modern sea navy. The largest warships ever build were in World War 2 and they needed to be that big because they had to carry really big guns with really long range. But they played a pretty small role because someone had already developed the torpedo, which can be fired from a very small and fast ship that is difficult to hit, or even just an airplane that is even smaller, faster, and more difficult to hit. But can still damage even the biggest ship enough to be unable to keep fighting. Modern warships don’t use big cannons anymore. The main weapon against other big ships are missiles. Today, the largest combat ships in the world are destroyers, which in World War 2 were relatively small. And only a few navies have them, most only have frigates and corvettes, which are even smaller. No giant guns, no giant ships. Better to buy a lot of small ships armed with missiles, which can not be destroyed by a single lucky hit. On the other end of the scale, starfighters also make no sense. Very small, fast, and maneuverable combat craft could work, but they would have no use for a pilot. A pilot is just not as fast as a computer and would only limit the maneuverability. A craft controled by a computer could fly maneuvers that would make any human passenger inside it pass out or die. If there will be any space warfare, it most probably would be a lot more like submarine warfare. But without the stealth.