One of the most popular themes in science fiction is the social and technological development of humanity. H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine gives the reader a glimpse of two divergent future human species: The monstrous Morlocks are technologically sophisticated humans that farm the simplistic, uneducated, beautiful Eloi as food animals. James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse novels show a wonderfully diverse humanity struggling with racism and class disparity. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games explores a radically stratified society where a small number of the wealthy keep vast numbers of fellow humans in poverty as working slaves. Roddenbery’s Star Trek is in the very small number of sci-fi works that gives us a humanity that has mostly progressed to post-scarcity enlightenment, actively pursuing diversity and seeking knowledge as opposed to accumulating wealth.
Over the last decade in particular the narrative of deep division and disparity in the future society of humanity has become the standard building block for almost every sci-fi tale. In his duology Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, British author Peter F. Hamilton shows us a vision of humanity some 300 years into the future that’s arguably even more relevant today than it was when they were first published in 2004; and in many ways his ideas on the future development of humanity feel closer to us than Roddenbury’s ideas of utopian humans. These novels, and the subsequent Void Trilogy set some thousand years after Judas Unchained, are well worth reading. They are a unique vision of the future of human space exploration, and for my money an excellent ‘what if…’ exploration of a new technology. Often in sci-fi an author will create some fabulous technology and use it for only one or two things, completely disregarding how it would affect so much more. Not so with these.
Humans of the Commonwealth — the facade-government that controls the majority of humanity in the novels — occupy hundreds of worlds spread across a fairly large bubble of space. Unlike most other future-histories the citizens of the Commonwealth don’t travel via starship; instead, trains rule the stars. The opening of the first novel, Pandora’s Star, sees our first manned mission to Mars touch down on the red planet, only to find a university student in a home-made spacesuit waiting for them. It turns out that students Nigel Sheldon and Ozzie Isaacs had just finished constructing a stable two-way wormhole in their lab and decided to announce it to the world by visiting the Mars landing. The story then jumps 300-odd years into the future, to 2380.
Stable wormholes immediately revolutionised space travel, communications, and transport. Society shifts to place railways at the core of an expanding society. Instead of laboriously flying a starship to another planet, simply open a wormhole and walk through to explore. Instead of flying around the world to get to a distant continent, simply take a train whose the tracks go through a wormhole, and arrive a thousand miles away in a few minutes. Expand this idea and colonise new planets by using a wormhole to build a train station on your new world, and simply run trains full of materials, people, and supplies directly to your new colony. Wormholes not only allowed instant transport, but also instant communications: micro-wormholes replace satellites and cables, connecting across planets, even across interstellar space. In the Commonwealth the internet spans hundreds of worlds, and extends into implants and personal devices — known as the Unisphere — and is all-encompassing.
It’s easy to imagine that this world — set in roughly the same future timeframe as Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation, the 2380s — could usher in the utopian vision of humanity as a post-scarcity society. However, in the Commonwealth we quickly see that humans are no more socially advanced than today; the same problems exist then, as now. Technologically there is certainly sophistication. Aside from the aforementioned Unisphere and wormhole travel, robotics, cybernetics, genetic engineering, and medical science are extremely advanced, meaing that humans are essentially physically immortal. Implants that record memory allow the complete personality to be transferred to a new cloned body if necessary, but medical science also allows ‘reverse ageing’ of a body too — this process is known as rejuvenation, commonly done at ‘retirement’ age, around sixty.
People work to pay into a ‘Rejuvenation Pension’. By the time they need it, this pension pays the costs associated with having the months-long rejuvenation therapy. Here we begin to see the economic underpinning of the Commonwealth. Having near-infinite space and potentially-limitless lifespans should surely have allowed people to develop and mature into a Star Trek-like utopia, right? Characters in the novel ask themselves the same question — it’s a puzzle that they turn around and around at various points, and are unable to see exactly where things went wrong. Generally the average person, despite living in such a world of potential, works in the same way as someone would today, in similar jobs.
Mark Vernon, a kind of suburban everyman character, is likely to be painfully recognisable to most readers: he works in a low-level job in an office, and every evening he drives home to a suburban ‘corporate town’ and spends time trying to unwind from the grinding drudgery of his job. To Mark the idea that he’s providing for his kids and paying into his pension is what’s keeping him going — but he’s unhappy. It’s clear that he’s being ground down and his potential as a person is woefully under-realised. He’s a cog in a huge machine, and very little else.
For Mark, his only real way out is to work until retirement, get his rejuvenation, and hope he’s got enough saved to start a new (better) life somewhere else. We hear little stories of this same thing being played out in many places. This is the reality of the Commonwealth for most people; working ‘up’ the ladder of society, life after life. It’s not dissimilar from the way people in past centuries lived in poverty and servitude while consoling themselves that after death they’d be rewarded in the afterlife.
We’re shown the flip side too. In fact, the majority of the story follows characters who are fabulously wealthy — Nigel Sheldon (co-creator of the wormhole technology) runs the company that runs all the wormholes. In many ways he’s this world’s Zuckerberg, Gates, and Jobs. Business is his life, and he’s not shy about reaping the rewards of his efforts and flexing his political muscles. His ‘dynasty’ live on a planet all to themselves (as do many of the hyper-wealthy); his house is described as being a literal palace, wealth in excess and with every trapping of the insanely wealthy.
The Dynasties (the wealthiest families) run the Commonwealth. Essentially royalty, they hold court and sway the politics of the elected political body of the Commonwealth, blatantly undermining any sort of democratic process. It’s not even done in secret — it’s acknowledged that this is ‘normal’, simply because of wealth and longevity a small group of people literally dictate the fate of trillions of people with no regard for how regular people live day-to-day. The Dynasties decide whose company is going to get which contracts of a new venture, slicing things up and trading parts of the project as political favours. This is the ultimate expression of capitalism-in-action. Not a single one of these Dynasties ‘need’ more wealth, yet the pursuit of profit and financial advantage equates to political advantage, which equates to power — which everyone wants. It’s as though the corporate superculture of the 1980s became the template for human development, so ingrained that even questioning it is considered divergent.
Like all good sci-fi, Pandora’s Star shows us, via the lens of fiction, ourselves. Most people reading this will identify, to some degree, with Mark Vernon (though he’s irritatingly whiny, he’s not entirely unjustified). Most of us know that right now there’s an insanely wealthy fraction of society that hordes wealth and resources, maintaining closely protected family lines and letting as little escape into the general population as possible. Most of us also consider how wealth buys power, to varying degrees. Even in the current political arena, we can see how the directors of a high-profile company are treated differently, and often have more ‘clout’ in society. This is the inevitable result of the culture we’ve built, and it’s mirrored in the Commonwealth very much as it’s mirrored in the film Elysium, or Soylent Green, or any number of similar stories stretching right back to (and beyond) H.G. Well’s Morlocks and Eloi. This narrative, regardless of the skin it wears, is almost always told as a dystopian tale. An example of how we failed.
In addition to the human dystopia, Hamilton also explores the environmental impact people have on the planets they colonise. The wormholes allowed polluting industries to move away from Earth very rapidly, at very little cost. The Earth of 2380 is a clean world, wealthy and protected by super-strict environmental regulations — in many ways the practical ‘ideal’ we need to somehow work towards. Sadly, however, Hamilton’s humans realised this purity by exploiting other worlds. The wormhole-expansion method gave them access to hundreds of other Earth-like and near Earth-like worlds, with access being sold to the highest bidders. And so on these new worlds, where the colonisation efforts were paid for by corporations, environmental damage is deliberately ignored.
Hamilton creates a believable future where we strip-mine Earth-like worlds, build ‘factory cities’ and use every method of production to supply the materialistic needs of the teeming masses of humans elsewhere. In so doing, the society he depicts satisfies a small number of planets by devastating many, many others. Mark Vernon comes from such a planet, where the whole human colony there is treated as a resource. The entire workforce is tuned to exploit every natural good the planet has to offer; with the intention that, when it becomes too toxic, the company that owns it will just relocate everyone to a ‘fresh’ planet, and begin again.
It’s fiction, true — but it’s hard for a reader today to not see these novels as commentary on our wild expansion and our disregard for our environment and each other in the headlong pursuit of wealth, material goods, and power.
The Void Trilogy, which is set around a thousand years later, shows a very different and more positive version of future humanity. However, like Roddenbury’s Star Trek, Hamilton seems to be suggesting that humanity needs to go through a destructive, apocalyptic disaster in order to mature and improve. Star Trek uses a nuclear war as the catalyst that forces a change. In The Hunger Games Katniss sparks a devastating revolution in order to bring about change. In The Expanse, ultimately, humanity is ruled for decades by a fascist government that’s toppled by a combination of rebellion and alien menace. In the Commonwealth Saga, Hamilton explores the idea of contact with an inscrutable, hostile alien race as his catalyst.
Maybe this is the real message of dystopian/utopian sci-fi — humans are reluctant to change until we’re forced to do so. H.G. Wells in The Time Machine shows how the Eloi, the descendants of the wealthy elite, have evolved into a society of indolent, naive individuals with no personal survival instinct. He suggests that perhaps it’s through facing adversity and challenge we evolve and progress. Hamilton seems to agree, as the humanity of The Void Trilogy still bear the scars of the events of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. Like we, as a people, learned from the horror of two back-to-back world wars, the characters of the Commonwealth Saga are intent on doing better and not repeating the mistakes of the past.
Wells’ time traveller jumped further forward to see how it all turns out, and discovered that it wasn’t great for us. Maybe given the prophetic nature of sci-fi we can learn from these tales, and come up with ways to do things better.