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I'm looking for some data to create my own sci-fi setting, but I want to base it on real world as much as possible. Also, I don't want to come up with any arbitrary year like 3290 with no background on it.

I thought a lot about it, but I still can't find a good answer.

What I want is a setting where the following apply:

  • Humans can live outside Earth. Deep space stations are minimum, colonies on habitable planets are welcomed. I do not expect terraforming to be common,
  • Faster Than Light travel is a thing. I don't care if it's BSG's FTL drive, Star Trek's Warp Drive, Alcubierre drive or any other kind of tech,
  • Long range communication of any kind is possible. (Almost) instantaneous communication should be possible within one planetary system, and possibility of interstellar fax/emails would be nice,
  • Nothing prior to current date and tech level can be altered,
  • Tech progression is logical and feels natural

Question is: If I want to create a sci-fi setting that meets all conditions above, what year would suit it best? Any additional arguments are very welcome as well as science/physics background for tech.

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Note that we have pretty firm evidence that FTL is impossible, and no theoretical explanation of how an FTL drive might work (even the theoretical Alcubierre drive or Wormhole travel aren't actually capable of getting you somewhere and back again faster than light). While it's possible this might change, it makes any predictions rather difficult. Looking at a parallel like mastering steam power might be a good start, though - new massive and cheap power source, a bunch of technologies previously impractical resulting in a huge technological revolution... – Luaan Feb 13 at 8:24
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That's why I recommended worrying more about what kind of timeframe is believable or plausible to the reader – if FTL is impossible, which it most likely is, then the answer to your question is "never", but that's not much fun, nor is it the story you want to write. Focus on keeping your world consistent with people's perceptions of reality and 90% of readers won't even notice – the other 10% will read it anyway and write long articles about the few niggling little things you got wrong, which I'd personally consider free advertising! – Toadfish Feb 13 at 8:40
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There is an interesting way to side-step this issue: create your own calendar and don't specify how it relates to our current one. This means you don't actually set a date in the real world, so it could be any time that seems remotely reasonable to the reader. – jpmc26 Feb 13 at 8:56
    
We've already got the hang of communicating with space probes across the solar system. Quantum entanglement can't communicate info FTL. The only way in known physics to send info FTL is to use a warp drive or a wormhole. – Donald Hobson Feb 13 at 11:29
    
Think of Einstein born in 1879, then his "miracle year" of 1905 - 26 years later. From there, check various milestones in development of nuclear energy, lasers, whatever. Major requirement is one or more "true geniuses" who can reformulate fundamental concepts. Recent (probable) demonstration of gravity waves might spark "thought experiments" in someone born in near coming decades that will result in...? – user2338816 Feb 13 at 12:20
up vote 10 down vote accepted

As I see it, there are probably four main milestones in the progression of a given technology:

  1. The theoretical principles are discovered
  2. A "proof of concept" is achieved
  3. The technology is engineered to the point that it's actually useful
  4. The technology is engineered to the point that it is affordable/marketable

The various different technologies you've described sit at different stages of this progression right now, and it sounds like you'd like them to be at stage 4, or at least stage 3. Humans can already live in space, for example, as long as a government is paying for it (and all the other logistical requirements). This places space stations at a tentative stage 3. Permanent habitation/colonisation of hostile planetary environments is somewhere between stage 2 and 3, depending on what factors you want to consider, and how hostile an environment you're thinking: we have most of the technology, and we've managed to live in the fairly nasty conditions in Antarctica for a long time now, but not all the attempts at a fully closed system so far have gone entirely smoothly. Your third requirement, instantaneous communication at a distance, is at least equivalent to FTL transportation, if not harder (see comments), or stage 3 if you're happy to limit yourself to speed-of-light communication via electromagnetic means such as lasers. But your second requirement, FTL travel, isn't even at stage 1 – pretty much all of the potential pathways have more detractors than supporters.

The reason I raise all of these issues is because I'm trying to come up with a way for you to operationalise estimating dates. The thing that makes that difficult is that there's no way of knowing when stage 1 will happen – a breakthrough could happen at any time. You could maybe take into account precursor technologies, but in the end one guess is as good as another. They could announce a workable principle next week, but it's just as likely that after a few years of trying to come up with a proof of concept it could fall apart, leaving us back at stage 0 again. In other words, you can pick whatever date you like – but your decision might be informed by the timeframes of the other requirements, which might be a little easier to rationalise.

To figure out how long it takes to prove a theory is workable and bring it to stage 2, and in turn how long it takes to go from there to stage 3, and then on to stage 4, I'd be looking at history. There are a whole bunch of different timelines in our own history of science and technology, you can pick whichever feels right to you and probably convince the reader that your technological advancements followed a similar course.

Steam power

  • Stage 1: – 1st century AD
  • Stage 2: – Somewhere between then and 1690, depending on who you're asking
  • Stage 3:1698, Thomas Savery's commercialised steam water pump.
  • Stage 4: – Probably 1760-1840, the Industrial Revolution

You might consider this a very conservative/slow timeframe. If FTL followed this path, and we discovered the key principle in the very near future, people wouldn't be flitting around between stars until about the year 4000. Keep in mind though that we might have progressed a lot faster if we didn't keep destroying civilisation as we knew it, burning all our libraries, murdering our scientists and philosophers, and starting again...

Computers

Before I start here, keep in mind that computers as we know them are dependant also on the invention of electricity, and more fundamentally, the invention of mathematics and logic. Let's leave those out, and for the sake of argument let's also leave out the first single use mechanical calculators like the Antikythera mechanism, and focus on what we might as well call Turing machines.

  • Stage 1: – 1833, when Charles Babbage realised a "general purpose computing device" might be possible
  • Stage 2: – 1910, when Babbage's son managed to build part of an Analytical Engine, capable of (incorrectly) calculating a few digits of π
  • Stage 3: – Highly debatable, but it might be 1943, the Colossus, as though it was not Turing-complete it was programmable, and definitely solved useful problems. If we want the first true Turing-complete, general purpose, can-solve-any-problem-given-sufficient-time-and-memory computer, that would be ENIAC, whose completion was announced in 1946
  • Stage 4: – Computers in businesses/univerisites: 1951 onwards; First personal (hobbyist) computer: 1975 Altair 8800 or Olivetti P606; First 'consumer grade' computer: This gets a bit fuzzier, as there were countless competing products by this stage, but maybe the 1982 ZX Spectrum which was affordable and sold over 5 million units, not including clones.

At this (accelerating) rate of progress, FTL travel would be accessible to large corporations by about 2130; Civilian space habitation might be a thing from 2050 onwards, and with people living at those kinds of distances, there'd definitely be motivation (and believable likelihood) to have at least light speed communication down to a fine art within a similar timeframe. This is all oversimplification though, as it's thinking only in terms of theories/ideas, not resources, safety, economics or human psychology. My real point is that it's your story, but if you stick to the general "feelings" of progress that we've seen so far, you should be able to achieve verisimilitude.

Keep in mind that FTL travel reaching stage 4 might never be believable to a particularly critical reader – even if it were possible to put a starship in every household, it probably wouldn't make sense to do so. No matter how refined the technology involved, FTL drives in fiction still usually require exotic fuels/materials, so the purchase and ongoing costs may never come down below that of say, today's jet aircraft. And what would even motivate people to travel those kinds of distances? What can't they do closer to home? Star Wars has this kind of world, but a lot of other SF assumes that only governments, corporations and maybe the mega-rich would have any interest in travelling interstellar distances, let alone the finances to do so. Still, some people have private jets today.

(Edit: In light of some good points raised in the comments, I may have conflated too many things when discussing stage 4 FTL. Business use of some technologies becomes widespread while personal use may never become feasible and/or desirable. I shouldn't conflate extensive commercial utilisation of FTL with a sporty FTL corvette in every space-garage; in fact I can't name any serious science fiction that actually implies the latter. This is where the steam engine analogy becomes more representative than the computer analogy, I think. Still, I'd allow for a significant period of time between governments/megacorps developing/deploying workable FTL ships and average Joe/Jane Hauler getting their grubby salt-of-the-earth paws on them.)

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Even in Star Wars, most people travel interplanetary using mass transport - similar to today's air transport. On the other hand, everyone seems to have a hovercraft... :D Overall, if you ignore some of the outliers, Star Wars is a pretty decent template for a universe that works pretty much the same as ours, just a lot more advanced. – Luaan Feb 13 at 8:26
    
True, I guess I was thinking in terms of how the narrative itself relied on protagonists who all had their own spacecraft, and whose goals required flying all over the galaxy – rather than a narrative like Dune where the protagonists have more or less been dumped on one planet by Heighliner, and the narrative is driven partly by the fact that they're stuck there. (Though yes, they're also stuck there because of politics, but you think once they were getting attacked a personal transport for the "important" people would have been nice...) – Toadfish Feb 13 at 8:32
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Yeah, Han Solo was basically somewhere between a space trucker and a cargo liner; the others are well explained by other things - Leia due to her status in the government (she was the senator of a planet) and the Alliance, the same applies to Padmé; Luke's X-Wing was basically stolen (and given to Luke by the Alliance). Out of all of these, only Han actually owned the spaceship in question - all others are using someone else's ships. – Luaan Feb 13 at 9:18
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I think you could argue that the Apple II was the first consumer-grade computer; sure, it may have been somewhat on the expensive side, and it wasn't first with everything it delivered, but the explicit goal of Jobs at the time was to build "the first real packaged computer", and particularly the exterior design set the tune for many home/personal computers that followed. – Michael Kjörling Feb 13 at 9:19
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@Toadfish in that case we could split stage 4 in two - the first part I'll call "ticket" stage, and it is reachable, the other part may not be. For instance, when TV came to my city, only a few rich people could afford it, and so people would gather at their home to see televised events. The people of my city - as far as I can tell - were kind enough to allow this without a requiring payment of a "ticket". Something similar happened with Internet, at first it was only available in internet cafes (which is the "ticket" stage) but it is currently at homes - and "at people" (ie: mobile devices). – Theraot Feb 13 at 11:10

Assuming that FTL travel and distance-irrelevent communications are possible in our universe, the trick to building your civilization will start with figuring out how they work.

Fortunately, our ability to figure things out is growing at an accelerating rate. Our cultural intellect has recently grown a nervous system which will increasingly help us work together on our goals. The internet has also made us more aware of each other's challenges and if we are worthy of the future you predict, we will have to use that awareness to make our world better for everyone.

Once we are united, no scientific fact will hide from our combined intellect for long.

So step one on our way to the stars is world peace and global prosperity. Can that happen in a hundred years? Probably not, especially with the resource shortages which are approaching fast. We will spend another century or two killing each other, before we start working together.

From there, a couple of centuries to crack FTL and put it into common usage. That gives us colonies on other planets and allows us to repeatedly double our numbers. As our population grows, so does our combined intellect. That brings faster FTL and more colonies and more intellectual growth.

Eventually, we might even be able to figure out distance-irrelevent communications, and the interplanetary internet will be born.

So, somewhere around 500 years from now... give or take a few centuries.

Now alot can go wrong along the way and it is more than likely that we will take much longer to reach your goal. But if it is possible, then we will do it and once we do, we will just keep accelerating, spreading out and exponentially growing in both numbers and minds.

--- off subject but possibly helpful to the OP ---

Rather than trying to calculate the exact date of our race to the stars, why not do what others have done before you. Take shelter in the idea that Earth-based calendars and time measurements will probably not survive much longer. Why would they, once we have colonies on other worlds? Just create a star-date style calendar with no specific ties to our current system. Then, your stories can be self-consistent upon that new calendar, and you never have to tell us how long it took us to get there.

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Note that "resource shortages approaching fast" is something that's said all the time. There's no reason to believe that we're anywhere close to resource shortages - just as before, we're getting much better at efficiency, prospecting, mining, recycling, farming etc. All those dates like "Oil Peak" are assuming that a) we're not going to find any new deposits / reevaluate old ones, b) price remains constant. Most mines/rigs barely scratch the surface of the deposit before it's no longer viable under current prices. Improve technology and/or raise price, and they are reopened. – Luaan Feb 13 at 8:19
    
"Once we are united, no scientific fact will hide from our combined intellect for long." Assuming, of course, that those scientific facts can be discovered with available equipment. Look at what was needed for Maxwell's experiments and compare that to the Large Hadron Collider, for example. We are building bigger and bigger equipment to study smaller and smaller things about the universe. Maxwell's work was, to a large degree, something someone sufficiently skilled could do in a home at the time; the LHC, not quite so. – Michael Kjörling Feb 13 at 9:15
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@Luaan Peak oil specifically refers to peak extraction rate, not (directly) some arbitrary point like "half of what was there when we started remains". I went into this in some more detail in my answer to How would humanity enter a Dark Age?. – Michael Kjörling Feb 13 at 9:35
    
I will probably end with what you suggested in off subject section. It's really neat. But overall I chose different answer as accepted because it provided me with what I asked for. Thanks anyway :) – Forien Feb 13 at 16:36

It's not really possible to give you any concrete information, since we don't know how the future will turn out, but here's my thought process. Basically, I'm going to focus on the FTL stuff, since everything else is kind of cake next to that.

TL;DR. I'd estimate 10-50 years for NASA to find a working FTL prototype at tiny scales, 50-100 years to get enough funding and energy to test full-scale prototypes, 100-200 years to get colonies around the solar system, 100-200 years to put people in another star system, and 100-300 years to have a real extra-solar civilization. Total timeline is then 360-850 years if Earth learns to work as a team. Timeline could be thousands of years to never if we don't.

Energy Requirements for Proposed FTL

FTL may never be possible. All of our current models say it's either impossible or at least not practically meaningful (not much point in traveling faster than light if what shows up is a nuclear explosion instead of a person).

So let's assume NASA's current research on warp drives pans out. Last I heard, just opening a warp bubble was something like a bus worth of antimatter. Wikipedia says a school bus is 4500 to 16000 kg. From $e=mc^2$, we can see that's $4\cdot 10^{20}$ to $1.4\cdot 10^{21}J$ 1. Let's split the difference and call it $10^{21}$J = 1 zettajoule. WolframAlpha tells us that's about as much energy as we get in 1.6 hours of sunlight across the entire surface of the planet, or $1\over 7$ of the energy in the world's oil reserves or $1\over 6$ of the energy in the world's natural gas reserves. Effectively, we'd need every last scrap of natural energy on the planet just to test the thing. Our only options will be magic or solar power.

Current solar panels can operate around 40-45% under ideal circumstances. Let's say we push that up to 50% for mass-produced panels somehow. Now, near Earth, we have about $1350{W\over m^2}$ $={J\over s\cdot m^2}$. So we can get a lot of energy by either waiting a long time, or building a really big solar farm, or both. Let's say 1 year is an acceptable timeframe to charge a warp battery. That's $50\%\cdot 1350{J\over s\cdot m^2}\cdot 86400{s\over day}\cdot{365.25(ish) days\over yr}\cdot 1yr$ $=2.1\cdot 10^{10}{J\over m^2}$. Ok, so we need $10^{21}J\over 2.1\cdot 10^{10}{J\over m^2}$ $=4.8\cdot 10^{10}m^2$ of solar panels that are constantly pointing straight at the sun. Or around 76% of West Virginia ($6.3\cdot 10^{10}m^2$).

Now, it seems likely we would want all those solar panels in orbit around the Sun, so they're getting maximum insolation at all times. This blog says solar panels are around $2$ to $3{lb\over ft^2}$ $=12{kg\over m^2}$. So we need to lift $12{kg\over m^2}\cdot 4.8\cdot 10^{10}m^2$ $=5.8\cdot 10^{11}kg$ of solar panels into orbit. According to this SE answer the cheapest we can do is about $\$2000\over kg$ into orbit. That's $5.8\cdot 10^{11}kg\cdot {$2000\over kg}$ $=\$1.2\cdot 10^{15}$ or about 100 times as much as U.S. citizens make in a year (before paying taxes, bills, etc.).

Then we need to take solar panel production cost into account. This PV site says the panels themselves are 30 to 35% of the installation cost, and this other PV site says a $28 m^2$ system costs around £7000 = \$10000, or about $\$340\over m^2$. This is insignificant compared to the $\$24000\over m^2$ we need to get it into orbit, so there's no need to add them. However, it does suggest that early FTL might be better powered using ground-based solar power that takes longer to get the same energy but costs about 1% as much to generate.

Logistics of Getting Energy

Now, I'm not an economist, but those are some pretty hefty numbers. There's no way the world just says "sure, we'll all pitch in 100 times what the U.S. makes in a year". I'm not even sure we have that kind of resources to throw around. Realistically, we're looking at maybe 1% of that being put towards ever-bigger solar fields over many decades, but multiple countries may be helping out. So let's say 2% to be optimistic. That's 50 years of pumping money into a solar panel farm just to get a maiden voyage going.

But there's a problem. Solar panels aren't immortal, so we have to take into account replacement costs. Unfortunately, that math looks really complicated so I'm going to skip it. It probably doesn't matter too much since most panels are rated at 80% after 25 years (says these guys), but it will take longer to reach our goal. On the other hand, solar technology will get cheaper over time. So from the first time NASA is able to demonstrate very small warp bubbles are possible, we're probably looking at 50+ years to get the first human-sized spaceship going on a test flight. Given the nature of politics, it could take a lot longer than that.

Expansion and Colonization

From here, we need to expand. The problem is, there's really not much reason to explore space except to say we did it. It's really, really expensive, with very little payback. So early FTL is going to be "Yay, we proved FTL is possible!!!!!" followed by a very long period of practically nothing. Eventually, rich people will start paving the way for weddings on Mars, basketball tournaments on Europa, etc. As mentioned in articles like this one from the UK space people, we do get some return on investments, in that we're producing jobs by hiring engineers, cooks, janitors, you name it. But we can't just throw quadrillions of dollars at a project and expect it to instantly give a return. It will take a long time to get anything going in earnest.

That said, warp bubbles aren't inherently FTL. They can presumably be used for sublight travel as well, and we may find ways to do it for cheaper. If we can turn the 2.5 year round-trip to Mars into a 2.5 week trip (0.07% c), a lot more people are going to be willing to head out there to help with whatever science stuff we want. And if we can find sources of natural resources in asteroids or other planets, we may be able to get some return of investment that way (this random article suggests asteroids may be highly lucrative for rare-Earth metals -- it also has some ideas about space-based solar power).

Still, given how slowly the space programs have advanced so far, we're probably looking at 100+ years before we really get anywhere crazy. I would expect it to take a few centuries before we really have civilizations beyond Earth, although that's really just a guess.

FTL Communication

If we can do FTL with ships, it stands to reason we can find ways to do FTL with communications, though the methods and speeds will be greatly dependent on the type of FTL. A portable wormhole could allow a tiny beam of light to transmit information nearly instantly once the connection is established, while some kind of warp bubble would operate more like the current postal service. Still, I would expect FTL communications to evolve more or less concurrently with FTL travel.

Beyond Sol

Up until now, I've been assuming the energy requirements for FTL were about the same as just creating the warp bubble (I really don't know so it could make a huge difference). But trying to cross interstellar space is going to require enormous amounts of energy. Space. Is. Huge. Pluto is about 40 AU from the Sun. Proxima Centauri (the closest star to us) is about 270000 AU away, or 6640 times the distance. More realistically, we'll be heading to Jupiter, at only 5.2 AU, making P Centauri 51000 times as far. Not only do we need more energy to get there, but we need to do it faster. Not many people are going to be up to the task of spending 40 years getting there at 10% c. So if warp drives are less efficient at higher speeds, it makes the energy requirement exponentially worse.

So one trip to the nearest star is going to take an enormous amount of effort compared to sending people back and forth to the gas giants a few times a year. If we get FTL going on a regular basis in 300 years, it will probably be another 100+ years before we make any real progress on extra-solar expansion, and a century or two more before we have actual colonies founded there.

And honestly, I'm probably being pretty generous. It's quite possible it takes a couple thousand years for this timeline to happen. But that's the problem with trying to predict the march of technology, especially regarding technologies that may not ever be physically realizable.

1Technically, we'd need twice that, since there's antimatter and an equal amount of normal matter getting annihilated, but I already made it through a bunch of calculations and it's all roughly estimated anyways, so I'm not going to bother fixing it.

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We can raise the W/m$^2$ value by getting close to the sun. Since we're not going to use it for a year anyways, why not let it go $3/4$th of the way to the sun, and then charge? It'll charge a lot faster. Also, apparent FTL might be possible if we master the science of getting anything close to the speed of light, and live as a complete nomadic civilization aboard a huge starship, similar to what they did in Independence Day. – cst1992 Feb 13 at 11:13
    
NASA appear to be denying that they are researching a warp drive but for the sake of argument I suppose they might be lying. :-) – Harry Johnston Feb 13 at 12:29

Apparent FTL might be possible if we master the science of getting anything close to the speed of light, and live as a complete nomadic civilization aboard a huge starship, similar to what they did in Independence Day. But that'll mean that we'll have to leave Earth behind, so some kind of 'life on Earth is not sustainable anymore' kind of scenario will need to happen. It's sad to leave such a wondrous planet behind, but it might come to that sometime.

In that case, the timeline could be anything from 100 years to infinity, depending on the current rate of progress and humanity's natural resource drain.

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For example, if the ship travels at 0.99$c$, the apparent speed of the passengers on the ship will be 7.08$c$. Getting even closer, we could have any speed we want. Of course, the Universe will age way faster for us in that case. – cst1992 Feb 13 at 11:43

See table five from the link provided my Dr. Mark Millis (Tau Zero and NASA) which references a Kardechev Type 2 civilization:

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1101/1101.1066.pdf

On the inside, year 2900, middle (more probable) year 3700, longer, year 21000. (Societal Retardation is possible and has already happened for some transportation tech) Namely, rockets, cars, jets... private aviation. Power generation tech....

The power for a Type II is based at 4 x 10 ^26 watts...(which is still lower than the warp formulas yield to warp space to FTL) from our understanding of Alcubierrie, Natario's warp equation work, and even with Dr Whites energy reducing work, these estimated years still may be optimistic for a warping space drive at FTL speeds. Bill Thornton

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