Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Life on Other Planets: Asimov vs. Baxter

Contemporary science fiction author Stephen Baxter owes much to the man whom many call the father of modern sci-fi, Issac Asimov. Instead of using science fiction merely as an exotic metaphor for modern-day issues, both authors use the medium as a place to discuss about what the future really could be like. They both write to open a discussion about the possibilites of humankind's future. But their visions are drastically different, because of Baxter's disagreement with Asimov on one significant point: life on other planets.

Both authors believe there is life on other planets. Asimov, though, feels that the past 70 or so years of SETI research has shown us that if there is life out there, it's extremely rare, and most likely there is not so much in the way of intelligent, space-faring life. His vision for the future is a future filled with humans -- humans colonizing the universe, humans terraforming planets, humans fighting each other, and humans alone in the galaxy with only their technological children for company. Other lower life forms may develop on other planets, but only humankind has developed the intelligence and abilities necessary to expand and rule. The future of the universe is the story of man.

Stephen Baxter's future, though, is full of competing life forms, and in his view man is a worthy competitor to countless races in the universe. It is not man's superior intellect that makes him ultimately compete the best, it is his motivated drive towards risk, expansion, and power. In Baxter's view, life is very common, but we do not spot it now because of two main things: 1) other forms of life are not like our own so we are essentially looking for the wrong things, and 2) truly intelligent, space-travelling life simply does not bother to get in touch with us because to them we are inconsequential animals. It is not until man becomes a spacefaring people, Baxter argues, that we start to be aware of, and compete with, other species. The future of the universe is the story of evolution on a grand scale, filled with life at every corner, in which man competes admirably.

Despite these differing visions, both Asimov and Baxter have optimistic views of humankind's future. Both feel that man has what it takes to survive, that our futures are linked to advances in technology, and also that even far in the future, humans will still retain what is important about being human.