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Better Living through Science Fiction

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Back in July, New Scientist ran an article about an alarming effect of space wars defense. Seems there’ll be a lot of debris floating around in the exosphere once the star wars satellite smashing gets going. “The shrapnel destroys more satellites and triggers a chain reaction, generating yet more high-speed debris. Before long, we’re trapped on Earth in the nightmare scenario: space is a no-go zone, made too dangerous to use for generations by countless chunks of junk.” — New Scientist, number 2768, July 10-16, 2010.

Caged Earth

Apparently the potential problem is so severe we’re returning to the international arms control table to ramp down our respective star wars efforts. Yay for that.

I find this vision of space junk floating around, caging the Earth, intriguing, not just because of the weirdity, which, in my opinion, makes it newsworthy right there, but because I wrote about this sort of thing as a joke back around the turn of the millennium. I had no idea it was even close to reality, and in truth, I greatly exaggerated the idea for comic effect so I’m not sure I was that close anyway. What I find unsettling, though, is that my story was set around the year 3000. I figured it would take that long to accumulate enough crap to cause a problem. Apparently our science fiction future is here.

Here’s what I wrote:

“The recons all brought back the same conclusion: it’s tough to see through the Haze—the Dispro Haze, that opaque sheath of crap surrounding Earth. Apparently it’s a bunch of satellites that weren’t disposed of properly (as in they just left them there circling the planet), inane radio content (tapes of Howard Stern shows, for instance), and just plain unchecked flatulence. Chemicals left over from the old ‘let’s rebuild the ozone layer’ days floated around with all the other junk; so the whole thing has taken on an off-color cast.”

And so on. My debris was pretty harmless. Its accumulation was a result of humanity’s misplaced efforts to clean up the planet. Apparently today’s debris is anything but harmless. And it’s a result not of trying to clean up the planet but of humanity’s misplaced efforts to save itself from itself.

I am not embarrassed about my misplaced efforts at prediction. Science fiction and reality often don’t coincide. Science fiction makes its predictions based on current conditions as if those conditions would continue forever. Out in reality, we see a mess way ahead of time and take measures. That’s why it’s impossible to predict the far future. Things happen and you take action; change the future. Veer off course.

Science fiction shows us the alternative: what will happen if we decide to stay the course. It answers the question: if things stay as they are, based on the stupid decisions we’re making today, what is going to happen?

In my case, I had no intention of anyone ever believing we’d have such a “haze” surrounding Earth. I used exaggeration to prove a point. Now I’m wondering if perhaps I wasn’t so far off. Scary.

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