I’m a fan of science fiction. But as much as I enjoy the ideas and the storytelling, when it comes to grand interstellar societies—galactic empires, federations, and all that—one of the things I love the most is to simply read the histories of these worlds. A capsule summary of how a world came to be—technologies invented, geopolitical shifts, how it ticks and operates, and the current state of that universe—is my catnip. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading the stories that are placed in these settings too, but I am also a big fan of simply learning about how these these vast interstellar settings for humanity are constructed.
Happily, Wikipedia is quite helpful in this regard. There’s the setting of Hyperion, Foundation, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, Dune’s world, and my personal favorite: the Culture of Iain M. Banks. I am obsessed with these pocket histories of future universes.
For example, here’s an overview from Wikipedia of Dune’s Butlerian Jihad:
As explained in Dune, the Butlerian Jihad is a conflict taking place over 11,000 years in the future (and over 10,000 years before the events of Dune) which results in the total destruction of virtually all forms of "computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots". With the prohibition "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind," the creation of even the simplest thinking machines is outlawed and made taboo, which has a profound influence on the socio-political and technological development of humanity in the Dune series.
Then, however, the period of peaceful exploration came to an abrupt end. In 2365, the Federation encountered its single worst threat, in the cybernetic pseudo-race known as the Borg. One of the most powerful and destructive forces in the entire galaxy, the Borg invaded the Federation twice within less than a decade. They were unlike anything the Federation had ever encountered, and were only foiled by chance and resourcefulness. The Federation was thus schooled in the fact that, in the vast, unexplored reaches of the galaxy beyond what they knew, there were threats that they could not even imagine.
This stuff is great. And it seems that my interest in these kind of overviews is not unique, and speaks to the enduring appeal of technical manuals and Tolkien’s appendices. And to be honest, this kind of exploration of the setting of fictional worlds (counterfactuals, fantasy, anything) is enticing. In an interview, Michael Chabon even spoke of working to avoid the all-encompassing worldbuilding siren song when he was writing The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Wikipedia also has a great discussion of its setting). As per an interview:
But I did make maps of Sitka. I sensed I could get sucked in very easily to doing beautifully rich, detailed maps of Sitka and environs, so I tried to be strict with myself and just made crude pencil sketches that aren’t much to look at, to try to figure out where everything was.
And if you’re wondering what this might look like for our own planet and history, you can check out the CIA World Factbook’s entry for the World. From a recent edition, here is a brief overview of the Twentieth Century:
Globally, the 20th century was marked by: (a) two devastating world wars; (b) the Great Depression of the 1930s; (c) the end of vast colonial empires; (d) rapid advances in science and technology, from the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (US) to the landing on the moon; (e) the Cold War between the Western alliance and the Warsaw Pact nations; (f) a sharp rise in living standards in North America, Europe, and Japan; (g) increased concerns about environmental degradation including deforestation, energy and water shortages, declining biological diversity, and air pollution; (h) the onset of the AIDS epidemic; and (i) the ultimate emergence of the US as the only world superpower. The planet's population continues to explode: from 1 billion in 1820 to 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2012. For the 21st century, the continued exponential growth in science and technology raises both hopes (e.g., advances in medicine and agriculture) and fears (e.g., development of even more lethal weapons of war).
Sweeping and magisterial.
Here is a fun graphic showing the timeline and success of the Star Trek series and movies (from this article):
Here are a couple articles worth checking out:
Building Tools to Change Yourself: Come for the interesting article, stay for the bonkers and wonderful website design, by a reader of this newsletter Zach Caceres.
History as a giant data set: how analysing the past could help save the future: A discussion Peter Turchin’s work on quantitatively studying history as a complex system.
Here’s also some recent research on whether average human body temperature is changing (Half-Life of Facts Alert!):
Body temperature is a crude proxy for metabolic rate, and if it has fallen, it could offer a clue about other physiological changes that have occurred over time.
“People are taller, fatter and live longer, and we don’t really understand why all those things have happened,” said Julie Parsonnet, who specializes in infectious diseases at Stanford and is senior author of the paper. “Temperature is linked to all those things. The question is which is driving the others.”
Until next month.
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