Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Adventures in the Nth Imperium

So here's a campaign idea I've been kicking around in my head off and on for a couple of years. Feel free to steal it for your home game if the spirit moves you. One of my favorite popular science books of the last decade is Fred Adams and Gregory Laughlin's The Five Age of the Universe. I've squeezed some mojo out of this particular gem once before. Today I'm going to tackle the idea on page 74 I mentioned in that old post.

The premise these guys tackle is diabolically simple: what if we run out the clock on the cosmos? Assume everything presently (well, circa 1999) understood about quantum mechanics and astrophysics is right, what happens to the large scale features of the universe over the course of a trillion years? A quadrillion years? A googol years? Turns out some pretty crazy stuff goes down, which can all be broadly divided up into five different periods. Hence the title.

According to Adams and Laughlin's analysis, we are presently living in the Second Age of the universe, the Stelliferous Era. That's the time when stars are plentiful and varied, spanning the first stellar ignitions after the big bang until the last miserly red dwarf sputters out sometime around 100 trillion years from now (give or take). That's when the Degenerate Era begins, a period where the only vaguely starlike objects left in the universe are white dwarfs, brown dwarfs and black holes. The Degenerate Era is when the Nth Imperium campaign happens.

This is the part that comes straight from Five Ages, in the form of a short fictional introduction to the chapter on the Degenerate Era. In this piece the authors imagine a future humanity as living in Dyson sphere type shells surrounding white dwarfs, the last bright emitters of radiation in the universe. Planets have long been abandoned since they no longer have suns to warm them and power biological processes. Only by completely enclosing white dwarfs in solar panel arrays can future society tap enough energy to sustain itself.

Imagine this set-up for a moment as an oddball Traveller game, where all the usual things that can happen in standard Trav are available against this unorthodox backdrop. Good ol' hydrogen, the fuel source for standard Trav FTL drives, ain't as plentiful as it used to be. The only easily accessible hydrogen sources left in the universe are the brown dwarfs, substars that never achieved sufficient mass to ignite the fusion process. In the realm of Nth Imperium, brown dwarf mining is a major factor in the maintenance of interstellar society.

Incidentally, the Dyson sphere white dwarfs, brown dwarf mines and black holes will be a lot less densely distributed throughout the galaxy than stars are today. Imagine a standard Traveller sector map with only a few dozen non-empty hexes instead of the normal 300-500. For Nth Imperium I would posit Quantum 2 Jump Technology. A Q2 jump drive can hop its jump number squared, allowing a jump-6 drive to travel 36 hexes in a single trip. Basically Q2 types drives allow for 'controlled misjumps'.

The wee tale on page 74 suffers from the same basic flaw as most future societies in science fiction: the assumption that people in the future will act just like the folks you meet at the grocery store, except they'll wear shiny silver pantaloons. In this case we're not going to solve that by trying to project some weird transhumanic society. We're talking about people who live so far in the future that they talk about the Sun as a long-gone by-product of the Big Bang. Imagine a timeline from the Big Bang to Now. Stack nearly seven thousand of those babies from end to end. That's how far in the future the Nth Imperium can be found, you can fit about 6,700 everything-that-has-ever-happened in the same period of time. Big Bang to now: one inch. Big Bang to Nth Imperium: nearly two football fields.

The sheer difference in scale demands that merely cyborging up the future ain't gonna cut the mustard. Think about how much 1977's Traveller missed the boat by in terms of computer technology. The first printing of Traveller measured computer memory in K and computer mass in tons. It took a few measly years of realworld technological developments to completely obliterate Trav's predictions of computer technology a mere 3,000 years in the future. Multiply that staggering miscalculation by ten billion to find our margin of error. It just ain't gonna work. Homework: if the sum of human knowledge, X, is presently doubling every five years, how big will the sume of human knowledge be 100 trillion years from now? For extra credit, compare your total to the number of grains of sand in all the beaches of the earth or all the synaptic pathways in the average human brain.

I see two solutions to getting a handle on the social milieu of the Nth Imperium. The first is to assume that rather than a technological singularity sometime in the future, humanity hits some sort of technological and sociological plateau. I reject that option as boring. I'm not about to substitute boring for baffling. I want a setting that is both weird and comprehensible. That's where my good buddy Fred Nietzche comes in.

I'm pretty sure it was Nietzche's Thus Spake Zarathustra where I first encountered the idea of the Eternal Recurrence. I've read a fair bit of Germany's craziest philosopher (at least in translation), but I won't pretend to have any deep understanding of the dude's work. But that won't stop me from woefully misunderstanding him and using that folly to power a game. So in this particular context I've decided that the Eternal Recurrence refers to the cycle of human history, in direct contrast to the arrow inherent in physical cosmology. To put it simply: there was a Roman Empire, there will be a Roman Empire again. And again and again. Over 100 trillion years there may be a thousand Roman Empires, a thousand Marcel Marceaus, a thousand House Unamerican Activities Committees. So when your Q2 jumpship lands at a white dwarf Dyson, you may bump into Mark Twain at the starport bar. Thomas Jefferson may be president of the subsector. Blackbeard is definitely a space pirate. Moreover, since pretty much every other science fiction setting is far, far younger than the Nth Imperium, you can pick one or two of your favorite sci-fi galaxies to be part of this recurrent history.

But why is Mae West, Adolf Hitler and your crazy uncle periodically reincarnated like that? Time to swipe from Babylon 5 here: There are a finite number of souls in the universe. At some point humanity hits its limit and people start getting recycled. Population control in the Nth Imperium isn't simply a matter of rationally managing life in the shadow of energy-poor white dwarfs, its also a way of keeping Philosophical Zombies from being born. And AI's are limited in numbers because every computer sentient is one fewer soul that can inhabit a human body. I hear Abraham Lincoln is a matrioshka brain in the next sector over.

So yeah, that's been knocking around in my head for maybe a couple of years. I think it might make a decent Encounter Critical setting.