For all we smashed the atom, tamed the proton,
There still remained some lines we couldn’t cross:
The onward march of days that Shakespeare wrote on
Remains as steady as it ever was;
Love outruns time – but light is not so spry;
While dreams of flying set our brains aglow
Across the endless wastes of empty sky
Our ships, though quick as light, are far too slow.
A simple journey – routes they’ve done before –
Takes twenty years. We’re going somewhere new.
Could take a lifetime, two, three, dozens, more;
You join, your children join, and theirs do, too.
Still want to join us? Sure? Well, go and pack.
Take all you need. You won’t be coming back.
This poem picks up on the tangent I went off on in the footnote to “Sky-Fever”, about the bleak worldview that you tend to get in sci-fi universes without faster-than-light travel. A mythos like Star Wars very much has its roots in the medieval romances and fairytales which wander across half of Europe – half the fun is the constant swirl of exotic places the protagonists fetch up in. The frisson of excitement conjured by Arthurian placenames like Corbenic, Astolat, Synadowne and Lonazep is pretty much identical, five hundred years down the line, to the one inspired by Alderaan, Tatooine, Yavin and Dagobah.
In universes without FTL travel that kind of exotic whirl is impossible. Unless the protagonists also live sufficiently long that forty or eighty years between destinations is negligible – and my money is on us getting interstellar travel some time before that degree of longevity; we’re currently a lot further on with rocketry than we are bioengineering – space travel becomes a thing of horror rather than a means to adventure. Twenty years or more of travel, most of it unreachably far from human contact, is a lot of time for things to go wrong in.
Really long distances will only be achievable, before super-longevity, by generation ship – the crew reproduce, raise their offspring who become the new crew, and so on. We’ve debated the ethics of this at the dinner table: agreeing to go on a space voyage on which you will die, leaving behind most if not all of your family and culture, is a huge undertaking and one that would be clearly hugely immoral to impose on someone without their consent. But isn’t that what the first generation of a generation-ship crew are effectively doing to their someday children, given that you can’t get off till the end of the ride?