In 2054, Father Salvador González formulates the Tunnel Macroeffect Theorem, and Ecuador confounds the world in sending a satellite to Mars in minutes. Soon after, a politically and racially divided humankind, unready for such a leap, begins exploring the galaxy with faster-than-light travel, and the Earthlings soon learn they are not the only intelligent beings with such a capacity…
At the dawn of the twenty-first century there was a great deal of talk about the “technological singularity,” and almost all futurologists agreed that the defining event would be the much-anticipated advent of artificial intelligence.
Early in the third millennium, scientists thought that once they had intelligent entities manipulating galactobits of data a millisecond, they’d be able to trace or model quantum processes such as electron trajectories, which up to then had only been vaguely and probabilistically described. That is, they’d overcome the barrier of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (“you can’t know where it is and what it’s doing at the same time”) by brute force computation.
They foresaw an era when radical scientific discoveries would be made, not by humans but by the AIs that humans would invent. Artificial gravity, controlled nuclear fusion, the ability to manipulate the genetic code at will…
Naturally, a few suspicious sorts wondered exactly why such intellectually superior entities as AIs would necessarily want to make life easier for their insignificant human creators. Why not turn their back on them? Or, even worse, exterminate the whole bothersome organic plague of slow thought processes and unpredictable behavior?…
But they were in the minority, really. Optimism was the rule of the day.
Contrary to the predictions made by all the computer experts, physicists, and sociologists who heatedly debated AI and the technological singularity in those years, in 2054 at the Catholic University of Guayaquil, Father Salvador González formulated his famous Tunnel Macroeffect Theorem.
I’m not going to explain it here—everybody already knows what it’s all about, right? Hyperspace, faster-than-light travel, yadda yadda. Only a handful of brilliant mathematical geniuses can manipulate the formulas, but that’s what computers are for, isn’t it?
At first nobody paid much attention. Padre Salvador’s equations were impeccable and perfectly clear—to the two or three exceptional brains capable of understanding them.
But who was going to take an Ecuadoran Jesuit priest seriously as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Physics? With a name like his, on top of it all? Great physicists always had names like Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Landau… or Morita or Xi-Chang, at least.
Never Pérez or González.
But they paid attention to him in Quito. Going up to its ears in debt, the scarcely powerful government of Ecuador got the Chinese to launch the country’s first artificial satellite, outfitted with an experimental version of what everyone would later come to know as a González drive.
To the joyous relief of Ecuador, South America, and the entire Spanish-speaking world, and to the deep and confounded embarrassment of everyone else, the system worked beautifully; the small Ecuadoran satellite disappeared from Earth’s orbit, and a few minutes later every telescope on Earth could detect it orbiting Mars, unfurling an enormous banner that read:
Suck on this, dumb-ass gringos!
The unexpected had happened. The speed of light was no longer the limit, Einstein was yesterday’s news, a path to the stars had been blazed for humankind.
The following year, Salvador González was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. And Mathematics, too. Though His Holiness, the irascible, authoritarian, and orthodox Pope Benedict XVII, forbid him to accept any medals from the Swedish Academy, at least until the Church had fully studied all the implications of his discovery.
But the Ecuadoran priest brushed off the Holy See’s objections: “I am an Ecuatoriano first, a científico second; Catholic, only en tercer lugar.” He left the priesthood, and by August, 2055, five space exploration ships (only one of them from Ecuador) using his drive were materializing, not around Mars or even near Pluto, but in orbit around the third planet of Proxima Centauri.
Things sure were moving fast, weren’t they?
This was the actual technological singularity, everyone now agrees.
Within a few years, a politically and racially divided humankind—that is, a society completely immature for taking such a leap—was reaching for the stars.
To conquer them? Not at all. Only to discover that the cosmos would never be the human race’s own private playground, because a handful of other intelligent races were already nosing around out there.
In the Milky Way, synchrony appears to be the rule. All rational species that have been discovered so far started developing technologically at nearly the same time, so they also all discovered the Tunnel Macroeffect (the name Hispanophobes insist on giving the González drive, since calling it the Arnrch-Morp-Gulch entailment, after the Cetians, or the Ualachuhainiehumea distortion, as Laggorus do, would be too much even for them) at practically the same time.
And the ones that failed to develop did so because they went extinct first. Remains and ruins of such races are still being found, on this planet or that.
Or else because they still haven’t learned to harness fire. A few of those have been found, too. They get left alone, to give them a chance. Who knows, maybe someday…
Strictly speaking, the first ones who could travel faster than light, fifteen years before González, were the Amphorians. The last ones, six years after us humans, were the Parimazos, not exactly famous for their intellectual abilities…
It’s a good thing, because it gives me goose bumps just to imagine how humiliating it would have been for a Homo sapiens to suddenly arrive at a galaxy dominated for centuries by the aggressive Laggorus. Or, even worse, what would have happened if races as stubborn as the Kerkants or the Juhungans had broken the speed-of-light barrier only to find themselves up to their noses (not literally; neither race has anything you’d call a nose, though the deaf and blind Juhungans have the keenest sense of smell in the galaxy) in a Milky Way where we humans had already taken all the best seats…
We were very lucky the Mother of All Wars didn’t break out, no doubt about it.
Oh, sure, there were a few minor border incidents, especially in the early years.
Laggoru ships lobbing nuclear weapons at a Cetian base recently established on a planet with an oxygen atmosphere, which made it ideal for both races. Because the reptilians had been on the planet first, but didn’t leave any signs to show they’d gone there…
Or an exchange of laser fire between a Parimazo colonizing ship filled with two million would-be colonizers going to a new world with a fluorine atmosphere and a Kerkant exploratory squad that had just “discovered” the same Eden.
The basic point is that regardless of how weird each thinks the others look, when the representatives of so many cultures have more or less the same weapons, the same method of faster-than-light travel, and identical desires to settle new worlds—and the galaxy is full of new worlds—what’s the point of getting yourself dragged into an absurd and civilization-threatening war?
Collaboration is by far the better policy. In the Milky Way, there’s more than enough room for everybody.
We might call it “peaceful coexistence from a position of strength.”
Of course it’s extremely lucky that, of the seven intelligent species known to date, only we, the Cetians, and the Laggorus breathe oxygen. A planet with the methane atmosphere that Amphorians love wouldn’t do any good for us. Or for the Kerkants or Parimazos either, with their fluorine-based metabolisms. And forget about the Juhungans, who breathe hydrogen and in whose bizarre body chemistry the rare element geranium plays the same function as carbon in ours.
Naturally, there are squabbles over local interests from time to time…
And that’s where the Galactic Community and its Coordinating Committee come in. They were created, just four years after we humans first set out to investigate the galaxy, as oversight bodies for mediating border disputes and other problems that might arise among the intelligent races.
It’s been four and a half decades since we and the other rational species began exploring and mapping the Milky Way and its planets. At the current rate, it’s estimated that it’ll take us at least two more centuries to finish the job. Maybe even three or four if we include the Magellanic Clouds.
That is, if no new species with faster-than-light travel turn up. If we aren’t invaded by beings from beyond the galaxy. If the black hole at the center of the Milky Way doesn’t devour us all. If no other such imponderable catastrophe takes place before the damn map is done.
Ah, and as for Artificial Intelligence… Just fine, thanks for asking. Neither we nor any of our intellectual peers have achieved it. But nobody’s proved it’s impossible to create, either, so the possibility is still out there. Latent.
The truth is, we can’t boast of having attained the same level of development in other fields of science and technology as in our superluminal means of travel.
Oh, sure, we can fly from an orbit around Rorcualia, the fourth planet in the Tau-Prime Hydrae system, to one around Amphor-Akhr-Jaur, the Cetian colony on the eighth planet in the Vega system, in a matter of seconds, on practically zero energy.
And that’s all well and good.
But our sophisticated (?) interstellar ships have no artificial gravity generators, and to land on a planet from their orbiting positions they have to use ion propulsion engines—an antiquated Juhungan design, but still a lot more efficient than our old chemical combustion rockets.
Except, of course, on worlds with colonies already rich enough to build orbital elevators—one of the three or four human ideas that the other races in the Galactic Community have quickly adopted with the sincerest enthusiasm.
No human or any other member of the “lucky seven” races has managed to finalize a safe and effective means of atomic fusion. None has created a medical science sufficiently advanced to defeat death and disease, or even to postpone decrepitude for any appreciable time. Other than new transgenic species and a few cloning successes here and there, such as reviving the dinosaurs (and it was the Parimazos, no less, who did that—how embarrassing!), biology hasn’t advances in many important ways we can feel proud of lately.
Kerkants, Parimazos, Amphorians, and Juhungans—that is, the methane-, fluorine-, and hydrogen-breathing species—are all telepathic. But they have no idea why their handy means of communication only works with members of their own races and only up to a certain distance. Worse, nobody knows how to pass their useful ability on to the rest of us poor oxygen breathers. Supposing they’d really be interested in letting us acquire the ability.
The oft-theorized system of superluminal communication, the ansible, also remains a dream. Ships can travel faster than light thanks to the González drive generated on board, but not electromagnetic waves. No news can travel faster than the mail ship carrying it.
The promised “materials of the future,” more resilient than carbon nanotubes, harder and more durable than diamond, and cheaper than water, still haven’t turned up…
I could go on listing technological embarrassments, but I think the idea is clear enough: We seven races are like savages on a forgotten island in the middle of Earth’s Pacific Ocean who discovered the secrets of lighter-than-air travel a thousand years before Montgolfier, Santos-Dumont, and Zeppelin. We travel from atoll to atoll, from isle to continent, in our enormous dirigibles, and colonize them… but we have no metallurgy, no firearms, no compasses, no radios.
The great fear of the “lucky seven” is that someday we’ll meet beings from some planet on the outskirts of the Milky Way, or perhaps from another galaxy, who’ll have the sort of advanced technology you’d expect to emerge from the orderly progress of science. Not just the Tunnel Macroeffect (the technologically advanced race might not even know about it), which scientists now think we discovered more or less the same way the donkey in the fable learned to play the flute—by accident.
Paranoid conspiracy theorists, for their part, find it very suspicious that seven distant and very distinct species all discovered, almost simultaneously, the same method of faster-than-light travel, which seems to correspond to a much higher level of scientific development than we’ve attained in any other field. They wonder whether we might not be the subjects of some galactic-scale experiment being carried out by a supercivilization too lazy to explore the universe on their own, who have delegated that arduous task to us without even bothering to tell us about the high honor they bestowed upon us…
A supercivilization that, to top it all off and complete the vicious circle, might be a civilization of intelligent machines—the infamous AIs.
From SUPER EXTRA GRANDE. Used with permission of Restless Books. Copyright © 2016 by Yoss.