Space travel, society and technology in five of the most important science-fiction novel series

Dune, Foundation, Odyssey, Ender, Culture

After reading the fifth sci-fi series of books — Iain M. Banks’ Culture series — I began to compare how these authors thought the future will be.

TLDR; There is no summary of this article to fit in a single paragraph. So, if it feels like it’s too long and time consuming, then that’s that. But I do recommend you to go get those books (buy, lend, borrow or whatever) and read them. Or any other book, for the matter.

Dune series overview

When I was a child, I read all the Dune books. Frank Herbert started the series with “Dune”, published in 1965 and finished it with “Chapterhouse: Dune”, 20 years later, in 1985. There is also another series, based in the same universe, written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert, but I won’t cover that here. There is no reference to our time or planet.

  1. Dune (1965)
  2. Dune Messiah (1969)
  3. Children of Dune (1976)
  4. God Emperor of Dune (1981)
  5. Heretics of Dune (1984)
  6. Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)

Foundation series overview

I followed with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is the oldest of them. Asimov published the first book in the series, “Foundation”, in 1951, and ended in 1993 with the prelude “Forward the Foundation”. All the events are placed many thousand of years in the future, human kind has colonised the galaxy, left and even forgot Earth.

  1. (prequel) Prelude to Foundation (1988)
  2. (prequel) Forward the Foundation (1993)
  3. Foundation (1951)
  4. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  5. Second Foundation (1953)
  6. Foundation’s Edge (1982)
  7. Foundation and Earth (1986)

The Space Odyssey overview

My third (as order of reading) series was Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. This one has four books, starting with “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968 and ending with “3001: The Final Odyssey” in 1997. The first half of the series happens in our present time, while the last half is placed a bit (1000 years is a bit, compared to the other series’ timeframes) in the future.

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  2. 2010: Odyssey Two (1982)
  3. 2061: Odyssey Three (1987)
  4. 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997)

Ender’s saga overview

Next was Orson Scot Card’s Ender saga, also comprised of four books. The first book is the 1985 “Ender’s Game” and the last (from the main timeline) is “Children of the Mind”, published in 1996. This is the only series that I’ve read from this author.

He also wrote a parallel time-line saga called “The Shadow Saga” (five novels), with events that happen at the same time as the first book and continue in the time between the first and the second in the main series. Orson Scot Card and Aaron Johnston wrote two prequel series, “The First Formic War” (three books) and “The Second Formic War” (three books).

  1. Ender’s Game (1985)
  2. Speaker for the Dead (1986)
  3. Xenocide (1991)
  4. Children of the Mind (1996)

Culture series overview

I just finished reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. This series started in 1987 with “Consider Phlebas”, and ended in 2012 with “The Hydrogen Sonata”. The time passing between the books is not continuous, each book being relatively independent of the rest, and placed at different times from the first. Sombody took the time to compute the years, and you’ll see that relative reference below as “CE”, meaning “Culture Era”.

There are a few mentions about the other books, especially about the first one, that covers a war with an alien species called Idirans. The Culture established many thousand of years from now, but also thousands of years before the events in the books.

  1. Consider Phlebas (1987) — 1331 CE
  2. The Player of Games (1988) — 2083–2088 CE
  3. Use of Weapons (1990) — 2092 CE / 1892 CE
  4. Excession (1996) — 1867 CE / 1827 CE / 633 BCE
  5. Look to Windward (2000) — 2167 CE
  6. Matter (2008) — 1887 CE / 2167 CE
  7. Surface Detail (2010) — 2767 CE / 2967 CE
  8. The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) — 2375 CE

Space travel

Of course, the most important subject in all the SciFi is space travel, to which we all aspire. Each author’s imagination about space travel (and all other aspects in fact) is visibly influenced by the knowledge available in their times.

In Dune, moving from one solar system to another is almost mystical. Only the Spacing Guild mutants are able to guide the starships to their destinations. There is little technical detail about how the ships look like and how they move. We know only that travelling from one planet to another is instantaneous, through — probably — instantly created wormholes.

Asimov’s vision is very similar in this aspect, although with more details. Ships would travel at sub-relativistic speeds to a jumping point, where they enter hyperspace and travel instantly to their destination. But they needed to spend a lot of time computing their hyperspace trajectory, in order to avoid falling into a star.

The Space Odyssey is set up closer to our technology. Most of the space travel is inside our solar system using rockets and non relativistic speeds. An alien monolith near Saturn acts like a wormhole, connecting our system with a very distant location.

Written in recent years, Ender’s Saga benefits from the advancements in science, so is more realistic. The space ships travel at faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, so the people inside are affected by time dilation. In the last book there is also a kind of transport that can travel instantly anywhere, removing the time dilation problems.

Iain Banks is the most technically proficient of them. He takes a lot of time describing the space ships and how space travel is achieved. In his vision, the ships are controlled by Minds, which are self-aware artificial intelligences. The Minds are very complex, fast and powerful entities (they are considered citizens of the Culture). They drive their multiple-kilometre long ships through the many hyperspace energy levels to achieve FTL travel. Some ships (capital size General Contact Unit, GCU) rarely even leave hyperspace, acting like very fast transport that never stops. Boarding one of the large ships requires that the smaller and slower ships be tugged inside the GCU’s hangars by a third type of ship called Superlifter. Moving from one arm of the galaxy to another takes only a few years, with speeds much above 100,000 c.

A very close representation of the outside of a Culture ship. The only visible part is the “field enclosure” that protects the ship. Image created by Rattus_Amicus and posted on Reddit.

Technology

Dune’s technology is way ahead of its time of writing. There are inserts of forward vision — like the Axlotl cloning tanks — and steampunk, like the ornithopters that flap their wings. The Tleilaxu and the Ix created most of the advanced devices, like human clones (ghola) and body morphers (face dancers), mind-reading Ixian probes or the body shields. The technology on the planet Arrakis feels more primitive (much like the Tuareg people that inspired Frank Herbert). The spice has prolonged the human life span, although the mechanism and precise lengths are vague.

Asimov invented the term “robotics” and the three laws of robotics. The main plot of the Foundation story is around a new scientific branch called psychohistory. This is a combination of statistical mathematics and psychology of masses that can predict the future. The robots have retired in another part of the galaxy or disguise as humans, after conflicts about interfering with the humans. There is little detail about the technology though.

Arthur C. Clarke established his odyssey in our relative present time. So the technology in the first books is mostly realistic. Except for the AI called “HAL 9000”, everything else is current to out time. Only the last book, skipping forward almost 1000 years, presents an evolved Earth that has improved its technology base.

Ender’s universe is sometime in the future, so the technology is better than today. Space stations around Earth and ships travelling back and forth are a norm. But science has leapt forward only after the two invasions of the “buggers”, an insectoid alien species. The requisitioned tech includes real-time communication devices called ansibles, improved inter-stellar drives, and much more powerful weapons.

Again, the Culture has exquisite details about technology that we only dream about now. I already mentioned the Minds and the ships, which play a big role throughout the series. Weaponry-wise, projectile guns are considered ancient, with energy and plasma weapons having a major role. The machine entities (drones), all considered citizens, vary in size, form and intellectual capacity. The very old ones (millennia old) are bulky and looking roughly like oversized suitcases. The modern machines are the size of a tennis ball, but have even more powerful weapons and greater speed. All machines have force-field technology to manipulate their environment.

Billions of Culture people inhabit massive space orbitals around planets, or even live aboard the spaceships. Humans are able to alter their bodies and even change sex just by thinking about it, and they can control every aspect of their body functions. The Culture citizens are renowned for being able to control their endocrine glands and secrete hormone cocktails for diverse situations. Of course, human life span has increased to around 350–400 years, but they can also be immortal, should they chose to. Backing up a snapshot of ones personality and memories is easy and fast, and that “mind-state” can be implanted into another body after death. Or even live in parallel, have different experiences, and then merge into one body.

Hell yeah, I want to live in the Culture!

Society

Dune’s and the Foundation’s societies are empires, both spanning all over the galaxy. But while Herbert’s Galactic Paddishah Empire is pretty much dystopian, Asimov’s Galactic Empire is of modern type, hinting to democracy. The Odyssey society is pretty much our current, mottled one. Ender’s world is, at first, a military dictatorship, then evolves into democracy. The Culture is the very concept of pure democracy, without hierarchy or rulers.

Dune’s empire is divided into major Houses, each with their own agenda and moral standards. There are also a few independent Guilds, that perform specific functions. The Bene Gesserit is a matriarchal guild of religious nuns. They are revered and feared thorough the galaxy for their super-human powers. They are secretly manipulating the society for their own eugenic goals. The Bene Tleilaxu are masters of genetic manipulation, while the Ixians are skilled technology creators, although advanced technology was banned.

Asimov’s Galactic Empire is very close to what you’d expect from the future of our current times. People have spread throughout the galaxy, slower at first, but covering the entire lens in the end. There are great cities that expand both above and beyond ground level, but also struggling distant colonies on not very friendly planets.

Same goes for the Odyssey. Being placed much closer in time to us, there are no big differences from what we know today. After the thousand-year leap forward in the last book, there are visible but not whooping advances for the human kind.

Ender’s Saga is more focused on the personal development of Ender Wiggin. There are fewer details about the rest of the society. The first book is a little bit dystopian, with the war time army dictatorship. In later books, once the war is over, there’s a feeling of relaxation, but still few details.

The Culture is — again — extensively described by Iain Banks. Since humankind developed AI and accepted it as a citizen, almost all types of work is left for the much more capable machines. Humans spend their time in almost derisory relaxation, with anything from travel to sports and especially sex. Evolving to a powerful position among the other aliens — the so called “Involveds” — the Culture has assumed a protective and moderator role, especially about the lesser evolved species. And, except for the initial Idiran war and some small strifes, there is no large-scale conflict between the Involved species. But they allow (and sometimes instigate) conflicts between lower-staged societies. Almost all the books revolve around Culture’s Contact — a section that searches for and maintains connections with other alien species — and Special Circumstances, a black-ops sub-section of Contact.

Aliens

Dune’s, Foundation’s and Odyssey’s universes lack this very important part. The Spacing Guild in Dune were at first humans, but Spice consumption and space-only life has mutated them, and now they can live only inside their safe containers. Bene Tleilaxu are also genetically modified, but still humans. This is the as much “alien” as it gets. Inside the Foundation, there is a small side-story about an alien species found on a planet, but they are not intelligent or unable to communicate. Arthur C. Clarke has imagined that after this physical life, there is another energy-based life. The creators of the monolith are unknown, but supposed energy beings. But this is the most “alien” as it gets in the Odyssey.

Orson Scott Card imagines three major aliens. First and obvious, the Formics, or “buggers”, are insect-like creatures, with a society structure like ants or bees. The most powerful are the queens, that are able to reproduce and control the sexless worker drones. There is a very interesting aspect to the queens, that they are not affected by the relativistic speeds. While Ender travels at FTL speeds in a craft, and so skips tens or hundreds of years ahead, the queen egg that he carries experiences the real time and everything that happens outside the ship. The Pequeninos are the second-biggest alien species. These are a pig-like furry little animals, able to communicate at a basic level. They have a strange life-cycle, transitioning from animal to a greater stage (but I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read the books yet). The last species is a virus called Descoladores. It is a very infectious but also intelligent life form that threatens to kill entire planets.

If I were to describe all the alien species and types that Iain Banks has imagined, I would fill pages and hours with that alone. From three-legged giants (Idirans) to sponge-like (Aultridia), from five-legged furry big cats (Chelgrians) to medusoid type (Affront), from three-sided pyramid-looking (Homomda) to insectoids/arachnoids (Nariscence, Oct), to very strange, planet-size intelligent floating blimps (Aeronathaurs, Behemothaurs). There are also sublimed species (that have left the physical space to become god-like, energy entities. Banks’ imagination just seems never-ending. I’ll leave you the pleasure to discover all of them in his books.


Opinions?

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About the authors

Sadly, four of the five authors have passed away, most before their time.

Frank Herbert (b. 1920) died age 65 from pulmonary embolism, after a pancreatic cancer surgery. He lived and died in USA. Although he is best known for his Dune series, he is one of the most influential SciFi writers, igniting creative ideas in many scientific domains.

Isaac Asimov (b. 1920) contracted HIV after a blood transfusion and died of complications at age 72. He was born in Russia to Jewish parents, but they moved to the United States when he was 3. Asimov once explained that his reluctance to write about aliens was caused by a rejection from Astounding’s editor John Campbell, that rejected one of his stories because it portrayed aliens as superior to the humans (Wiki).

Sir Arthur C. Clarke (b. 1917) enjoyed more of his elder years — he died at the age of 90. He was born in England, but spent most of his later years in Sri Lanka. Along with his knighthood, there are also many literary and scientific awards to his name. He was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Iain M. Banks (b. 1954) died in 2013 (age 59) from terminal gallbladder cancer. He lived in Scotland and received numerous awards for his SciFi, fictional and non-fictional writings. He was also involved in radio and theatre productions.

Orson Scott Card (b. 1951) is living in the United States and is 66 years old now. He has received multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, but has also been in the center of a scandal regarding some improper declarations about homosexuality.