Warning: This entry is even longer than usual.
This week's SH story, Tom Doyle's "Crossing Borders" (which is not for the faint of heart, btw), reminds me obliquely to post something I've been meaning to post for a while now. (I wrote a lot of the below a couple months ago; ended up cleaning it up a little at today's writing retreat, along with getting various other long-delayed things done.)
In my editorial "The Future of Sex" last year, I noted that in what I like to call "human future in space" (HFIS for short) milieus in sf, despite near-utopian levels of personal freedom and tolerance of individual choices, interstellar human cultures tend to have less sexual diversity than modern America.
I've been thinking about that a lot in the past few months, and about the "consensus futures" that appear every so often in sf—there was once a consensus future involving crystalline cities and aircars, and later there was one for cyberpunk, and recently there's been a consensus future involving posthumans approaching a Vingean singularity. Among others.
So it occurred to me that it might be fun to come up with a polycultural HFIS setting that anyone could use. Not exactly a shared universe in the traditional sfnal sense of the term; more like an open source universe. But although that makes a good catchphrase, it's not really very accurate either for what I have in mind.
What I'm thinking of would be more flexible than such things usually are. It would be more a framework than a universe. It would provide ideas that any writer who wanted to could elaborate on, mix, add to, change, or throw out. There would be no requirement for consistency among authors using this setting, or even among works by a given author. Anything that works for you or gives you ideas, use; anything else, discard.
What follows are some broad outlines of my first pass at defining such a milieu, but remember that everything here is flexible and subject to change.
It's the future. It's anywhere from 100 to 1000 (or so) years from now. The Singularity never happened, for whatever reason. (See below for some further thoughts on this.) Humans have expanded out into the galaxy, and in the best tradition of HFIS universes they've found plenty of not only habitable but inhabited worlds.
There are a large number of alien races. They have a wide variety of body types, though most of the aliens who humans interact with are carbon-based and have what we would generally recognize as physical bodies.
Because part of the point is to tell stories that early-21st-century humans will find interesting, we'll assume (perhaps unrealistically; think of it as dramatic license or genre convention, take your pick) that most races have thought processes that are similar enough to humans' for mutual more-or-less comprehension. For example, most of the alien languages have something vaguely like nouns and something vaguely like verbs.
FTL travel is in widespread use. (I prefer drives that can fit on a ship, but if you'd rather use stargates, go for it—and there's nothing to say we can't have both in the same story.) It costs too much for most individuals to own private starships, but it's inexpensive enough that shipping at least some trade goods across interstellar distances is economically feasible. Individuals who want to travel can take passage on passenger ships, and that's not entirely beyond the means of most individuals. Conquering another star system is barely feasible, due to huge costs; conquering multiple other star systems would drain the resources of any system-wide civilization (so among other things it would probably require a unified system-wide civilization). (I haven't really thought through the economics of this to make sure it makes any logical sense, but it'll do for now.)
Trade systems are vast and complex; some of them are based on goods and/or services, some on other things, such as information or reputation. They interact in surprising and confusing ways.
FTL communication is in a price range that puts it within the means of most humans, and is close to instantaneous.
Humanity has enough wealth, distributed well enough, that few humans live in poverty; the vast majority are comfortably well off. People do still work for a living, at least in some human societies, but almost nobody starves. A few are very wealthy indeed, by the standards of their societies.
So far, we've seen all this before. What I haven't often seen before is the diversity of this setting.
There are, as noted earlier, many sentient species. Within each species (including humanity!), there's a wide range of variation on any axis you can think of. There are multiple factions and/or cultures and/or nations and/or organizations and/or kinds of organizations (corporate vs government, for example, and much weirder kinds) with conflicting goals. There are a wide range of religions. There are a wide range of languages, and many of them use sounds that aren't part of American English. (Some, of course, don't use sounds at all.) Both within any given species and across species, there are almost always factions at war with each other (in one way or another) at any given time. There are a range of economic systems; in particular, not all societies (even within a given species) are capitalist. There are also a lot of different kinds of relationships between beings, at all levels—within a given faction, within a given species, between species.
None of this "K'rokk is a Vegemite from the Vegem system, which consists entirely of the desert planet Vegem IV, so he believes in the goddess Mysteria and he is warlike and violent and proud and his favorite color is red, just like all the other Vegemites." No, the Vegem system (known to the locals by a variety of names, most of them unpronounceable by humans) has three habitable worlds, each with a full range of climates and ecosystems, and two intelligent species developed there, and within each of those species there are at least as many complex and unusual social structures, beliefs, and practices as there are among humans. Also body types and shell colors; just because you meet one Vegemite who's tall and spiky doesn't mean all the others will be. Not even all the others of the same species and gender.
And speaking of genders, there's a fair bit of variation among those as well. Some alien species come in two genders, often referred to as male and female (again for genre convention and simplicity), but plenty don't. Some have one gender; some are neuter; some have multiple genders; some, for that matter, have multiple genders but only one physical sex, or multiple sexes but no concept of gender per se, or individuals who have multiple sexes and/or genders, either simultaneously or serially.
Oh, and every species has a wide variety of sexual practices and mores. (If you're looking for weird alien sex, take a look at insect sex on Earth; ideally, if you're interested in this you should attend the "alien sex" slideshow at various major conventions, which mostly focuses on real-world insects.) There's even interspecies sex among some species, even some that aren't biologically sexually compatible—"phone sex" between aliens happens, and there are devices to translate different kinds of stimulation between species. Those devices are tunable for individuals, of course, because after all not all members of a species are stimulated the same way. (Note that some kinds of sexual stimulation may be fatal (intentionally or un-), especially to members of species the devices aren't intended for—a stimulation-translation device in the wrong hands (or other manipulators), or turned wrong way 'round, might make an interesting murder weapon.) And of course some members of some species consider interspecies romance to be an evil perversion, while other folks think it's holy, with all sorts of views along the continuum between those poles.
Legal and economic systems are vast and complex and difficult. Interstellar law isn't always observed, and though there's an interstellar Council at which beings can air grievances, there's no equivalent of the UN to enforce decisions. In fact, there's disagreement (among individuals and factions; it usually doesn't really make sense to say that two species disagree, because that implies an unlikely degree of uniformity of opinion among the members of a species) over whether the Council should have any actual power. Oh, and the Council consists of representatives of various factions, not just various species. How are the factions chosen, and how does each faction choose its representative(s)? Dunno, but it'll be interesting to find out.
Any given species also has a variety of approaches to art and artlike systems. Visual arts, tactile arts, aural arts, verbal and literary arts, performance arts, recorded arts, violent arts, political arts, philosophical arts, and plenty of kinds of art to which humans are blinded by missing senses. (Magnetic-field fluctuations, anyone?)
I haven't decided what to do about AI. I want to say there's no true AI, because once you have true AI I don't see a way to prevent it bootstrapping into Transcendence. But maybe we say that some AIs don't bother Transcending (cf Vinge and Banks). Or maybe there are AIs that are limited (by physical law a la Vinge—legal systems are insufficient, given the vastness and diversity of interstellar societies) to roughly the same levels of intelligence as other species.
In fact, it may be necessary to assume that physical laws prevent anything truly conscious from thinking too fast; otherwise why aren't there biological aliens that think ten or a hundred or ten thousand times faster/better than humans? (I don't object to the existence of such beings; I just think their presence in a story is generally likely to make the story less interesting to us humans.) But again, maybe we can just assume that the ones who've Transcended have gone elsewhere and don't interfere in our affairs too much.
And perhaps limiting AI isn't too unreasonable in a setting where we're also assuming that most recognized sentience is carbon-based; there may be other things that are considered sentient/sapient, but they're so weird that there may even be argument about whether they count.
I think that's all for now. I'm curious to hear what others think, and to see what others do with this (if anything). Feel free to post comments here, elaborate in your own journals, and/or write stories using this milieu or any variation on it. I'm hoping that it's defined enough to be useful (even if only just barely), while remaining flexible enough to allow for a huge variety of approaches, tones, plots, themes, characters, voices, etc.
I've already written a couple of stories, long ago, that I'm going to retroactively say are set in this milieu. I'd post them, except that I'm now tempted to polish them and start submitting them again. We'll see.