Year million

wondering whether to post my Nature review of Damien Broderick’s startling essay collection Year Million here, I looked it up on their site – where I find a notice that “if you want access to this article you must make a payment” – along with the entire text. Confused? I was. I guess they just do it for book reviews. Don’t really know as I usually read the mag using an academic login…

Anyway I think it’s a great book so, er, here’s why:

The Victorians’ discovery of deep geological time was unsettling. Suddenly, human history was an afterthought, a link between an unthinkably long past and a newly imaginable future. H. G. Wells and his heirs, from Olaf Stapledon and J. D. Bernal to Freeman Dyson, tried to sketch what might come in the millennia after us. Today, most futurists are preoccupied with the problems of the next ten decades, although a few bright-eyed fabulists still scan the far horizon. Australian author and critic Damien Broderick brings them together in this mind-expanding volume of essays.

A million years, or 40,000 generations, is a long time — but not that long on a cosmic timescale. As Broderick puts it, the number is an emblem of a remote future. Most of the book’s contributors pitch their remarks around this target, even though some believe the next few hundred years will see the advent of a technological singularity — intelligences of our own devising that go on to develop far beyond ours. They are obliged to write around the thoughts that such intelligences might have, but let us understand that such supercomputer brains will generate these thoughts very, very fast. Only one author, Dougal Dixon, thinks it probable that humans will be extinct within a million years.

The rest of the Year Million authors are keener to explore posthuman, extraterrestrial futures that are far removed from the cosy colonialism of Star Trek, with its warp drives and humanoid aliens aboard starships. A common feature, in essays from Steven Harris, Wil McCarthy, Robert Bradbury and Robin Hanson, involves humans launching an expanding wavefront of intelligence that engulfs the Galaxy, if not the Universe. Aliens are tactfully assumed to be absent so this great expansion can be reassuringly free of atrocity. This is just as well, because their planets will be converted into generic nano-engineered stuff known as ‘computronium’. Thus transformed, this smart hypothetical material will be assembled into Matrioshka brains, or M-brains. These are the current incarnation of Dyson shells, first described in detail by Freeman Dyson in 1959, which are built round a star to collect all its radiant energy. The M-brains, like nested Russian dolls, would be a series of concentric Dyson shells. Each shell would be filled with intelligence, using waste energy from the one beneath.

Earth escapes the attentions of these ‘matter miners’ for sentimental reasons. But nowhere else is safe. The stripped-down Darwinism shaping these essays means that more is better. The M-brains send out not starships but seeds, which are efficient and encode the ability to bootstrap new nano-manufacturing capacity on any world that happens to be suitable. Minds can then take up residence, either downloaded from the seed or transmitted through the, ahem, ‘Universenet’.

All this is presented as highly plausible, but any reader will have doubts at some point, depending on their view of how far current technological trajectories can be sustained. As Broderick promises at the outset, these far-flung fantasies are a lot of fun. In this context, Lisa Kaltenegger’s detailed look at the near-term chances of pinpointing Earth-like extrasolar planets, one of the most interesting scientific prospects of our times, comes across as slightly prosaic.

In general, the science of the subtitle is a badge of allegiance. Of course we cannot know what future science will reveal. But these are futures that science and technology might bring us. Religion does not get a look in, and deep motives or ultimate meaning are not really up for discussion either. Expansion rules the day. The authors, mostly American, have a hands-on, can-do attitude. Show them a body, a planet, a star system, maybe even a universe, and they will plan how to re-engineer it.

These are not futures of quiet contemplation. Rudy Rucker’s engaging vision of an era when evolved intelligence will tap into the quantum computation of the cosmos to let us “commune with the souls of stones” is a startling exception.

As the horizon shifts far beyond a million years, the cosmological outlook is more familiar. Now that the Big Crunch, with its hint of rebirth as the Universe collapses into a black hole, seems to have been ruled out, the prospect is of an attenuated, etiolated cosmos, an endless vista of cold and dark.

Various get-out clauses invoking the multiverse are canvassed, in which we merely inhabit one inflationary bubble, or one of many alternative dimensions. Those aside, the final outcome recalls another Victorian preoccupation, the ultimate heat death of the Universe. In Year Million, these twenty-first-century visionaries foresee virtually infinite possibilities along the way.

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4 Comments on “Year million”

  1. Damien Broderick Says:

    Thanks for the NATURE review, Jon; I hope you won’t mind if I mention that you missed or blurred certain key points. For example, you commented:

    “Of course we cannot know what future science will reveal. But these are futures that science and technology might bring us. Religion does not get a look in, and deep motives or ultimate meaning are not really up for discussion either. Expansion rules the day. The authors, mostly American, have a hands-on, can-do attitude. Show them a body, a planet, a star system, maybe even a universe, and they will plan how to re-engineer it.”

    But the demographic argument presented especially by Dr. Robin Hanson is that this aspect of the deep future’s history is almost inevitable, driven by economic and Darwinian universals. A million flowers might bloom on a million worlds, 999,999 of them spiritually tranquil, inward, sublimely religious (or whatever; maybe they watch the Olympics forever). There are many reasons why civilizations running vastly faster than human minds, interlinked, dwelling on Matrioshka Brain substrates using all the energy of an entire star with maximal efficiency, would be very reluctant to burn that energy going anywhere else on “imperial adventures.” But if just one of that million is thrusting, hungry, capable of leaving its home world and migrating outward, *that last culture* will dominate the future of the galaxy (all allowances made for subtle feedbacks conducing to benignity and passivity, if such exist).

    Given this posit, the arguments presented by such contributors as Hanson, Steve Harris, Robert Bradbury and Wil McCarthy fill in some of the details of how such cultures might expand, what choices they might be obliged to make, etc.

    So treating these thoughtful essays as if they’re simple-minded expressions of Imperial American Capitalism is badly misleading.

    And the essays that close the book, especially George Zebrowski’s, pay a great deal of nuanced and sensitive attention to what we must see as the spiritual (although not “religious” ) significance of deep time’s prospects. After all, Carl Sagan didn’t pay any attention, either, to what the worshipers of Loki or Zeus had to say about that “pale blue dot” he so movingly described, a perspective of our world’s place in the universe impossible for the old flat earth mythologies to anticipate.

    Again, thanks for the review. Such a treat to see the book noticed in NATURE!

    Damien Broderick

  2. Damien Broderick Says:

    Ack! Your software has strangely changed my close-brackets in the penultimate par into a yellow smiley. Hope that can be corrected.

  3. Mathew James Says:

    Great post, it was very informative. I think its a must read.

  4. jonturney Says:


    Of course I accept the logic of (universal) Darwinism. But I still get a whiff of the culture which generated these essays in the way it is worked out here. When Marx said how remarkable it was that Darwin saw the characteristics of his English society in the natural world, he was not arguing that the theory of natural selection was not true… was he?

    It is, at least, interesting that your excellent cadre of authors are focussed so intently on the consequences of the one-in-a-million (or whatever the proportion turns out to be) of expansionists.

    I hope my general enthusiam for the book came across, anyway.

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