Terraforming and genetic manipulation both.


(originally posted on SciFi Ideas)
terraformingScience Fiction loves the idea of terraforming… rebuilding a planet or moon to be more hospitable for human habitation.  A term and concept (also known as geo-engineering) at least as old as the 1940s, it has become even more popular today, and has leaked into TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Firefly, as writers begin to realize how easy it can be to impact a biosphere. (We greatly impact our own biosphere every day, applying a concept we generally call pollution.)

Of course, impacting it in a desirable way is still considered the concept’s major challenge, so writers often center their stories around the brilliant planetary engineers who slave over intense computations, debate and study the possible consequences, and ultimately, take an action (like dropping ice-asteroids into an atmosphere) and roll the dice.

It’s often assumed that a planet, given time and smart enough engineers, will eventually become another Earth.  But that would seem like a very inefficient way to go about it.  After all, the likelihood that we’ll find a planet that will give us a functional duplicate of Earth are pretty slim; and there must be many more planets out there that can be reshaped to some extent, but never quite equal the qualities of Earth.  Is that, then, a reason not to reshape that planet… and possibly give up a lot of real estate, just because it’s not a duplicate of Earth?  Is that a reason to limit your efforts to those incredibly few planets you’re likely to find that can be duplicate Earths?

I’d say No to both questions.  Because, fortunately, science fiction has also discovered the concept of biologic engineering… the idea of making biological changes to the human body, possibly right down to the genetic level, presumably to improve its capabilities and/or survivability.  It hasn’t been done much in SF (in TV and movies, at least), but the combination of geo-engineering and biologic engineering open up a much larger possibility of creating human-habitable planets than does geo-engineering alone. It’s sort of like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: Two great concepts that work great together.

(Cue commercial: “Hey, you got your geo-engineering on my biologic augmentation!”  “Say, you got biologic augmentation all over my geo-engineering!”  “HEY!…”)

Suppose, for instance, that you have a planet that is noticeably larger than Earth.  You can terraform it to be like Earth, but the planet has a much stronger gravity well because of its larger size… and I seriously doubt geoengineers would be able to do anything about that.

The solution: Biologically engineer your population to be able to withstand stronger gravity, with more robust skeletal structures, muscles and organs.  Presto: Your not-quite-Earth is now perfectly habitable for the genetically-modified population.

Or suppose your not-quite-Earth had a much lower gravity, resulting in a lot of rocky terrain and ridiculous mountains in the way?  Well, maybe now’s the time to biologically engineer people with hollow bones and feathers on their arms and legs, and let them fly around instead of walking on the difficult terrain.

Or how about a planet very heavy in a toxic metal?  Perhaps the colonists could be engineered with particular compounds in their bodies that helped to counteract that metal, or even use it as another source of nourishment.

So, imagine a lot of planets capable of being geo-engineered to within tolerable specs of Earth.  When combined with biologic engineering, the result is a number of “races” of humans, all constructed around the standard, “baseline” human, but augmented to fit their chosen environment.

One of the pluses of this arrangement is that, since all of the “races” are offshoots of humans, they are more likely to be able to share: Their joint history means shared cultural references and languages; their shared biology means they all have roughly the same senses and vocal cords for communication; they can tolerate most of the same foods, breathe the same air, etc, with possibly only minor steps taken to provide a requirement or screen a particular element when they travel to other worlds.

One of the minuses is that, if the biologists aren’t careful and take their augmentations too far, these differences could turn out to be so extreme that your population may not be able to visit other Earth-like planets without significant life-support gear. And suppose you’re born on Earth-Analogue 12, and want to permanently relocate to Earth-Analogue 49? There may be a limit to how much biologic engineering (or re-engineering) can be done to adapt you to another planet. You may need life-support gear to live on that planet for the rest of your days.

Still, this is a much more realistic and practical situation than the old SF standby of unrelated aliens that all approximate humans, can all hang together, speak English and even, to some extent, procreate… something that works great on TV and movies where creature budgets may be limited, but highly unrealistic and unlikely… and assuming there are aliens out there to hang with, for that matter.

Perhaps, as SF in TV and movies mature and move past the tropes of the 20th century, we’ll see more of these scenarios… and a much more likely future.

(Steven Lyle Jordan is a futurist and author who has used the combination of geo-engineering and biologic manipulation in his novel series The Kestral Voyages, and has further plans for it down the line.)

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