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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Recipe for a Tolkienesque “Hobbit” Future

I just saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on cable TV. It's the latest in the series of movies inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien “franchise” is apparently alive and well, with the expected elements such as dwarfish hobbits, giants, dragons, wizards, and a magic ring.

If I recall correctly, the “Lord of the Rings” stories are supposed to be set in a distant human past, long before history began. But is there any way that something like the Tolkien fictional world might actually be...our future? What kind of strange future events might cause the world to end up in some state rather like the “Middle Earth” depicted in the “Lord of the Rings” series?

I can imagine some ways that might come to pass. One contributing factor could be some kind of genetic bifurcation or fission of the human species. According to a Huffington Post article, “Researchers found that the shorter a person was, the more likely they were to have a long life.” Other studies show that tall people earn more money. So it might be that one day, gene splicers offer parents a choice: you can have regular children; you can have short children that live longer; or you can have tall children that earn more money. A few decades after parents have such a choice, we may see the human race splitting up into different sub-species. There may be a sub-species of humans who are very small, and another sub-species of humans that are very tall. It could then end up being a little like “The Lord of the Rings,” with its division of dwarfish hobbits, regular humans, and giants. Or a nuclear war might produce mutations that cause the human race to split up into different sub-species. Need some cute little pointed ears? Some mutations will get you that.


But in order to have anything like a Tolkienesque “Hobbit” future, you also need to get rid of most of the trappings of modern civilization. It's okay to still have cute little Hobbit houses, and some huge imposing stone buildings, but we would have to lose most of the superhighways, the malls, and the burger joints. But there's are several ways that might happen. One possibility is global energy collapse. If we ever pretty much run out of oil (as some Peak Oil theorists suggest), we might see a social breakdown that might cause our car-based culture to collapse in a tailspin. Another possibility is some kind of electromagnetic pulse that wipes out the electrical grid. That could come from a big solar flare, or from an enemy detonating a nuclear bomb way up in the atmosphere. Or there might be a nuclear war that wipes out most of humanity.

Of course, after such a collapse it would probably be a good long time before things got really Tolkienesque, and people went back to riding on horses, using swords, and living in quaint little villages. But before all that long, you might well get an American culture a lot more similar to the way things were when the country was colonized by Europeans.

But what about the dragons and strange monsters that are a mainstay of the “Lord of the Rings” franchise? It's easy to imagine how that might arise. We simply need to imagine some genetic experimentation getting out of control. Imagine if a few decades from now biologists started to play around with making new species by gene-splicing. They might be right in the middle of that, when boom, society might collapse because of an energy crisis, an electromagnetic pulse, or a nuclear war. The weird creatures produced by the geneticists might then somehow get released into the world, and start reproducing. The world might then be overrun by various assorted species of monsters, some of which could even be like dragons (although it's hard to imagine any scenario by which you might end up with fire-breathing dragons). A nuclear war might also produce mutations that would lead to strange new species, some of which could be monstrous.

And why do we have to imagine that the “monsters” are all biological? We can imagine some types of runaway self-reproducing robots spreading across the land, with no more government around to stop them. Such robots might function just like various monsters out of the pages of Tolkien. What's the big difference between being threatened by giant spiders and being threatened by giant eight-legged robots that walk around like spiders?

You've got to admit, I'm starting to put together here an idea that some aspiring screenwriter might make into a great script. When a screenwriter is pitching a script, he always likes to have an “elevator pitch” he can use to sum up the idea in 20 seconds – for example, “My script is Titanic in outer space.” So here we have a nice potential elevator pitch: “My script is Lord of the Rings in a post-apocalyptic future.”

But what about the wizards that are a mainstay of the “Lord of the Rings” franchise? You might say: there's no possible way to get that in a human future. But that's not true. Let us simply remember Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A person who applies advanced technology can easily seem like a wizard, as long as his observers have no idea what the technology is or how it is produced.

We can imagine a Tolkienesque future in which 99% of the human race knows nothing about science or technology. But there may be a handful of people who still know how to apply technology. Such rare technologists may start calling themselves magicians or wonder workers, to instill awe in the average human. They may start wearing robes and those big droopy wizard hats. To the average person, they would seem just exactly like magical wizards. But they would know they were not using magic, but simply using science and technology.

So it is all too possible that we might end up with a Tolkienesque “Hobbit” future with the aroma of “Middle Earth,” in which strange monsters (electronic or biological) roam the land, in which there are different flavors of the human race with different heights, in which people with swords ride around on horseback between quaint little villages, and in which astonishing wizards work wonders that seem like magic to almost everyone. But the golden magic ring? Forget about it; I can't think of any way to fit that into a possible future.