In my initial descriptions of the Ninth World, the setting for Numenera, I describe it as a “billion years in the future.” For most people, I figured that statement would merely be evocative, and would get across the point that this is far, FAR in the future. But for people in the know, I figured that it would raise interesting questions. As we understand it, the planet won’t even be habitable (at least for most organisms) at that point. So I thought it would raise the question, “how is this possible?” Or, if you’re thinking like a sci fi fan, perhaps more a statement: “Wow. When Monte said advanced technology, he wasn’t kidding. They’ve altered the sun, the entire planet, or both in some fundamental fashion.” If you’re like me, your mind starts racing with all kinds of ideas of how an advanced civilization, hundreds of millions of years in the future, might go about such a thing.
So I must admit that I was a little disappointed when people in the know (at least, in most of the responses that I saw) just assumed that I hadn’t done my reading and screwed it up, or just picked the number “one billion” because it sounded big.
Part of the fun of game design and world building is the research, and I’m a huge science and science fiction geek. So doing the reading has been, well, a blast.
Of course, it’s not precisely one billion years in the future. The date isn’t 1,000,000,2013 AD. (No actual date, according to our system, is mentioned, because it’s irrelevant.) When you’re using numbers that big, you can round up or down a few million and not notice. More importantly, the people of the Ninth World don’t know the age of the planet, and they certainly don’t care how far separated they are from us. But we care. So let’s talk about a billion years for a moment–because it’s fun.
A billion years in the future puts the people of the Ninth World farther from us than we are from the dinosaurs, temporally speaking. By a lot of years. In this time frame, continental drift has brought the continents all back together again, and probably also seen them break apart again (in the Ninth World, this has happened and actually they’ve come back together again, but we don’t know if that’s natural or the product of some past technological workings). The sun’s luminosity should increase about 10 percent, drying up the oceans and making photosynthesis impossible. But in the Ninth World, there are oceans–actually there’s only one–and plants. So again, some kind of major engineering, even megascale engineering, has gone on here.
But here’s my favorite bit. Even by conservative estimates, assuming sub-light speeds, it would take a civilization about 50 million years to colonize the entire galaxy. In a billion years, this could have happened many times over. A billion years is enough time for a civilization to raise to a position of vast power (perhaps even being the seat of a galactic or even intergalactic empire), collapse entirely, and for the Earth to lie fallow for a long time to give rise to yet another civilization. And another. And another. Maybe some of these civilizations aren’t even human.
That’s the kind of thing that makes my heart and mind race.
Is our civilization one of the eight great civilizations that have risen and fallen in this time? Is it the first? Numenera isn’t going to answer that question. First of all, it’s the kind of thing that the people of the Ninth World wouldn’t have a clue about. More importantly, our civilization, as of today, hasn’t done or created anything that will still be around then. And compared to the technology of the future (our future, the Ninth World’s past) we aren’t yet worth noticing, really. If you want to get really dark, you might think that our civilization peters out, or destroys itself, and isn’t even one of the eight civilizations at all. In fact, you might imagine that in between the eight, other minor civilizations could have risen and fallen. Because there’s enough time for that.
A billion years opens up so many possibilities. Almost all the possibilities, really.