Non-Fiction Reviews

The Future of Humanity

Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality
and Our Destiny beyond Earth

(2019) Michio Kaku, Penguin, pbk, £9.99, xviii +339 pp, ISBN 978-0-141-98606-7


Although the subtitle of this book promises ‘Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality and Our Destiny beyond Earth’, page 13 issues something of a warning note. “To do this, we will have to exploit the fourth wave of science, which consists of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biotechnology’. It is probably fair to say that if those are not his favourite subjects, they are perhaps the ones he feels most at home with. It was maybe unfortunate that I received this book for review immediately after reading his Physics of the Impossible (Penguin, 2009). Subtitled ‘A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel’, the earlier book is mainly an attempt to rationalise the background to Star Trek in more detail than Lawrence M. Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek (1995). And despite the 10-year gap, the sections on ‘artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biotechnology’ are so similar that I kept having to check back through the new book to make sure I hadn’t already read them, and then check the previous book to see that the wording was actually different.

In 1983 I published a book called Man and the Planets, the Resources of the Solar System. It was the result of a group discussion project which looked at the possibilities for all objects in the System over 1,000 km in diameter, and quite a few of the smaller ones, while comparing and contrasting the technologies which might be used to reach them and make use of them, applying (with permission) the terminology and reasoning of Prof. Krafft Ehricke’s ‘strategic approach to the Solar System’, and ending with a chapter on ‘The Philosophy of a Kardashev 2 Civilisation’ (controlling the resources of a planetary system), which the late Slovenian editor Samo Resnik selected for independent publication there. Having done that all those years ago, it is disappointing to find Prof. Kaku writing, for example, “space elevators would revolutionize our access to outer space”, without considering their limitations, or alternative versions of the idea, or where in the Solar System they might be used to best advantage.

Within the Solar System, his general discussion is limited to Mars, the moons of the gas giants, and the Oort Cloud of comets, with only Europa, Titan and Triton considered individually, and even there listing what’s known about them rather than discussing future possibilities. It may be significant that Chapter 6 is the only section of the book where I found any factual errors – only a couple of them, but about things which have been known for years or even decades. It feels as if it’s with relief that Prof. Kaku moves on to robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, all of which are treated at similar length in the previous book, and in Chapter 7, just as here.

We are still only at the midpoint of this book, however, and from there on there’s new ground as the discussion moves to interstellar travel. The propulsion systems considered, from the solar sail to the Alcubierrre Drive, are still the same as in Physics of the Impossible, to say nothing of Prof. Kaku’s previous book Hyperspace. But the range of possible targets has enormously increased with the ever-increasing discoveries of planets orbiting other stars, and even moving freely in interstellar space. Again, though, the discussion is limited to ‘conventional’ starships and to planets as destinations, and even then gives very little thought to what we do when we get there. Prof. Gerard O’Neill’s alternative ideas get no mention and Freeman Dyson’s don’t get much. But there is some fascinating thought about what might happen when a new wave of technology on Earth, enabling instantaneous communication and travel, allows a new interstellar Diaspora to overtake the old one, on the way to Kardashev III status (controlling the resources of a galaxy). From there Prof. Kaku goes on to consider whether a Kardashev IV civilisation is possible and what it might achieve, in chapters which bear comparison with, and even extend past, the closing ones of Arthur C. Clarke’s Profiles of the Future.

Those chapters are the best part of the book, in my view, and make interesting comparison with similar thoughts recently put forward by Eamonn Ansbro of the Kingsland Observatory, in a paper offered to the SETI Committee of the International Astronautical Federation last year. There is a great deal more to be said on all the above topics, and what I would suggest to anyone who is not already up to speed on them, would be to skip Prof. Kaku’s previous books and follow the old injunction, ‘New Readers Start Here’.

Duncan Lunan


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