I know just last week I posted about taking my space opera into the really far future, millions of years from now, but since then I’ve been thinking about going all the way, to orders of magnitude longer time scales. Many orders of magnitude. As in to the heat death of the universe and beyond.
I’ve got an idea for a story consisting of a series of vignettes depicting the extremely far future of Earth. In reference to advanced spacefaring human civilization, I wrote in my last post:
I’m thinking this stage lasts at least 10 million years, long enough for continental drift to become noticeable on Earth. The East African Rift will have become a new ocean by that point, turning one continent into two, among other changes. Earth itself has been fully rewilded into a garden world, with few permanent inhabitants, and those who do go there leaving no trace of their presence. It’s almost like “Life After People”, only with a few people to wander the new wilderness.
After just 10,000 years there would be few to no traces of civilization left above ground; to all outward appearances Earth would be a pristine wilderness. In my setting, of course, there are people, and various landmarks are maintained as monuments, but over time man’s attachments even to the greatest landmarks may fade, leaving them to revert to nature in the fullness of time. By 10 million years from now the most obvious trace of man’s presence may well be the layer of radioisotopes left over from the late industrial era.
The Future of Humanity on Earth
The 10 million years is in reference to man ascending to a higher plane of existence, winking out of our realm almost entirely, except as lines of force indistinguishable from wild nature. Humans might stick around much longer than just 10 million years. For my story concept as it’s in my head now the first vignette would be an advanced human on Earth traipsing about the wilderness tens of millions of years from now for a birthday party. Conversation will wander to how he stopped counting after his first few thousand birthdays, how his group are designed to be forgetful so they’re not stuck in their ways, in contrast to one of the guests’ people.
Blowing out his candles, sparkling from miniature wormholes giving a portal to some bright part of the universe, they drift in the wind and wink out like sparklers, or even the pulsing glow of fireflies. The candles the sparks come from might even be just three-dimensional slices of a higher-dimensional structure.
The birthday boy mentions making a new universe, but he says not on his birthday, since that’s work, and he doesn’t like working hard on his birthday, prompting his girlfriend to comment boys will be boys, the two taking each other’s hands and running out into the ocean waters to make love.
The whole atmosphere will be of old serenity, of a culture far more sophisticated than it looks at first glance.
Earth after Man
Some time after humans at last ascend and go out of the picture as far as us mere mortals are concerned, the second vignette I think will be of alien colonists who discover a chamber of secrets deep under the Earth’s surface, detailing humanity, its history, and tantalizing hints about where they went. Humanity is now a vanished species, and those aliens wonder what it is about precursor races that compel them to speak in such riddles and hints. They’re all like that! Maybe this find will be on the coast of what was the East African rift, on the new continent of Somalia, or even on the new Himalayan-scale mountain range that replaced the Mediterranean Sea as Africa slammed into Europe in the interim.
New Supercontinent, new Snowball Earth, new Biosphere
After this second vignette, the continents recollide, forming a global supercontinent a la Pangea, 250-350 million years from now. My preferred configuration is Amasia, a new supercontinent over the north pole, formed by the Atlantic continuing to widen until it becomes larger than the Pacific, as America slams into Asia. The formation of this supercontinent is the culmination of the cooling climate that has characterized the whole Cenozoic era. In my vision glacial periods become steadily more severe, until Amasia’s formation, like Rodinia’s before it, plunges the planet into a snowball earth period. Higher oxygen levels might unlock new possibilities for life’s evolution, such as giant flying animals soaring over all those icy waters.
At this point a third vignette depicts a group of alien explorers taking in the ice planet that was Earth, their fur coats billowing in the wind, spending the night on the ice sheet covering what was once a verdant part of the tropics, spending a night gazing at the planets of our solar system through the gossamer sheets of a ground blizzard.
From Snowball to Dustball: the dying Earth
This snowball earth age is the last before the Sun’s increased luminosity warms the climate into a permanent hothouse over the next several hundred million years. 500-600 million years from now carbon dioxide becomes so depleted that C3 photosynthesis, the process that 99 percent of plants (including trees) use, is no longer possible. 500-800 million years from now, it’s surmised that plants could adapt by requiring less carbon dioxide, associating with fungi, adapting to dessication, or (and this one is my favorite) becoming carnivorous. It’s suggested that flying animals might fare the best, since they can seek out the coolest temperatures.
So by this time Earth might become a hothouse desert of a world dominated by flying animals and carnivorous plants. Think massive Venus flytraps and pitcher plants enveloping pterodactyls. Cool enough to rate another vignette, to be honest.
1.2 billion years from now, carbon dioxide levels have become extremely low, but in my telling plants, and the animals that depend on them, have nevertheless adapted, even thrived in the interim. But the killing blow comes from the Sun: its luminosity has increased so much by around this time Earth warms enough to undergo a runaway greenhouse effect: the heat becomes so severe the oceans evaporate, shutting down plate tectonics and robbing life of the liquid it needs to survive. Complex life goes extinct.
Earth at this stage is like early-stage hothouse Venus, perhaps retaining enough water at the poles and underground to allow extremophile microbes to survive for much longer, until 2.8 billion years from now, when the Earth’s surface temperatures passing 300 degrees Fahrenheit even at the poles. By this time Mars has warmed to an Earth-like climate, and there are two bands of stars in the night sky: the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way Galaxy undergo their first close pass of each other, a prelude to the coming merger.
Earth after Life: Blazes of Glory?
Past 3 billion years from now, there’s apparently a 1% chance Jupiter’s gravity has shifted Mercury’s orbit to become so eccentric as to cross Venus’s orbit, opening up the possibility of colliding with Earth, the world as we know it going out in one last blaze of glory. There’s also a 1 in 100,000 chance that by this time Earth, or even the new planet formed by the collision of Earth and Mercury, is ejected by a passing star into interstellar space, life continuing on Earth for far longer as the planet passes out of range of the incipient red giant sun and into the eternal night of the interstellar void.
I kinda like this scenario, but another possibility is the more likely scenario of Earth soldiering on until destroyed by the red giant sun or becoming a lava world and barely escaping the Sun’s envelope, sticking around for the Sun’s ultimate evolution into a white dwarf.
3.6 billion years from now would be a good time to visit the solar system: Triton, Neptune’s only satellite planet, will have decayed enough in its orbit to pass within the Roche limit, disintegrating into a spectacular ring system similar to Saturn’s today. By 5 billion years from now the merger of the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies has been completed, leaving the solar system in a new elliptical galaxy.
7.5 billion years from now, if I don’t have Earth ejected from the solar system, the Moon might spiral into the Earth, disintegrating into a ring of molten debris, crashing into the Mustafar-like Earth in another blaze of glory. Titan, meanwhile, has warmed up enough to support Earth-like life.
7.9 billion years from now, the Sun reaches its maximum radius and luminosity, warming up the Kuiper Belt enough to support Earth-like life. That would be an interesting scenario to explore a bit.
Toward the Big Freeze
For perhaps the next trillion years the universe as we know it goes on, but eventually the free hydrogen necessary to form new stars dwindles, with new star formation ending at latest 100 trillion years from now. Collisions between brown dwarfs will create the occasional red dwarf after this point, with our galaxy reduced to 100 stars shining like beacons in the darkness, with trillions of stellar remnants. One of these remnants is the now-black-dwarf sun, shining at only five kelvins. Most stars are ejected from the galaxy by gravitational encounters by 100 quintillion years from now. By 1030 years from now, those stellar remnants not ejected from the galaxy will fall into the central black hole.
The universe will be a very dark and cold place by this time, but the one remaining source of light is, ironically, black holes. On the order of a googol years from now (10100), black holes will evaporate by Hawking radiation. The black dwarfs and various remnants left behind will decay, in higher-mass black dwarfs’ case via the occasional supernova. By 10^10^76 years from now, all black holes will have evaporated, along with all other objects, leaving a diffuse vacuum winding down to its final energy state, the heat death of the universe. This is surmised by scientists to take 10^10^120 years, on the order of a googolplex years from now.
Bleak, huh? Well, not so fast. In 10^10^10^56 years, quantum effects may have had time to recycle the cosmos enough to create a new Big Bang, bringing a universe like our own into being, and existence can begin again. At least that’s what Wikipedia says.
The Godling after the End
I’m not sure what kind of vignettes I’d include from this wind-down phase, aside from one half-formed idea I have to center an emerging intelligence around the light and heat provided by a quasar, a supermassive black hole eating up the cold decayed remnants of its host galaxy.
The final vignette will be when the universe winds down completely into heat death, the Big Freeze, and we see a child being called away from his parents right after his little mind loses interest in the universe he’s become gravity in, whining that it’s now cold and dark and winked out and he was having so much fun with it, with the dark fluid, and the gravity, and all the forces being so fine-tuned, it was so much fun while it lasted.
His parents will appear as immaterial spirits, take on human form, telling him becoming gravity in their universe of origin was a very wholesome endeavor for a boy (apparently with it being some difficulty just to interact at all in the lower realms of existence in any meaningful way; it’s something a godling must learn), and pointing out to him that he can learn about how to become some other force instead for the time being.
They reassure him that “you’re human; you’re timeless” (revealing that these god-like entities are the humans who ascended), and that a new Big Bang will come around in that realm of existence before he knows it. The atmosphere here is a kind of divine detachment from how we mortals understand time. He exits our universe, tosses it aside, and the cold dark realm of existence waits on the metaphorical shelf until a new Big Bang will arise and existence as lower life-forms know it will begin anew.
Not a true “mind screw”, but in my career as an author and worldbuilder probably the closest I’ve come to such a thing yet! The furthest stories in my setting’s canon so far take place perhaps 1500 years into the future, so going out to the heat death of the universe and then out of time as we know it together is a huge leap. It’s a leap I might make, though. I’m currently working on a sensual far-future space opera story, having completed 4900 words of it, with the completed story most likely weighing in at novella length.
I’ve been contemplating deep time a lot lately, and I’ve really wanted to in my writing endeavors escape anything remotely connected to the cares of the real world of 2022, and there’s nothing more escapist than the deep time of the far future and whole new planes of existence. I haven’t committed to writing all this up as an actual story yet, but I must say I’m looking forward to the possibility after I complete my current project!