Galactic Culture

A thought about the limits of civilization

I don’t know about you, but I grew up with grand, epic sci-fi stories that span star systems and even the entire galaxy (Asimov’s Foundation, anybody?). These stories often feature a faster-than-light drive to cover the vast distances that separate the, let’s face, humongous-to-the-absurd distances that separate those tiny individual constituent worlds.

But, as I’m writing the last act of my current hard-sci-fi novel, I am in the mood for hard science fiction. So today, I want to throw a seemingly simple question to the room:

Can there ever be a galactic civilization in the real world?

*Isaac sighs, wets his lips, raises his chin, and prepares to embark on a diatribe of, literally, galactic proportions.*

What a question, dear reader! I’m tempted to just say ‘no’ and call it a day. But, hey, I’m a sci-fi fan. And human, too. So I’m allowed to think and think and think until I fool myself into turning a boring ‘no!’ into a tantalising ‘perhaps?’

So let’s begin by answering your more pressing questions:

  1. What galaxy are you talking about, Isaac?

Well, what about if we keep it simple? I say, our galaxy. The Milky Way [link]. Don’t care about the rest.

  1. What do you mean with ‘can there ever be’?

Nice one! By that I mean any arbitrary amount of time, as long as there is a galaxy. That means not millions, but billions of years. Perhaps even trillions, depending on whether the Big Rip [link] comes to pass. Not that I care right now, mind you.

  1. A civilization of what?

Of anything, dude! Perhaps human. Or aliens, machines, smurfs… Doesn’t matter. Anything.

  1. What do you really mean by ‘civilization’ here, Isaac? What is even a civilization?

Uh… Hmm…

Wow, you got me there! That is really the core of the question. Depending on what a civilization is, then we get an answer or the other, don’t we?

Alright. *Isaac stretches his hands.* What I’m going to say is sure to offend the scientific sensibilities of some of my beloved readers. Apologies in advance. But we need an operative definition here, one as simple as possible. And this is not a scientific publication, just the wild thought process of your humble best sci-fi storyteller in the entire world. So I will boldly go where no one has gone before with the following definition:

A civilization is a group of physically separated communities that share a considerable amount of culture.

I can go down the rabbit the hole with that definition, but for the sake of brevity, and assuming we agree on what ‘community’ and ‘considerable’ kind of means, let’s just focus on the core word here:


I’m using the word culture in its sociological sense. Not just the arts, not even the nationalist/political sense; but everything we share and just… do to manage not to die. That includes technology, religion, philosophies, science, etc.

From that perspective, in early human history there were several civilizations: some nomadic, and, eventually, others sedentary. Even inside each of these broad categories there were abysmal differences between, say, arctic seal hunters and savanna dwellers. They didn’t share much culture, if any.

But today—and I would argue, for the last two hundred years or so—there has been such a phenomenal spread of culture around the world that we’ve got the first truly global civilization in history, a phenomenon without precedent. A global civilization that piggybacked on the transportation and communication revolution of the last few centuries.

In this sense, can this be achieved across—let’s begin small—the Solar System, say?

I think so. I assume there will be plentiful trade and communication between the planets, moons, asteroids and habitats we will claim. The Solar System is large, but we can make any trip in a few years in the worst case, and light (meaning, our latest and coolest pop songs) need mere hours to reach Neptune’s orbit.

Okay, so we’ve got ourselves a Solar System civilization. Time to broaden our scope. Let’s go stellar! Let’s begin with our closest star: Proxima Centauri [link]. Say we manage, in a thousand years or two, to settle and thrive there. There are rocky planets in the habitable zone [link], who knows?

So, our Proxima siblings make great Whiskey, say. Would they be able to trade them with us?

No way.

I can’t imagine trade of physical goods being anywhere near profitable, no matter how rare and valuable.

But what about ‘information’? Some Proxima genius has just made a new song, a new invention, a ground-breaking scientific discovery, a revolutionary political idea, something incredible! Would all this cultural phenomena remain shut inside the Proxima system?

No way.

At ‘just’ 4 light-years, and with our local Solar geniuses equally busy, there are great incentives to trade culture. We would strongly influence each other (what are four years, anyway?). Thus, I would argue that we would share the same culture, even across stars.

So let’s cast our nets wider! What about our immediate neighbourhood, the Local Bubble [link]? It’s 300 light years across. Could we conceive sharing culture across 300 light years?

That’s getting harder, isn’t it? Think about it. When we receive their latest discovery, we have had three hundred years of our own progress! Another way of seeing it: where were your ascendants 300 hundred ago? Would whatever they produced back then, no matter how innovative, really interest you now, unless you’re a historian or an anthropologist?

Maybe (if there’s been a societal collapse, say, and now they’re actually more advanced). Probably not.

And now, let’s take the final step.

We go truly galactic!

But let’s not hurry. Let’s say we take a good million years. No, ten million, what the heck. In any case, every solar system of the mighty Milky Way is finally occupied by humans (let’s assume we haven’t found aliens, that only complicates things—Asimov would certainly agree).

We’re talking now about star systems spanning thousands of light years. In the most extreme cases, a hundred thousand years would separate a ‘hello’ from one end to the other. A hundred. Thousand. Years! What were our ancestors doing back then? I think they had fire under their belts. But no belts yet.

Nah, I think with those vast distances, culture breaks down, and therefore, a single civilization becomes impossible.

In reality it wouldn’t be so clear cut. Some local areas would hold strong cultural ties with neighbouring systems, which creates a kind of continuum of overlapping civilizations. But, eventually, the fact that the latest pop song needs thousands of years to cross the galaxy, brings the point home that, eventually, the galaxy would split into a myriad of local civilizations, as separate from neighbouring civilizations as we are from our Ice Age ancestors.

Yeah. The galaxy is that large (and I’m not talking about the universe here, just the tiniest part of the observable one we live in). Sorry, Asimov, no galactic empires anytime soon. Nor ever, really.

So, that is the answer.


A galactic civilization is impossible in the real world.

Or is it? *Isaac smirks, twirling his imaginary moustache.*

While pondering about all this, I had one of those crazy thoughts that went straight into my ‘story-ideas’ file. It is about an attempt, and maybe success, in creating just that: a true galactic civilization. I might make a short story one day, although this idea is so grandiose *says Isaac humbly* that it will probably be an integral premise of a future novel. In any case, today’s thought is getting long enough, so I wish you a nice day in this global human civilization that we all share.

For now.

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