They settled back: one could recline and listen. ‘Fellow Outposters.’ He looked up, saw the tiny lights that signaled working cams. As many as a million people could be watching and listening. ‘I want to talk about a problem that we all face and about a possible alleviation of it.’ He looked at the cams, then at the others in the room. ‘My alleviation is not a permanent one, but it might lead to something permanent.’
‘The problem is boredom.’ There was a stirring in the room. He saw several people exchange smiles. ‘I have long said that there is no such thing as boredom. The Founders said the same; they said that ‘boredom’ was simply a negative condition – the absence of work. I have always agreed. We all perform work all our lives. Our work is voluntary but done willingly. Our work is productive and socially useful. Our work, changes every five years by our own choice, is what has made innovation, expansion, and sometimes even perfection possible. At its most basic, our work makes our civilization go.
‘Now, however, we are seeing signs of a condition that appears to be new. It is not an absence of work; we still have work in plenty – witness the Mars Outpost, which will be a-building for at least the next two centuries. But there is talk, there have been postings on the skene, there are private conversations about – boredom. Angst. A nonclinical and
so far non-crippling kind of depression. I am not alone in dating these feelings and conditions to the Totenberg Hypothesis eighty-seven years ago. I don’t mean that words like boredom and angst were used at that time: I mean simply that the feeling, undefined and mostly unnoticed, began with the stating of the Totenberg Hypothesis.’
‘ The Totenberg Hypothesis had been a long and highly complex mathematical argument whose conclusion was that nothing that the Outposters could build, given present methods, materials, and energy sources, would get them to a possibly habitable, possibly even inhabited, body beyond Mars. Ever. It wasn’t only the time such travel would take – thousands of years; it stated more importantly the mathematically proven impossibility of growing food, maintaining a population, and not running out of fuel. It simply couldn’t be done.’ A rustle of movement followed: unease, discomfort.
‘To a people like us,’ Ganesh began again, ‘The Totenberg Hypothesis was cruel, even crushing. We didn’t want to accept it. As you all know, attempts have been made ever since to disprove it, and they have all failed. The essential fact remains: without a new source of energy, we shall never get out of the planetary system we currently inhabit. We are stuck.
‘And movement outward has always been at the heart of our society and our very selves: innovation, to put us ever closer to exploration beyond the solar system; expansion, the very reason for our yearning outward; and perfection of our creations so that we could go farther, faster – without limit.
‘Now we think we know we cannot do those things. We were not certain – we had hope – until we heard of what had happened to the Alpha Centauri probe six years ago.’
The Alpha Centauri probe had been launched three centuries before the stating of the Totenberg Hypothesis in the flush of optimism that had characterized those times. It was unmanned, of course, but it would make it to Alpha Centauri (or to one of its suns, anyway, and its circling planet) in a bit over a thousand years. For all that time, it would be a symbol of achievement and of hope; the getting there would forever be more important than whatever was learned from the arrival.
And then, the probe had begun to wander off course, victim – it took a month to explain this – of a gravitational pull they’d never predicted. The probe had got back on course; it had wandered again; it had been got back on course, and so on. The upshot of it was that the probe was going to burn up its fuel before it ever got to Alpha Centauri, and the trip to the closest point that could now be hoped for was going to take seventeen hundred years instead of a thousand, and the probe would sail away from the star and its planet without having ever have got close – its fuel gone, its voice silent, its instruments numb. Doing no work.