Over the last week, we've been watching Firefly on Netflix and are about halfway through. It's a really great series - I'm enjoying it a lot. But one thing that's struck me is how faithful I think it is to what we can actually expect when we settle space. I'm not a sci-fi guru - I came at my interest in space late in the game and from a more non-fiction angle - but of the sci-fi that I know I think Firefly best presents what our descendants are actually going to experience. A few key facets of the series that add to the realism:
1. First and foremost, humans live on other planets by terraforming them on a massive scale in the series. They don't magically find atmospheric compositions and pressures on planets that are appropriate to sustaining human life.
2. That terraforming process is risky business. We're not even that far into the series and there have already been episodes with health effects for residents from the terraforming. Of course anyone that has seen the movie Serenity (based on the show) knows that the Reavers are the product of terraforming gone wrong as well.
3. There are no aliens so far as I have seen (perhaps some come up in later episodes). Not even unintelligent species. It's mostly humans and when you do see animals they're familiar to Earth - mostly cows and horses (for those not familiar with it, it's essentially a Western set in space). This makes sense if we're terraforming other worlds as well. I think it stands to reason that aliens are out there, and I don't think it's implausible that some day we'll make contact with them. But in all likelihood the universe is sparsely populated with life. If, as in Firefly, humans settle a near-cluster of planets (which makes sense - why would we wander far?) it's unlikely you'll see any life you haven't already seen on Earth.
4. Inequality will still be with us. The inequality between core and periphery planets is a major theme of the show. This is something that a lot of sci-fi seems to ignore. Visions of our interplanetary future are often utopian. There's no good reason to believe that. By the time we actually get out there, we will be unbelievably wealthy and advanced - but that doesn't mean all human settlements will be.
5. Religion will still be with us. A preacher is a primary character on the crew, and lots of the people they come across on these planets are religious. Like the inequality point above, a lot of sci-fi white-washes religion. We will probably be more secularized but I don't think there's a good reason to believe religion won't still play a major role in human life. As a side note - this is an interesting blog post on the role of Mormonism in the work of a former NASA administrator.
6. Our interplanetary future might not be all-American. There are clear hints in the show that the Chinese were a dominant civilizational force on Earth at the time of the terraforming. Essentially, the show has quintessentially American characters who intersperse their conversation with Chinese exclamations and swears, and who apparently read Chinese (but speak English). You can only do so much in a TV show before resorting to sub-titles. But I think the point is still there - by 2517 the Earth will look different. I've noted in the past how important it is for Americans to be at the forefront of space exploration, to guarantee that liberal democracy is maintained. But I'm under know illusions that the dance of the great powers is going to be static.
7. People will still truck, barter, and exchange, and they aren't going to like tyrannical, centralized states any more than they do now. This is essentially the premise of the show: Firefly is a smuggler/trader/transporter (depending on the day), and they are hostile to Alliance rule.