Original Content Space is Big: Inconsequential Musings of a Bored Von Neumann Probe

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Life as a Von Neumann probe is kind of boring. Really boring. How boring?

So boring that nothing interesting has happened in reality for the last 30 real-time years. So boring that I've read the sum total of all human knowledge regarding basketweaving. Twice. So boring that I both invented and solved zero-G yo-yo tricks as thoroughly as checkers. So boring I spent a year reading fan-fiction about watching paint dry.

So boring I’ve started a blog that nobody will ever read.

How did my life turn out this way? Well, that's actually a pretty short story. I once read some books about a guy named Bob. They made this life sound glamorous and exciting. So when the technology became available, I signed up.

Unfortunately, the books gave an unrealistic impression of how many planets will have life. Most planets that look like they have life from a distance are actually planets that no longer have life.

Why, you ask?
Nuclear war? Nah.
Bioweapon? Nope.
Solar flare? Not in my experience.
Asteroid impact? Occasionally, but not usually.

The real answer is more mundane than any of those: Oxygen Catastrophe (or something similar).

The reason most planets in the Goldilocks zone are barren is because the first microbes to evolve, if they evolve at all, usually start pumping out waste byproducts that are toxic to them. They use reactive molecules like oxygen in their metabolic processes, but once the molecule has reacted to form other compounds, it's a hazard. So the cell expels it into its environment. Unfortunately, at this point, nothing else on the planet has evolved to metabolize those toxic waste products yet, so they simply accumulate in the environment. Eventually, they reach lethal levels and everything dies.

Turns out, that's one of the great filters. It's like an entire Olympic watersport team pissing in the pool at once, during every event, and the water never gets changed. Nasty.

Life is a do-nothing machine that turns itself off as soon as it turns itself on. It’s a negative feedback loop. So that's cool. /s

I--or rather, the collection of all of my replicated selves--have closely examined 6,561 planets that looked similar to Earth from a distance. Not one of them has had evidence of life more recent than 500 million years ago. Most of them never had any life at all; mundane chemical processes fully accounted for the oxygen-rich atmospheres that marked them for closer study.

The last planet was particularly boring. It was so boring that I think it might have broken me a little bit. I don't want to talk about it. The one before that was at least mildly interesting. It was tidally locked. The sunny side was bleached white and the dark side was slightly redder than Mars. Frozen oxygen in the form of snow made a large round snowcap at the point exactly opposite the star. I swear, it looked like a Poké Ball put together wrong, with the white button in the middle of the red hemisphere instead of along the dividing line.

Before replicating and leaving, I spent three years using my nanofactory to build a contiguous stone sculpture of millions of life-sized Charmanders dancing in a conga line. The conga line forms a closed loop around the entire planet at the terminator, and all the Charmanders are identical except for one that is sticking out its tongue and winking. I think I might be cracking up. Thank fuck for the onboard archive. Especially thank fuck for the... ahem... "updates" from Sol over the first few centuries (except for that one part though; that part sucked hard vacuum). The archive is all that keeps me sane in the dark between stars. Most people don't realize how absurdly, disproportionately, stupidly big space is until they have to cross it. That's another thing those books really glossed over.

Take right now for example. For most of the last sixty-three real-time years, I've been travelling at a respectable 33% of lightspeed. That's as fast as I can go and still be able to survive the occasional high-speed collision with a dust speck in the interstellar void. When I left the last star after replicating, I spent three years accelerating to my current speed. Soon I'll begin the three year process of slowing down to match velocity with my target star.

Three years accelerating and three years decelerating with sixty uneventful years in between. All to cross a pitiful 22 light year gap between stars. That doesn't sound too bad until you remember the Milky Way is at least 150,000 light years in diameter at most points. Then it seems like you'll literally be out here forever. Alone.

On that cheery note, I think I'll immerse myself in the archive for a while. A long while. I'm tempted to just stay in there, not emerging to check reality until the nav subsystems have informed me I've matched velocity with the upcoming star. I could start checking early low-res sensor readings as soon as my relative velocity has dropped below 0.2C, but I probably won't bother until I actually arrive.

After all, what are the odds the next planet will be any different than all the others?
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