Thursday, February 21, 2008

Where has all the Sci-Fi gone?

Where has all the science fiction gone? Well, it would appear that we are living in it. Many futurists such as Ray Kurzweil believe that fiction writers are no longer able to think beyond the predicted "technological singularity" that many believe will occur in or around 2030. That is to say that the human mind can no longer comprehend how life could be beyond the next thirty years when taking into account the advancements we have made in the past few decades. Think back to the sci-fi greats of the past and how most of the technology seems antiquated and obsolete now. Even Star Trek, arguably the biggest science fiction phenomenon of all time, seems to have missed the mark by several hundred years in its predictive power. The thing is though that the writers were off because a lot of the technology came about faster than they predicted not because they were not imaginative. The fact that many technologies predicted by Science Fiction to be hundreds of years out is now with us is due in large part to the law of accelerating returns which states the following:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The "returns," such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.

- Ray Kurzweil

So it would seem as we move forward in time our advancements and leaps in thought are building upon each other and producing even more profound changes in our understanding. If you have ever wondered what it is we are working towards, the answer is in the ideas outlined by the greatest futurists of today. Science Fiction writers and those who predict the future through analyzing trends have a mixed success rate and the blunders are often laughed at by people in the future. It's the predictions that were "spot on" that often are ignored and no one remembers.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were both the first science fiction writers. Jules, the senior of the two, used more scientific fact and was generally more positive about the future of humankind while Wells was more of a free thinker who often showed the dark side of progress. Both men made startling predictions that came true decades after they wrote them. Verne most notably made predictions about sea and space travel while Wells predicted the nuclear bomb and the nature of warfare in the 2oth century. At the times of these predictions, many people laughed at some of the "outlandish" ideas, but still bought the books for entertainment purposes. It is said that after seeing the US bomb Japan with nuclear weapons the writer remarked that his epitaph should read "God damn you all I told you so."

Looking back now at the first two sci-fi writers we can see the impact that they had on future generations of scientists, engineers and technology professionals. In a sense, these two created the fictional worlds in which they wrote about by making people think about possibilities. Modern subs are built very similar to Verne's descriptions, the Apollo space capsule and mission and even its launch point are accurately depicted within his books. Wells predicted the aerial bombing of London, time as the fourth dimension, and even coined the term "atomic bomb". Robert Oppenheimer even claimed that he was inspired by H.G. Wells' book "The World Set Free". H.G. Wells wrote another book that predicts another up and coming event in our world that will change the creatures that live within it: "The Island of Dr. Moreau".

So here we are today with dwindling supplies of science fiction and more "fantasy" novels taking up bookstore shelf space. We see standard sci-fi topics such as cybernetic implants, mind reading, cloning, hybridization of species, commercial space travel, space stations, robotic explorers and helpers, instant communication around the world, cars that can drive themselves, clothes that can make you invisible, virtual reality, augmented reality, pilotless fighter aircraft, creation of alternative energy, and on and on in the daily news as reality. It is happening all at once it seems. If technology is accelerating at the rate predicted then the next twenty years will be amazingly brilliant and frightening at the same time. Our generation’s children may have to make the decision to stay human, or to evolve beyond what they were born with.

Further Readings:
The Death of Television and Film
H.G. Wells Anticipations: Predictions of his future
H.G. Wells free e-books
Ray Kurzweil
The Last "Great" Science Fiction Writer?


Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

This conversation starter runs amok all across the science fiction blogiverse. It's not the job of science fiction to predict the future. Science fiction's obligation is to fiction, not science.

Fiction consists of millions of simulations (stories) which help humankind understand itself. "What would I do in a situation like that?" "If I did that, what would happen to me?" "That guy acted like a complete ass, I hope he gets his comeuppance!" It serves one of the most basic needs of human beings, the exploration of themselves and others as they interact with one another. Fiction is a brother to gossip, but throws the net of possibilities much more widely.

Science Fiction goes wider still, exploring human actions, interactions and reactions in situations that cannot happen in the current reality due to technological limitations. The speculation is fun. It isn't meant to predict.

Occasionally, from the tens of thousands of science fiction stories that have been written, a speculated technology might come to pass in reality and we gasp and assign "genius" labels to the writer. This is how astrology works too.

We are not running out of ideas in science fiction. The future is not closing in to clamp shut upon us and create a nightmare of forever present. What is happening is the fruition of extremely tired science fiction tropes, beaten to death in literature and film. Films dominate American popular culture and the studios won't bank on ideas that are too outlandish. We've strapped ourselves to the wrecking ball weight of our past good ideas and we don't want to be set free because the unknown is too uncomfortable. Then we marvel at how science-fictiony our lives have become when capitalism catches up with ideas that were new decades ago. "Hey look, I've got a PC and a cellphone! I'm living Star Trek!"

There are thousands of ideas out there in science fiction literature that have not yet popped into existence. More are being created every day. The human imagination is unlimited. There are even ideas that might confuse a television audience. But don't worry, they'll catch up when today's ideas are adapted for the mass media audiences twenty years hence. They'll seem new to the public then.

I'm astounded that science fictional folk like ourselves get drawn into these conversations when we're the people that are reading about the fresh ideas on an almost daily basis. We know the score. We know the reality. Why are we feeding the Big Media Bimbos?

And one last thing: If the future is here, then where the fuck is my flying car?

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

Sorry, Codemonkey (May I call you Code?), I didn't see an e-mail address, so I'm responding here:

I’m afraid you won’t find a lot in the way of technological innovations in the stories on my site, though you should find some new ideas. I tend towards surrealism rather than science fiction on my blog.

You’re absolutely right that some science fiction inspires innovation, but I would call these cases self-fulfilling prophecies rather than predictions, because these technologies might not exist at all if writers hadn’t conceived of them.

Science Fiction is continually expanding in the realm of ideas. The freshest stuff is often found in short stories. I would direct you to (although my guess is that you’re already familiar with these authors) Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick, Tobias Buckell, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Vernor Vinge, among others. I can’t say that I ever considered stories where humans don’t merge with technology when I commented.

I myself have written (though not published) about extremely high-friction surfaces for use in atmospheric entry, a half-vegetable/half-robotic cyborg and communication by nothing more than probability through the use of quantum computers. I’ve published stories including genetically altering animals for use as tools (okay, you could argue the Flintstones came up with the same sort of thing) and the telepathic reshuffling of physical parameters at the moment of the Big Bang.

There are of course, many old tropes that we still haven’t experienced and most likely won’t for a long, long time but these weren’t the crux of my argument. There is more than enough room for decades of great science fiction ahead of us.

Anonymous said...

I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!