Science fiction isn’t (as a rule) about predicting the future, and science fiction writers aren’t trying to predict it.
“No sensible science-fiction writer tries to predict anything,” says Frederick Pohl, whose work includes the classic The Space Merchants (written with Cyril M. Kornbluth), MAN PLUS, and most recently The Last Theorem, co-authored with the late Arthur C. Clarke. “Neither do the smartest futurologists. What those people do is try to imagine every important thing that may happen (so as to do in the present things which may encourage the good ones and forestall the bad) and that’s what SF writers do in their daily toil.”
Even When They Weren’t Trying
Getting to the moon by shooting a manned capsule out of a way big cannon—Jules Verne, From The Earth To The Moon.
Getting to the moon courtesy of an anti-gravity metal—H.G. Wells, The First Men In The Moon courtesy of Cavorite, an anti-gravity metal.
Automatically controlled sliding doors (and dozens of other things)—Hugo Gernsback. The telecommunications satellite— the late Arthur C. Clarke. Tele-operated robotic hands, and waterbeds—Robert Heinlein.
…and even more Predictions From Science Fiction.
But many science fiction stories are set in the future, which means they need to include the future of technology (or present reasons why things haven’t changed). That is, they have to extrapolate from “what/where things have been and are” to “what/where might be.”
CIO invited noted science fiction authors Larry Niven, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress and Charles Stross to share their thoughts on technology-related predictions, including lessons learned in the “business” of imagining what the future might be like. Here’s what they had to say (via e-mail).
What have you learned about predicting technology’s future?
From ramscoops and brain pleasure implants (“drouds”) to Romulan-class warrior cats (“Kzinti) and Earth-orbit-sized habitats (the Ringworld), few science fiction writers have given us bigger visions than Larry Niven.
Niven has written or co-authored over 50 books, including the Ringworld series, and with co-author Jerry Pournelle, The Mote In God’s Eye, The Gripping Hand and Oath of Fealty. Niven has won five Hugo Awards (awarded annually by science fiction fans) and a Nebula Award (awarded annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America). His most recent books include Juggler of Worlds (with co-author Edward M. Lerner) and the upcoming Escape From Hell (with Jerry Pournelle), a sequence to their Inferno. Niven’s science fiction includes a wide range of technology we don’t (yet) have, from room-temperature supercomputers (Ringworld) to “stepping disks” (manhole-sized unenclosed teleportation units).
Here’s what Niven has to say regarding techniques for predicting a valid future technology:
Look for the goals humankind will never give up. Instant travel, instant education, longevity. Then try to guess when it will appear and what it will look like.
Pay close attention to parasite control. There is always someone who wants the money for something else.
You’re obliged to predict not just the automobile but the traffic jam and the stranglehold on gas prices.
Nobody invents anything unless there is at least the illusion of a profit.
The only science fiction movie that did this right, according to Niven (it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to the last point, or all his bullet points), was the 1983 film Brainstorm, in which, according to Niven, “a valid technology was followed from its inception to its limits.”
“This goes right back to the Space Race, and the movie 2001,” (directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke) says Robert J. Sawyer.
Sawyer has written over 20 science fiction books, including his Neanderthal trilogy, Factoring Humanity, and Mindscan, plus numerous stories. His most recent novel is Rollback, and he has a trilogy in progress (the first volume due April 2009) in which the Web wakes up. Sawyer is one of only seven writers in history—and the only Canadian—to win all three of the world’s top Science Fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.
“No one predicted in 1969, when the first man walked on the moon, that the last man would walk on the moon just three years later,” Sawyer points out. “When Arthur C. Clarke depicted all those wonders—artificial intelligence, suspended animation, floating hotels, cities on the moon, manned interplanetary travel—in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, those seemed like reasonable predictions for the dawn of this century, but none of them came to pass.”
“The trap we science and space buffs always fall into is thinking that everybody will want the things that we want,” Sawyer explains. “They don’t; they have their own agendas, and ultimately, as in everything, it’s the economy, stupid. Just because you personally want something doesn’t mean there’s a market for it. Just because we technically could do something doesn’t mean that’s how others want to see their tax dollars spent.”
“Future tech can only be predicted short-term—say, 10 or 15 years ahead,” states Nancy Kress.
Kress is the author of 25 books, including 16 science fiction or fantasy novels, two thrillers, four story collections and three books on writing. Her most recent books are Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories and the present-day bio-thriller Dogs. Forthcoming is Steal Across the Sky, “an SF novel of galactic crime, genetic engineering and alien atonement.” Kress has won every major award in science fiction, including four Nebulas given by the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Yes, Clarke got communication satellites right, Kress says “—but he missed computers in, say, the classic Childhood’s End. When writers extrapolate from existing trends, that leaves out the wild card, which is where the most interesting tech often comes from—Alexander Fleming noticing a contaminant on lab bacteria, Steve Jobs tinkering in his garage.”
Talking lobsters? Post-singularity hyper-tech? Inherited parallel world-hopping? Bank robberies in virtual reality? Who else could this be but Charles Stross? In addition to dozens of articles for Computer Shopper and other computer publications on the subjects of Linux, Perl and other topics, Stross has written dozens of stories and 16 science fiction novels to date, including Saturn’s Children, Halting State and his Merchant Princes series.
“Donald Rumsfeld was right,” states Stross. “That is to say, his point about the known unknowns and unknown unknowns nailed the problem of predicting the future spot-on. We can point to extrapolations of current technological and social trends, but we can’t extrapolate on the basis of stuff that hasn’t been discovered yet. For example: In 1962 it was possible, just about, to see the future of integrated circuitry (and even, if you were very far-sighted, to glimpse Moore’s Law and its implications), but the CD player was right out of the picture— solid state lasers lay at least a decade in the future.”
What one or two predictions do you feel you got right—or way wrong?
“The one I’m proudest of is predicting the YouTube user-generated video revolution,” says Robert Sawyer. “That was in 1998’s Factoring Humanity (in which I called it ‘desktop TV,’ as a parallel to ‘desktop publishing’); Factoring Humanity was a Hugo Award-finalist.”
On his “missed” list, says Sawyer, “The notion that we’d have flying cars by 2030 (which I have in my 1999 novel, FlashForward. Granted, 2030 hasn’t rolled around yet, but I now think that flying cars are as unlikely as eating pills instead of full meals, the other big prediction that ‘The Jetsons’ made; both of those things are cartoon ideas, not reasonable predictions.”
Nancy Kress says, “My novel Beggars in Spain postulated sleeplessness, and although we’re not yet there, the drug modafinil brings us much closer. My short story “Evolution” is based on the resistance of disease to every antibiotic we can throw at it—a prediction just starting to come true and likely to become far, far worse. On the other hand, I hope I’m dead wrong about Stinger’s creation of genetically engineered pathogens that can target a specific population, and also about the ultimate extent of global warming in Nothing Human. We’ll know in 100 years.”
If you were writing one of your novels or stories today, would you change anything about the predictions you made?
“In my most recent novel, Rollback, published in 2007, I predicted that humanoid household robots would be common within 40 years,” says Robert Sawyer. “I’d revise that figure way downward now. Having been to MIT recently, and looking at what’s coming out of Japan, I suspect we’ll see them much sooner than that. People want household help; people hate anything that makes them conscious of class and past injustices. Robots are the answer, and they’ll be here soon.”
Nancy Kress wouldn’t change anything. “The short-term predictions have proved true, and the long-term ones can’t yet be verified or disproven. Literary safety in avoiding the mid-range timescale!”
What advice do you have for writers—or technologists—trying to make five to twenty year predictions and forecasts?
“The standard advice is to be aggressive in your predictions; there’s this notion that the future always comes faster than you think it will,” suggests Robert Sawyer.
“But, actually, I think a lot of us underestimated social inertia,” he adds. “Most of us predicted a secular 21st century, and it’s anything but that. The world is like a person: It doesn’t change as it gets older. Rather, it simply becomes more obviously what it always was. People always liked having phones and portable music, but most people never wanted to lug a camera, or an ebook reader, or a PDA around. The future is adding functionality to those things we’ve already admitted into our lives, not trying to convince people they need new categories of things; the iPhone—the all-in-one device that is, first and foremost, something familiar—is the correct paradigm.”
Charles Stross says, “We are living in interesting times; in fact, they’re so interesting that it is not currently possible to write near-future SF.” (See Stross’ essay, Living through Interesting Times for more on this.)
Nancy Kress advises those who are trying to predict the future to “Study the cutting edge of the specific field. Create wild cards. And then don’t worry about being wrong—it’s science fiction.”
One thing we personally feel safe in predicting: You’ll enjoy reading what these authors have to say. And what could be cooler than reading science fiction as part of your job?
Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, Mass. His website is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.