Science Fiction in My Lifetime

When I wrote this title I intended it be about science fictional predictions coming true in my lifetime, and especially what might still happen before I die.  Then I realized it could also imply I was writing about the great science fictional books that came out in my lifetime, leaving me room to speculate on what far-out ideas could appear in the near future.  Over at Visions of Paradise, Bob Sabella chronicles seven waves of science fiction since H. G. Wells, and wonders when a new wave will hit.  I’ve lived through three of waves Bob describes, the 1950s transition from pulp mags to book SF, the 1960s New Wave and the most recent Cyberpunk movement, but I think we all live in a reality partly shaped by Herbert and Jules and their literary descendants.

Right now the science fiction scene is dormant.  Most of the new books in the science fiction section at your favorite bookstore are fantasy books, or adventures set in classical science fictional worlds, like Baroque art encouraged by the Catholic Church.  No radically new science fiction concepts have been created since the 1990s with the concepts of mind uploading and the singularity.  What I’d like to do is recap the big SF ideas of the 20th century and then try to predict where science fiction might go in the 21st century.

How many grand ideas imagined in science fiction stories will become real in our lifetimes?  Humans landing on the Moon is the shining example for science fiction stories going back hundreds of years.  Before that, submarines and airplanes were predicted long before they became a reality.  Some concepts are harder to judge.  Many science fiction stories were written about overpopulation, terrorism and running out of natural resources after the year 2000, and some of those dreary predictions are coming true, just read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.

How likely will the exciting, positive concepts of science fiction, bear fruit in our lifetimes?  Some people are anxiously awaiting flying cars and rocket backpacks.  Other fans are expecting alien visitors, while some folk can’t wait to go where no man has gone before themselves.  How many science fiction readers hope life-extension will keep them reading science fiction until the 22nd or 23rd centuries?  I know, I’d love my own Jeeves the robot.

I keep writing about the science of science fiction over and over again, but what really are the odds of these fantastic things happening before I die?  I had a revelation in the shower this morning.  Science fiction’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last 35 years not because of the validity of it’s ideas, but because the story telling has gotten dramatically better and thus appeals to a wider audience.

I thought my wife and lady friends were getting more and more into the ideas of science fiction when it became obvious they loved SF movies because of the hot actors and thrilling story telling.  Most people have zero expectation from science fiction, it’s just good fun.  They don’t want to homestead Mars, or expect the galactic overloads to come save Earth from ourselves.

I’ve been reading a number of classic science fiction novels from the 1950s this year and I’ve been amazed at the ideas, but disappointed with story telling aspects – it’s no wonder that science fiction had limited appeal back then.  I keep reading for the ideas and predictions, judging the science of science fiction, but the real success of science fiction in the last few decades has been in telling better stories.

I’m happy for that, but I want to focus on the science fiction ideas.  What are the likely odds for many of science fiction’s most popular visions coming true?  Let’s use the year 2050 as a cutoff.  If I could live to be 100, it would be 2051, so that’s close enough to call 2050 the end of my lifetime.  The odds I list are just my best-guess hunches because there is no way for anyone to really calculate them.  As far as I know, there are no bookies taking bets on these future endeavors.

Colonizing the Moon – 1 in 10

It’s been over 40 years since man has walked on the Moon, so this almost seemed a dead dream until China, India and Japan took a interest in the Moon and started up their own space programs.  This is very positive, except that the world-wide recession might slow things down.  Still the Moon is the logical base to start a beachhead on conquering space.  Colonizing the Moon is the cornerstone of all our science fictional dreams about space travel.

I think Robert A. Heinlein owned the Moon fictionally, with classics like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit-Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, The Menace From Earth, The Green Hills of Earth, Rocket Ship Galileo and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  John Varley and Rudy Rucker are modern writers who have been homesteading the Moon in recent years, giving it a twist with mind uploading, cloning and mad robots.

Some of these books are among my all-time favorite books, but I’ve got to admit, none of them have approach colonizing the Moon in any serious way.  For such an old subject this leaves lots of room for future science fiction writers to work.

Colonizing Mars – 1 in 100

Growing up in the 1960s I really expected to see manned missions to Mars in my lifetime.  It just seemed such an obvious step after the Apollo program  Men like Werner von Braun and Robert Zubrin made it sound so doable.  Well, it’s not.  If you do the research you’ll find just how tough a job going to Mars truly is, not impossible, but well on the edge of the limits of what humans can do now and the near future.

And I think it’s silly to think about Mars until we can conquer to Moon.  If we can send men and women to the Moon for three years, and prove we have the skills to keep them alive, then it will be time to talk about Mars.  However, colonizing Mars is the next step after the Moon, and for many, it’s the main goal.  On the other hand, I believe the road to the stars is paved with airless chunks of rock and we have a convenient one at hand to practice our space survival skills.

Many scientists have said it was amazing luck that some of the twelve men who made it to the Moon weren’t killed.  Most of their luck came from making short journeys lasting less than 2 weeks.  Moon dust would have ruined their suits, landers and machinery if they would have tried to stay much longer.  Is it possible to build self-contained habitats that will last three years, the length of a Mars mission?

Science fiction has always made the near impossible sound easy.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars have set the standard for Mars colony science fiction.  His work is far more realistic than most SF writers, but still way too full of fantasy.  Science fiction writers might be visionaries, but they have trouble seeing the details.  Speculation on how to build a self-sustaining colony on Mars is wide-open.  Terraforming is a great idea, but explaining how to build a computer on Mars without help from Earth would be magical.

Manned Missions Beyond Mars – 1 in 100,000

Theoretically, it’s well within our means technologically to colonize the Moon and Mars within the next 25-40 years.  We could make some amazing breakthroughs in technology that would allow us to go further, but we need to get busy, and I think public opinion will be against it.  To go beyond Mars will require developing nuclear rocket technology on the Moon or out in space.  Mars is about the maximum range for manned missions using chemical rockets, and that mission would be far easier if we could perfect nuclear rocketry before we try.  The people of the Earth will not let scientists develop nuclear rockets anywhere near our home world.  The Moon is a fine place to work with radioactive elements.  The real future of manned space travel will depend on the industrialization of the Moon.

Asteroid miners have been a staple of SF since the days of John W. Campbell took over Astounding, ignoring the fact that it’s much cheaper to find the same resources locally on Earth, the Moon or Mars.  Unless space ships can be built on the Moon, mining asteroids is silly.  Any colony on the Moon will want organic elements, and especially hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon.  Moonies will probably want to mine comets.

Manned Interstellar Flight – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I guess it’s possible we could discover some magical space drive system that will let us zoom off to the stars before 2050, but it’s highly unlikely.  Personally, I think the only way for humans will travel to the stars will be to build giant generational spaceships that can operate for thousands of years, but even that idea is mostly fantasy.  We might have the will and tech to build interstellar spaceships in a few centuries, but for now the idea is almost pure fantasy.  Star Wars like galactic civilizations are absolute pure fantasy.  Even our very best hard science fiction novels are really just thrilling stories, and are rather pointless for our needs of predicting the near future.  Hard core space opera gives us grand hopes, but the chances of colonizing worlds around other stars is about equal to finding biological immortality.

Intelligent Humanoid Robots – 1 in 5

Asimov, Simak and Williamson ruled the robot stories, but robot stories aren’t as popular today.  Robots and robotics seem to be moving full-steam ahead though, with scientists like Ray Kurzweil predicting an artificial intelligence singularity in the near future.  Hobby robotics is probably much more popular than hobby rocketry ever was.  Anybody with some programming ambition can get into robotics.  And after Spirit and Opportunity’s success on Mars, I can even picture an ever evolving series of robots going where no man can afford to go.  That’s a goddamn shame, but that’s the way it is.  I hope NASA at least starts building in real-time high definition video feeds from it’s metal Martian explorers so us biological creatures back on Earth can feel like we’re walking on Mars vicariously.

Many people believe artificial intelligence is impossible.  I figure if nature can accidentally stumble upon the recipe, than scientists should be able to figure it out sooner or later.  The question is how long.  Robots are cheap enough compared to manned space exploration, so we should see a continual increase in robotic intelligence on space missions, and that might evolve into intelligent robots.  The military is also pushing robots to do more.  The more we ask of robots the more intelligence they acquire.

What’s surprising is I don’t think science fiction has ever done any really good realistic robot stories, either they are people-like and cute, or they are like Gort, all-powerful and scary.  Commander Data was among the best, but not very realistic.  Before 2050 I think we’ll see some pretty amazing robots, and just maybe science fiction will predict what they really will be like.

Visitors From Space – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I’d really love to be proven wrong here.  We could use an alien like Klaatu or Karellen to knock some sense into us, but I don’t think that will happen.  What are the odds of intelligent life developing anywhere in the universe?  What are the odds of intelligent life developing twice and near enough to each other to visit?  It must be tremendous.  I’m not saying it’s impossible.  Let’s say it will be nice surprise.

For story purposes, the concept of visitors from space is pretty tired, although it will remain popular.  The idea has endless possibilities and offers so much fun and thrills.  Essentially, it’s a fantasy concept equal to stories about angels and vampires.

SETI Contact – 1 in 1,000,000,000

Detecting an intelligent signal from space is probably far more likely than having aliens over for coffee.  Detecting intelligent alien life in the universe would have profound philosophical implications to our society, so it’s strange that this topic is so seldom tackled by science fiction.  Often it’s a setup for physical contact or acquiring super-science, like Contact by Carl Sagan.  We need more books like His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem, The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt and The Listeners by James Gunn.

I figured if we were real lucky, and I mean astronomically numbered lucky, SETI would detect a signal from space before I passed on.  That’s the most exciting thing I can practically hope for, but I doubt it will happen.  I think if we build some really gigantic space telescopes we might visually detect artificial elements in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.

Cloning Humans – 1 in 100

I’ve always considered cloning boring.  It’s making a human without sex, but you end up with another human, big whoop. Most science fiction is about 20 year-old cloned bodies grown in a month, which is silly.  Also, the idea of copying the brain patterns of a natural human onto a clone’s brain is also silly.

Uploading Minds – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

Mind uploading is a growing topic.  It’s all part of the Human 2.0 theorizing, and has been slowly emerging in science fiction for decades.

[You can see the complete documentary here, or go to YouTube and watch all the parts.]

Whether you copy my brain to a computer simulation, clone, or android mind, I’m still going to die in the process.  What’s the point?  This is no route to immortality.  I’d much rather design an AI mind than copy my own.  Being alive is about experiencing the now, and that’s not copying memories.  However, seeking to reach Human 2.0 status is where much of the science fictional action will be during the 21st century.

The Cutting Edge

If you really want to explore the frontier of what’s happening scientifically, right on the border of where science meets science fiction, be sure and read the Edge.org.  Top thinkers from around the world examine the most far out ideas on the planet.  Most of the articles are very down to Earth, but some could be used to springboard into science fiction stories.

The Future of Science Fiction

From what I can detect, I’m thinking the appeal of science fiction is even waning, at least for the moment.  I examined many months of book reviews at SFSite.com and only a handful could be considered new breakthrough science fiction.  If the editors there removed all the obvious fantasy titles their site would shrink dramatically.  Many of the titles that most SF fans would classify as science fiction, are really adventure stories set in old comfortable science fiction worlds with few writers trying to imagine anything new conceptually.  Like I said above, science fiction writers have gotten much better at telling stories.

Right now I think of all the predictions dreamed up by science fiction writers, I think robots, AI and Human 2.0 explorations are the ones most likely to come somewhat truer in my lifetime.  SETI contact with alien signals from space is going to be like finding one snowflake in all the snow storms of Earth each winter.  It could happen, it might take a thousand years, or a million years, or it could be next year.

I don’t think we’ll ever seen visitors from the stars, and I doubt mankind will ever be an alien invader.  Science fiction has always been deceptive about interstellar rocketships, implying they’d be something like a new model airliner from Boeing.  That thinking is on the order of asking how fast does Santa have to travel to visit every house on Earth.

Until men and women colonize the Moon and Mars and we learn how to build with materials found in outer space and create a new economy that has no dependency on Earth, we won’t be able to think about traveling further than Mars.

I think the dramatic new ideas that come out of science fiction will be about living on Earth.  The potential of combining the Internet, artificial intelligence, robots, advanced learning techniques, simulated computer worlds, and so on will generate new possibilities for humans.  Science fiction writers need to think very hard about what’s going on in this world.  Sooner or later a new H. G. Wells, Jules Verne or Robert A. Heinlein will show up and surprise us.

JWH 12/28/8

10 thoughts on “Science Fiction in My Lifetime”

  1. Hi Jim,

    I am not sure that “right now the science fiction scene is dormant.” There is still a lot of good stuff out there, it has just become harder to find because of being buried beneath all the “fantasy books, or adventures set in classical science fictional worlds.” And while I agree with you that there are not a whole lot of new sfnal ideas being created, there are still writers pushing the envelope as much as possible. If you like ideas, I recommend Alastair Reynolds (particularly his Revelation Space trilogy which was chockful of ideas), Stephen Baxter (his Xeelee universe, a good snapshot of which can be found in his collection Resplendent), Karl Schroeder (his Virga series has garnered some very exciting reviews, although I have not read it yet) and Vernor Vinge, who invariably pushes new ideas.

    Of course, I’m not really a science/technology person, so sf predictions do not particularly interest me per se. I’m more of a history person, so I look for well-developed future histories. To me, technological developments in an sf story do not need to be new; only the cultures and societies being created need to be interesting and believable, and that does occur in works by authors such as Iain M. Banks (his Culture stories), C.J. Cherryh (an old-timer who is still thinking), Robert Reed (I enjoy his Great Ship stories), Julie Czerneda (a world-builder similar to Cherryh), Jack McDevitt (an old-fashioned storyteller but his world is filled with historical nuggets), Dan Simmons (his Hyperion series, although admittedly it is somewhat old now), Sherri S. Tepper (a sadly-underappreciated author), Kay Kenyon (I haven’t read her Entire And the Rose series yet, but all I’ve read about it excites my sense of wonder), Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (their Liaden series), among others.

    Although I am not a professional writer, and am unlikely to ever be one, my own future history (which has nearly a dozen completed stories in it) flies against the future of “the Internet, artificial intelligence, robots, advanced learning techniques, simulated computer worlds, and so on will generate new possibilities for humans” and creates a sparsely-populated, low-tech future for Earth following a catastrophic technological meltdown in the 21st century followed by a mass exodus offworld. And why not? SF does not have to extrapolate directly from the present, but sometimes the most innovative work heads off in drastic directions totally unexpected and works out. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t, but Sturgeon’s Law somewhat predicts that.

    I do agree that “sooner or later a new H. G. Wells, Jules Verne or Robert A. Heinlein will show up and surprise us.” I await such a development eagerly.

    Bob

  2. Thank you for this post! I’m a big sci-fi fan and really enjoyed the review and comparisons. It’s funny how the group of kids who, like me, grew up with Trek have designed the “communicator” flip-phone and so many other devices. Science fiction should certainly continue to inspire science fact.

  3. Not sure what this is and so I am certainly not recommending it, however I stumbled upon it on SF Signal right after reading your post and its title caught my eye:

    http://manybooks.net/titles/wicksm2763327633-8.html#

    I won’t argue with you about the ‘dormancy’ of science fiction. I certainly feel that I have read some great novels published in the last 3 years but in light of what you are trying to say regarding the ‘science’ aspect and pushing the scientific envelope I gladly bow to your expertise as I really have no great knowledge in this area as it is a very peripheral interest as opposed to the passion that you have for it. I’m thrilled that people like you are passionate about it as that increases the odds that advancements will be made sooner rather than later. I fear the financial and environmental crises may add years on to any major advancements but it is hard to tell. Maybe these crises will steer thinking towards scientific advancement as a way to solve problems and avert future crises. We’ll see.

    As for stories, I am thrilled that sci fi writers are becoming better storytellers. In the end it is all about what one wants from science fiction. I think I am perfectly happy with the most broad definition of science fiction because I love space opera. I love adventure stories set in space. While those may not push the ‘science’ aspect of ‘science fiction’ I still cannot help enjoying the heck out of them. And, though you already know this because of previous conversations, I am not only content with my primary purpose of reading being entertainment but I also posit that this kind of entertainment is a good and positive thing. I certainly have been inspired in my writing, in my own personal creativity, and in the way I view things by many, many different types of novels. I have not found over the years that the more ‘literary or thought provoking or genre-bending’ novels are any different than a typical adventure set in a sci fi or fantasy landscape in this respect. It is more often than not something about the writing that inspires me, that causes me to want to go out and gaze at the night sky dreaming of those sci fi advancements that we both assumed would have been here by now. It will be interesting to see how your predictions pan out over the next few decades.

  4. I’ve tried in my novels to showcase new environments in space that haven’t been done before. It’s not as original as inventing a whole new genre, and certainly continues the traditions of Robert Forward and Hal Clement, but I do aspire to originality when I write a book. It’s really hard to do, of course, but I believe it can be done which is different from plenty of writers who think Shakespeare did it all and we’re just writing the same old stories with new characters and settings that are variations on old characters and old settings.

  5. I only see one case where you use the word ‘science’ without it being followed by ‘fiction’ or ‘fictional’.

    Where is science fiction actually used to encourage the understanding of science? In your discussion of SF in the 80s you say it has become more fantasy. That is the problem.

    People can’t figure out the Newtonian Physics of supposedly collapsing skyscrapers.

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