Science Fiction’s Imagined Black Swans

Most people watching a movie or reading a book set in the future would label the story science fiction.  Yet, if you look at the backlog of science fiction stories, which surely must exceed a million by now, has there ever been one that even came close to predicting the future?  Despite silly beliefs about Nostradamus, the future is obviously unpredictable.  The idea of prophecy has been around since the earliest of recorded history – which tells us it’s a well loved belief.  In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a full frontal assault on the idea of predicting the future which I think some science fiction fans will find enlightening.  Not only does Taleb feel predicting the future is usually delusional, but he also claims we have an innate mental mechanism that sees connections in ordinary reality where none exist.  He calls that brain function the “narrative fallacy.”

To be clear, science fiction never claims to predict the future.  Science fiction’s primary purpose, like all forms of fiction, is to entertain.  However, for some SF writers and fans, science fiction can be used as a tool to speculate about the future, and for those aficionados, The Black Swan is a book they will want to read.  Personally, I think science fiction is at a turning point – at a cusp – like when a religion turns from revelation to dogma.  Much of the skeptical knowledge that Taleb chronicles in his book has been around for centuries, but I think he produces a new synthesis that should be required reading for anyone who likes to make claims about reality or the future.

A black swan, as proposed by Taleb, is a major event that surprises everyone, usually one that shakes up the status quo, but is quickly rationalized in the public’s mind as an event that should have been foreseen.   9/11 is the perfect example of a black swan.  It’s so obvious after the fact, that terrorists could do massive damage with hijacked airliners that we should have made airplanes hijacker proof long ago.  But we didn’t.  The black swan is the metaphor that Taleb uses as a central focus to show off a lifetime of meditation and research about the problem of predicting the future.

I think all truly ambitious science fiction writers want to imagine a black swan, either getting the jump on a real one, or just conjuring up a fictional black swan that will dazzle the minds of their readers.  Just think, if back in 1898 Martians had really invaded Earth before H. G. Wells wrote his famous novel, what a tremendous black swan that would have been.  Think about Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, and the idea of cold sleep mixed with investments, that would have made a stunning black swan.  Science fiction is all about imaginary black swans.

Taleb’s day job is finance, an industry unlike science fiction, that bets the farm on predicting the future.  When science fiction writers speculate on the future they have nothing to lose but their writing reputations.  However, and this might be a narrative fallacy on my part, science fiction as a general concept also has a reputation to protect.  Sad to say, I feel in the mundane world of the well educated, science fiction has been judged to be no more than a fun toy for children or a literary outlet for nutty thinkers.

Again, I point out that science fiction seldom tries predicting the actual future.  You can judge science fiction with other crystal ball readers but that would be unfair.  However, we can critique science fiction on how creatively it speculates, by how accurate SF writers develop their “if this goes on” stories.  We know Wall Street, backed by armies of specialists and trillions of dollars, usually does a mediocre job for handling future scenarios.  That’s the focus of Taleb’s book, explaining why they do such a abysmal job.  The Black Swan makes it very clear how hard it is to speculate about the future and why.

So how does a field like science fiction composed of self-educated wild idea writers do?  Robert A. Heinlein’s first story, “Life-Line” is about an inventor who builds a machine that predicts how long people will live, illustrating how science fiction sometimes entertains the idea of predicting the future.  Heinlein’s early career was even built around his “Future History” stories.  Reading those stories now in his collection “The Past Through Tomorrow” shows how terrible he did as a pre-cog, but like I keep saying, that’s not the point.  We don’t have rolling roads, the first Moon landing wasn’t financed by a rich man, and people don’t hang out in bars on the Moon or inside space stations.  But men did land on the Moon.

I guessed that there’s been a million science fiction stories, but most short stories and novels usually contain dozens if not hundreds of imagined ideas about the future.  It’s like all these SF writers are firing shotguns at the future, each load a scattershot of ideas, and with the hope that maybe one tiny pellet might hit it’s mark occasionally.  The big black swan success of science fiction was the Apollo landings on the Moon.  Without wild eyed Sci-Fi visionaries it’s doubtful the idea of spending billions to send someone to the Moon would have occurred to the average human.  Now is that a narrative fallacy on my part that I see science fiction giving birth to the Apollo program way back when?

Space travel was the black swan science fiction has been predicting regularly since Jules Verne.  I think we can also give science fiction credit for robots, but what else?  And how many black swans has science fiction missed?  A common complaint against science fiction is it didn’t predict the impact of the computer on society, especially micro computers and the Internet.  A world strangled by terrorism was imagined by John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar.  Zanzibar is definitely not our world, but reading it you realize that it is possible to get pretty damn close at times.  

With hindsight, we can look backwards and make lame comparisons to all kinds of science fictional ideas and compare them to the present, such as Star Trek communicators and cell phones, or find it amusing that Jules Verne had his first lunar mission blasting off from Florida, of course his astronauts really blasted off, as in a canon shell!

Collective, the majority of science fiction stories have been predicting a black swan for over a hundred years now, and that’s the idea that space travel will transform humanity.  For almost fifty years, the narrative fallacy that I’ve personally pursued is space travel if our destiny.  Now I have to wonder if space civilizations are just stillborn black swans.  Do I just suffer doubt and impatience, or am I feeling the reality of skepticism?

To understand the idea of narrative fallacy imagine you are sleeping near an open window and you hear the bushes rustle.  Paranoid people will automatically think, “Oh my god, it’s a burglar.”  Other people might yell out, “Hey Rusty, is that you?” thinking it might be the neighbor’s cat, or some other pet.  Now it could be a raccoon or other varmint common to the neighborhood.  Some people might even worry it’s a vampire, ghost or evil spirit.  Depending on our personality and past experiences, our brains will instantly provide a narrative for the sound outside.  Few people go, “Why listen to the bushes, what a pleasant sound they make.”

Science fiction writers hear the bushes rustle and write, “The time traveler unfortunately popped into our space-time coordinates that were the same as my big holly bush” or “A tiny flying saucer from Betelgeuse must have crashed landed in the hedge just outside my bedroom window – I’m sure nothing else could have made that sound.”

Another way of looking at the situation, we’re all fiction writers constantly altering our perceived reality with narrative diarrhea, and quite often many of us are science fiction writers extending our speculations into the future, but sadly most of our ideas about reality and unfolding futures are absolutely wrong, if not dangerously delusional.  Sometimes the delusion is harmless, like thinking, “If Ashley will go out with me tonight surely I’ll get laid before the night is over.”  But if you think, “If I bet next week’s paycheck on the game I’ll make enough money to cover a check to Frank for that Mustang he’s selling” then the narrative fallacy could end up hurting you.

What Taleb is telling us in The Black Swan:  “Watch out!  Your thinking can be dangerous!”  A Zen master will have the mental self-control to avoid these all too human habits, but few regular folks do.  Watch the nightly news and try to see how many tragedies occur because people falsely imagined something about reality, or tried to predict the future.

The trouble is, we can’t live without laying down narratives to explain bits of reality or predicting the future.  If we truly tried to “Be Here Now” and not imaginatively interpret reality we’d have minds like cats.  If we avoided predicting the future, we wouldn’t see global warming coming.  Look what’s happening with extreme conservatives.  They have created a narrative where they equate President Obama to Hitler and they fear the U.S. will follow the same path Germany did in the 1930s.  But in my narrative, Germany was taken over by extremely aggressive conservatives that would go to any length to achieve their agenda. 

By Taleb’s accounting, we’re both wrong.  Simple narratives are always wrong in explaining complex realities, and the future can’t be predicted.  This also explains why most science fiction stories fail to imagine situations in the future that eventually come true.  We can’t predict the future, and simplified analogies like Star Trek communicators are like cells phones fail.  In Star Trek, Captain Kirk would open his communicator and say, “Scotty,” and Scotty would instantly reply, “Yes, Captain” as if poor Scotty had to forever sit with communicator in hand waiting for Jim’s call.  We know how cell phones work, and they don’t work that way.

The challenge to science fiction writers who want to speculate about the future and who have read The Black Swan will be to write a new kind of science fiction, one that is well verse in the predicting pitfalls that Taleb describes, but also write fiction skeptical about false narratives.  Science fiction has as many miracles in its history as ancient religions, and its done no better than ancient prophets at seeing the future.  A black swan savvy science fiction writer will have to thoroughly know and understand the mistakes science fiction has made in the past, and be extra wary of making new mistakes, and yet know the odds are still a million to one that he will fail.

Science, especially cosmology and astronomy is progressing so fast that it’s invalidating science fiction faster than it can be written.  Current knowledge about SETI and extra-solar planets kill off any ideas that older civilizations of intelligent beings exist in the core of the galaxy, or that anything living as we are aware of what life can be, could exist anywhere near the core of galaxies.  Our growing knowledge of radiation in the solar system is quickly changing what we can imagine for manned interplanetary space exploration.

In other words, for every imaginary black swan science fiction throws out, science throws out two real black swans.  Taleb focuses on financial black swans, like the recent housing market crash, black swans with massive impacts that are obvious to most citizens because they affect their reality.  Science produces black swans that are profound to scientists that can understand them, but are silent to the silent majority.  What I have to wonder if science hasn’t already killed the imaginary black swan of science fiction that sees the future of humanity living on other planets in our solar system and beyond.

Few people like raw reality, they prefer it with juicy narratives and futures of dazzling possibilities.  Billions embrace an imaginary black swan created two thousand years ago with the spread of Christianity that radically transformed humanity with the heavy concept of a resurrection.  Taleb deals with real black swans, but I see imaginary ones everywhere.

The black swan I’m waiting for is the one where everyone sees reality like Taleb suggests.  We live in a universe without gods, without afterlife, without narrative meaning.  The universe extends infinitely in all dimensional directions, always has, always will, and we are insignificant in relation to it.  Any purpose we find will be defined by ourselves, and as Taleb points out, that purpose is generally delusional, but other than that, we’re lucky beyond all measures of mathematics to be living in such a fantastic reality.  One of my favorite narrative delusions is science fiction can help us imagine reality and the future, like history and science give the illusion of how and why things have been working since the Big Bang.

If I fully embraced Taleb’s Black Swan thesis, I’d have to give up science fiction and live like a Zen Master.  That wouldn’t give me much to blog about.  My mental makeup is more like Robert Wright and his book The Evolution of God – I see purpose in reality, not spiritual evolution maybe, but I can’t wonder about the patterns in reality.  It appears that reality is evolving from chaos to order, but that might be my delusional narrative – it’s easy to see patterns in the infinite foam of reality.  I don’t think all of reality was created for the purpose of producing homo sapiens, but I can’t help wondering if our species is the first to wake up in the infinite foam of multiverse reality.  To me, science fiction’s real purpose is to be the natural philosophy that answers that question.

I’ve written about realistic science fiction before, and people who have read those essays probably think I’m becoming a harpy.  But some science fiction writers love the challenge of writing narratives about real reality and imagining possibilities for the future, and some readers love to read those stories.  That game only gets harder and more challenging, and but then it’s so much more fun.

JWH – 9/20/9   

4 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s Imagined Black Swans”

  1. Great article…I do think that S-F writers are thinking of Black Swans when they come up with their plot plans. Whether they are correct about the future or maybe they are adjusting our imaginations for the change around the corner…Jim

  2. I know this article was written two years ago, but I found an amusing black swan. In an essay about science fiction predicting the future, Isaac Asimov noted the difficulties. He said that prior to Neal Armstrong’s walk on the moon, there were literally hundreds of SF stories about the first manned landing on the moon.

    Not a single one of them predicted that when it actually happened, billions of people on Earth would be watching it live on TV.

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