The Future 101: Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about the future, but in a different way.  Can we understand the future in any meaningful way?  Now, I don’t mean the actual future that will unfold, but the concept of the future as a feature of reality.  Asking “What is the future?” is more like a Zen kōan than a scientific inquiry.  We think of time as the 4th dimension, as one long continuous stretching of three dimensional space.  And because of science fiction we picture traveling  to other points in time as if they were another spatial coordinate.  I think this is a false concept that corrupts our sense of the past and future.

Another problem we face, is we think of time personally.  Consciousness experiences the now, so it feels like the past is our life before now, and the future is what happens next.  But if the Earth is sterilized by a gamma ray burst in the next minute, reality would continue without us, and so would the future.  Although we experience time as self-aware beings, time exists outside ourselves.  We might exist in the future, and we might not.

Time exists without our consciousness being aware of it.  A tree has very limited awareness of its moment in existence, but its there in the now, and it has a past and future.  Our conscious mind observes the now, remembers the past, and anticipates the future.  Science fiction is the literature about anticipating the future.  We like to think that science fiction both prepares us for possible futures, and helps us build specific futures.  For example, science fiction warns us against the singularity, yet inspires us to build intelligent robots.

The trouble is we don’t take the future seriously.  If we did we would eat healthy and not alter the carbon dioxide ratio in the atmosphere.  We regularly interact with the future, like a squirrel burying nuts, or humans going to the grocery store to buy a week’s groceries, but reaching into the future has a limited range.  Instead of using science fiction to prepare us for the future, we’ve often turned it into Coca-Cola and cotton candy, empty calories to enjoy in the present moment of now.  Our immediate desires always overwhelm any knowledge we might have about the future.  Dealing with the future requires tremendous discipline that most of us lack, including myself.

One analogy that has occurred to me is to think of our brain as a CPU which is the now.  The past is everything written on the hard disk, and the future is the output we’re going to write to the hard disk.  Over time that contents of the hard disk changes.  The now is the main loop of our programming, just idling through the processing cycles.  If we want to interact with the future, we have to write something out to the hard drive, or delete an old file.

Most of us have great expectations about the future.  Some of us worry about the future.  Between dreamers and doomsayers, we find all hopes and fears.  Tomorrow is often pretty much like today, but ten years from now will be more surprising than how memories of ten years ago feels now.  Everything we want is in the future because everything we have is now.  When we throw the dice we want to win big and not come up snake eyes.  We’re all futurologists in that we hope to plan our future accomplishments and predict the obstacles.

SF-logo

We want to know the future even though we know we can’t.  We predict the future even though we know we’ll be wrong.  We just can’t help ourselves.  Some people believe in crystal balls, others in statistics, but some turn to science fiction.  Science fiction plays on the same dichotomy as most people feel about the future—some SF writers write about what they hope will happen, and others write about what they fear will happen.

For over a century before space travel writers wrote about humans traveling to the Moon, planets and to other star systems.  Did science fiction writers predict that humans would travel in space, or did they inspires people to build rockets and space capsules?  Would space travel ever been invented if we hadn’t dreamed about it first?  Some people believe the future already exists and its just a matter of waiting for it to play out.  Others believe the future does not exist, only the now exists, so whatever the future will be won’t be determined until we reach that now to be.

From my personal experience, and reading piles of science books, I don’t think the future exists yet.  Nor do I believe time travel is possible.  I’m a now person.  However, I do think we can interact with the future in limited ways.  On the other hand, I’m not sure our many fantasies about the future do anything at all.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always said, “The future is everything I never imagined” even though I spent all my time trying to imagine the future.  Now that I’m living in the future, or a future now, it feels like any fantasy I had wiped out its possibility of coming true.  Sort of a weird corruption of the Uncertainty Principle.  I pictured myself going to Mars, so I never went to Mars.  I pictured humans going to Mars, so no one made it to Mars.  Sorry guys, to jinx things.   My mother had a variation on this theme.  She believed worrying about something bad will happen would keep it from happening.

Most of us will wake up tomorrow and find the future, and we’ll do that on average 30,000 times.  Each time a little surprise—until the day we don’t.  Now will cease to exist.  What divides us from the rest of the animals on this planet is we have hopes for the future.  We all want something from the future.  If we’re a child, we want Santa to bring us something exciting, if we’re a teen we want to fall in love and lose our virginity, if we’re in our twenties we want to graduate college and find a great job, and so on, until our only hope is to have a tomorrow, any tomorrow.  Some people want to be rock stars in the future, and others just want more to eat, and some just hope to keep existing.  To me happiness is having something to look forward to, even though it might not happen.

Science fiction books are fantasies about the future, some about things we want to happen, and some about things we hope won’t happen.

The common assumption is science fiction does not predict the future, but speculates on possible futures.  The truth is science fiction is a bunch of wild ideas that we find entertaining and has no relationship to the actual future even when it’s seriously speculative, extrapolating on current events, and is of little use for preparing us for the future.  Science fiction is fun escapism from the present for the most part, and occasionally insightful observations about the here and now.  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is a brilliant use of science fiction, but does it help us with the future, or help us with how we live now?

Robert A. Heinlein took himself quite seriously as a writer of speculative fiction.  He thought three books expressed his ideas best:  Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I doubt he meant to be remembered for starting military SF, creating a hippie Bible, and not starting a popular catch phrase about free lunches.  I’ve read these books many times and I don’t think they say anything about the future at all, but a whole lot about Robert A. Heinlein.  He wanted them to be about freedom and responsibility, but I’m not sure even that comes through.   Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s idea of 1990 from 1960.  Many people think it’s about the 1960s.  After living through both times I don’t feel its about either, but it seems to say a whole lot about Heinlein’s pet ideas and peeves.

I’m starting to wonder if science fiction is about no time at all, like The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

I’m reading Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.   I don’t think we can predict the future, but I also think the only way to talk about the future is through statistics based on knowing a whole lot data about the past.  I’ll write The Future 101:  Statistics in the future. (Is that a prediction or plan?)  But for now, I shall ask, “How many science fiction novels study the past to extrapolate the future” like Piketty?  I think the common quick answer will be:  Many.  However, I think that’s wrong.  If a science fiction writer writes a well thought out book about people living in the year 2114 and how global warming has changed the world, is that really doing the same thing that Piketty is doing with all his graphs and data sets?  It’s obvious that it’s what climate scientists are doing, but is it the same thing for novel writers?

I don’t think so.  Is there any past science fiction novel about our times that sounds anything close to what’s happening now?  Climate scientists have been graphing changes in average world temperature and CO2 concentrations for decades, and our current temperatures and concentrations fall nicely on their graphs.  Is this predicting the future?  Maybe that’s as close as we can come to predicting the future.  The thing about graphs is they do change, and sometimes surprisingly so, but there’s always a reason why the numbers do something different that changes the direction of the curve.  Being able to say what those things will be ahead of time is really predicting the future.  And we can’t do that.

We can predict rising CO2 concentrations, but we can’t predict what we will do about them

Scientists had hoped twenty years ago that humanity would have heard their warnings and changed their habits so their curves would have reversed direction.  They were hoping to change the future.  Science fiction writers writing about the future of humans colonizing the solar system and the galaxy were hoping they were influencing such a future to happen.  Has that happened?

Science fiction never wanted to predict the future, it never has.  Science fiction has always been about shaping the future.  And strangely, isn’t that what we do all the time.  When Apple rolled out the iPhone didn’t they shape the future?  Without Amazing Stories and Astounding, would we have the space programs we do have today?  Did “The Man Who Sold The Moon” shape the future to produce SpaceX?  I don’t know.  That’s why I writing this essay.

The future is relentless, it’s always coming.  Everything in the now makes the future.  A tree making a seed effects the future.  When we buy groceries how much is just putting food in a shopping cart and how much is reaching into the future to make Thursday’s night dinner?  If we knew that, we’d know how much science fiction influences the future.

JWH – 6/19/14

6 thoughts on “The Future 101: Science Fiction”

  1. I’m sure it’s not, but this post seems to me like it might have been written as ‘steve bait’.
    I do take objection to one statement you made: right after you say that SF is a jumble of ideas and if little use in helping us with the future, you mention 1984. I think, and the volumes written about it, seem to make it pretty clear that 1984 DID help us – western society – anticipate an electronic survelliance world and ‘may’ have helped us avoid the worst kinds of expressions of it; at the very least, it helped us recognize when we’d arrived in an era that had the potential to veer in that direction, and taught us to be on guard against it. (Failure to prevent some abuses is not a failure of the forecast, its a failure of those receiving the forecast)

  2. I’ve written about 1984 before and think it’s brilliant. Most science fiction is just entertainment, so I was throwing out 1984 as one exception. There’s nothing wrong with writing just entertaining SF. Few science fiction writers are serious about exploring the future, and mainly use it as a vague fantasy land to play in. And I’m not really criticizing that, I’m just saying they aren’t dealing with the future like I’m talking about.

    Orwell does deal with the future like what I’m talking about. Orwell is saying the groceries we’re buying today is going to make some very horrible meals in the future. Actually, I think Orwell was savvy enough about the future to know that we’d be reading Nineteen Eighty-Four well past 1984 and we’d know what he was talking about. He was speaking to the people of his day, and the people of the future.

    But it’s actually more complicated than that too. Orwell was a very astute observer of the now and knew the future grows from seeds we plant today. He knew the universal in people, and how they would act under new conditions. Steve, we’re both in agreement about Orwell, and we’re probably in agreement about how most science fiction writers don’t have his skills to understand how today becomes tomorrow.

    By the way, I read your review of the second volume of the new Heinlein biography and was impressed by what you said. Patterson did a good job of defending Heinlein, but somehow made Heinlein unlikable. I’ve always admired Heinlein, but that admiration is fading as I grow older.

  3. Science Fiction is usually reflective of the present. Is Stranger in a Strange Land about the future or is it about the 60s? Was the Forever War really talking about the future or was it a reaction to Vietnam? It will be interesting to see if it is distance that makes this clearer. Is the Science Fiction coming out now equally reflective of our current culture?

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