Science Fiction in the 22nd Century

by James Wallace Harris

I’ve been wondering if most science fictional concepts were invented in the 19th and 20th centuries and if we’ll just be reprocessing old speculative ideas during the 21st century?

Just now I was flipping through the listings of all the forthcoming and recently published science fiction on Most of the titles and authors were ones I had never heard of before. There’s tons of science fiction coming out, but after reading their blurbs I’m not sure if any of them offer new SF inventions. Well, if you’re young and haven’t read tons of science fiction, then there are lots of new ideas to encounter. But if you’re old and have been reading science fiction for decades it seems like all the ideas have been used before. Is it possible we’ve already explored the limits of science fiction?

RingworldFiction has been around for thousands of years and most plots are retreads. Quite often scholars of fiction try to consolidate plots into a limited standard number. When I first started reading science fiction in the 1960s it felt like an author would come up with a new SF idea, and then spin an old plot around it. For example, Ringworld, very neat idea, but the plot reminded me of Oz books. Regular folks go on an adventure, meet lots of strange folks, see lots of weird sights, then travel together until the story ends.

I’m not sure if Larry Niven invented the concept of a ringworld, but Wikipedia credits Olaf Stapledon for imagining the first solar megastructure which we now call a Dyson sphere. I’d think a ringworld would be a creative variation. Just in terms of solar megastructures how many original structures could be imagined and how many creative variations? I’m sure there are limits.

I thought the 1938 story “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey was the first story of a man marrying a robot, but then this year I read “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller from 1895, and I wondered just how old is the idea of building spouses to order? The second half of the 20th century has countless romantic stories between humans and robots. The idea is well-liked now, but when will it be too known to entertain?

A twelve-year-old kid could read a new story today about a love affair between a machine and homo sapien and think it a fresh concept. I guess that means science fiction in the 22nd century will still provide a sense of wonder even if the ideas it presents are actually very old. Of course, by then people might actually be marrying robots. Who writes about first trips to the Moon anymore? Will science eventually ruin all the practical science fictional ideas by actually constructing them?

Arcadia by Iain PearsYet, I wonder, even worry, that science fiction has run out of good ideas. I don’t mean good ideas for plots, which are endless, but good ideas like space travel, time travel, dimensional travel, intelligent life besides us, creating intelligent life, creating artificial life, digital realities, etc. I’m currently reading Arcadia by Iain Pears which blends fantasy, science fiction, philosophy, myth, and religion into one clever story. If feels very original because of its complexity of plot, but is it original in ideas? Arcadia is great fun, but I keep hoping Pears will surprise me with an original SF concept. Pears constantly delights me with creative twists and turns of his story though, and maybe that’s good enough for an old jaded reader.

Biology is more complex than the chemistry of cosmology and seems to offer unlimited permutations here on Earth. But still, I imagine there’s a limit to what biology can produce. Writing science fiction is a spin-off of biology, but ultimately, won’t it have limits?

Maybe artificial intelligence will surpass what biology can produce, but AI will exist in a reality of physics, chemistry, and biology and may develop a greater degree of complexity than we’ve seen in biology. If atoms and molecules had been intelligent could they have foreseen the creative complexity of biology? I doubt we can imagine what AI minds will create, maybe their own version of science fiction. But I’m wondering if we intelligent biological creatures have limits and if our science fiction also has limits.

If we evolve Homo Sapiens 2.0 and they are much smarter than us, will they find more to occupy themselves in this solar system and galaxy than we could? More intelligence might actually produce interstellar drives but isn’t colonizing another planet still just colonizing another planet? Is building a galactic empire the most complex thing we can imagine doing?

Olaf Stapledon back in the 1930s imagined some very far out SF ideas, many of which were recycled in Star Trek and Star Wars. Aliens with psychic powers is a very tired concept though. It’s closer to the magical hopes of religion than science. One problem with being an older science fiction fan is we eventually feel all the ideas we encounter in science fiction are old.

The result of this jadedness is a sense of confinement. The perfect story to illustrate how I feel is “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. I call it the aquarium effect. We pity poor fish that live in an aquarium because they have a barrier they can’t cross. We all live in an aquarium, but we don’t all know where the glass is.

I wonder if science fiction hasn’t already found all the aquarium walls that confine us but we can’t know it because of the limitations of our minds. One of our major flaws is we imagine more is possible then is possible. Religion blinds people to our real limits, and so does science fiction.




19 thoughts on “Science Fiction in the 22nd Century”

  1. I don’t think that I read science fiction for its ideas, given all the sf “classics” I’ve not read, so I’m not concerned about a lack of new ideas. As you point out, they’ll all be new to the 22nd century 12 year old who first starts reading sf (if they’re still reading in the 22nd century) since we’re not born with the accumulated knowledge, stories, and wisdom of the previous ages. Plus, many ideas will become obsolete, forgotten, only to be re-envisioned and reinvented shiny new for the 22nd century.

    As for limits, they are real and practical – venture beyond them and you’re in the land of gibberish. We’re only human. And while these limits may vary from reader to reader, as long as science fiction is a commercial endeavor, those limits will never be too far beyond wonderful, but comprehensible, to the human readers of the age. What the machines will find entertaining is anyone’s guess – writing files to entertain the machines might spark be a whole new field of ideas – ones that make no sense to us. Maybe someone should write a story about a fellow who has to keep writing non-sense files to amuse the machine overlords to stay alive… Oh, wait, I think it’s called A Thousand and One Arabian Nights…

    1. Back in the 1960s my buddies and I loved science fiction for the ideas. We loved finding stories with a cool concept and then telling the others about it first. Often they were silly ideas, like the theory of searches in Mindswap by Robert Sheckley or fun ideas like flying on the moon with strap-on wings in “The Menace from Earth but some were beautiful ideas like intelligent dogs and robots telling stories about humans after they had disappeared from the Earth in City.

      The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One is about to be released on audiobook tomorrow. It has 26 stories that I believe are mostly idea driven. It’s a good place to start for people who’d like to try the old fashion kind of science fiction I’m talking about.

      Chuck, I think it’s fun when I spot the same idea turning up decades apart. For example, Phoenix (1926) by Lady Dorothy Mills and Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling are about old women undergoing rejuvenation procedures that make them twentyish again. Both then run off to Europe to join a bohemian crowd and fall in love with young men.

      Neanderthals made the same stone tools for hundreds of thousands of years. Our species seems to be constantly changing, but what I find even more fascinating are all the ways we haven’t changed in our two hundred thousand years. We keep imagining the same far-out concepts in new guises. Isn’t Noah’s ark really just a story about a generation ship? Aren’t angels aliens from the skies? Isn’t praying an early form of telepathy?

      I was blown away by the concept of time travel when I first encountered it at age eleven. I used to think H. G. Wells invented the concept. In recent years I’ve learned he didn’t. I’m now curious how old it really is.

      1. Hi James,
        As a contemporary of yours – I’m 67 – we were reading sf at the same time, (a 100 books in ‘66, 56 in ‘67 – I’ve still have my list for those years) and I’m sure that we share many favorites – the Heinlein juveniles dominated my list of favorite books from that era with Starman Jones being my favorite. And yet our approaches were (and are) rather different. Taking time travel for example; for me was just a plot device that took the heroes somewhere (or some when) else, and I didn’t give it all that much thought, except that it never made sense if you thought about it, no matter how they used it, unless it was to a parallel world. Or take you’re recent post on Robert Sheckley. He didn’t ring a bell for me, so I checked – I don’t have a book of his in my collection. However, looking at the covers you posted, I could easily see why – the covers looked to be the type of books that I generally avoided (and from publishers that rarely offered sf I found appealing). I guess I was more of a space ship and adventure fan – light escapist fiction. Their rather abstract covers suggested something else entirely. And I never got into sf short stories – ideas with a twist at the end. I wouldn’t have realized it then, but I guess I like stories with characters I can spend more time traveling alongside and sharing their adventures than possible in a short story. Clearly right from the beginning you put a great deal more thought into all aspects of sf, and have no doubt gotten a lot more enjoyment and knowledge out of the effort. Still, I enjoy reading your blog to learn about all the things I’ve missed, including Maggot Brain. – Chuck

  2. Perhaps we’re at a ‘logjam’ of sorts as far as giant scientific leaps are concerned, and that’s reflected in any new SF concepts. Scientific breakthroughs these days are on a micro, or nano scale, not the sort of thing that captures the imagination like getting to the moon, for example.

    We’ve had out Industrial Revolution, and our Information Revolution. I’m not sure what sort of ‘revolution will come next, but I think it will involve the fallout/consequences of the mess along with the benefits/changes) those two revolutions have birthed.
    Perhaps it will be a Biological Revolution, that utilises those benefits to allow us to adapt to the shape of the physical world they’ve created.
    That’s the way some of the dystopian stories I’ve read have gone. The good, the bad, and the ugly, of our climate changed future.
    If we survive, as a species and with out technological base intact, then I think we’ll head to the stars, and perhaps that logjam will be broken.

    I hope so … and I wish I could be around to see it. 🙂

    1. But it’s amazing how much science fiction has explored ideas about various revolutions already. Science fiction writers are like idea generators. Because there are so many SF stories its hard to know what’s already been thought of. I’m sure in the future reality will come up with some remarkable changes for us and then scholars will dig up old science fiction stories that imagined them.

  3. Because Olaf Stapleton wrote outside of the pulp SF magazines,he wasn’t constrained by genre tropes,and so created concepts which weren’t neccessarily thought to be politic for genre SF.That was what made them fresh and exciting,not because they were limited to key SF themes.That’s what needs to be done today I think.

      1. Probably or probably not,he was quite expansive,but I think he influenced a modern gerneration of science fiction authors,of whom it’s difficult to see how they could have become who they were without him.

    1. Of course, Stapledon borrowed heavily from religion, philosophy, and mysticism. Essentially, he applied evolution to spiritual ideas, much like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Stapledon truly had a vast imagination.

      1. Yes,as I said,he wasn’t limited to just SF ideas,but added much to it,with themes that later became accepted within the SF genre,such as that of theology and ontology.

        I have two comments more or less the same,as the first one didn’t appear straight away.

  4. As you say, a lot of SF’nal ideas go way back. The Greek god Hephaestos/Vulcan was said to have mechanical servants, i.e. robots.

    I got very fed up with people turning up their noses at James Cameron’s Avatar because “it’s just a retread of Dances With Wolves“. I suggest those people check out the 1970 Richard Harris vehicle A Man Called Horse.
    Like both of the above titles, it’s an entertaining flick and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with many other literary and filmic predecessors. Lucky for us, stories can be fresh even when they use well worn tropes, character types, and scenery.

    As to the limits of our reality and resultant story boundaries: I’ve read quite a few SF stories that were centered around problems caused by imagined limits on imagined technological breakthroughs that themselves go beyond our current “real” limits. That’s the problem with a lot of fantasy – the author neglects to set up consistent rules and constraints. “Anything goes” is just not as interesting as running up against problems.

    1. Forgot to mention that A Man Called Horse was popular enough that it got two sequels, in 1976 and 1983, also starring Richard Harris.

      And regarding boundaries, I remember reading that in the early days of railroads, some people believed that no one would be able to go faster than the incredible velocity of 30 mph, as they would be unable to breathe at higher speeds. Many regarded the sound barrier in a similar way, and attempts to exceed it actually did tear planes to pieces… until it didn’t.

      1. But we have to be careful. Just because we have a long track record of breaking through barriers doesn’t mean we’ll always break through barriers. We have to watch out for placing too much hope in new inventions getting us out of old messes.

    2. Anything goes of magic and time travel tends to ruin a lot of stories because the audience is thinking, “Why didn’t they use the magic ring or time machine to do X.”

      I loved both Dances With Wolves and Avatar the theme is very old.

      1. Right, solving problems while facing an existential threat makes for good stories but in real life it’s much more pleasant to anticipate such things.

        If you liked both those movies, you should also enjoy A Man Called Horse. I’s Hollywood product of course, but attempts a more rounded portrayal of the Sioux prior to their subjugation, showing both admirable and bloody minded facets of the culture.

  5. Fantastic insights! It should be added, though, that it’s not just science fiction that has run out of ideas. Every genre has run out of ideas, and they all ran out of ideas hundreds of years ago. There are only so many plots and concepts that one can twist in different ways. Let’s look at fantasy for instance. We like to look at all these fantasy authors now as unoriginal and Tolkien as original, but even Tolkien wasn’t very original himself. His work was highly inspired by the Norse myths. Let’s look at great dramas. Surely Shakespeare was original! Again, not really. The old Greaco-Roman playwrights did tragedies before he did.

    When it comes to science fiction, I’m not so worried about them recycling ideas. I’m more worried about the whole genre, every story, becoming dated. I’m actually in the process writing a post about this right now, which has not yet been published. It’s about how fantasy will probably withstand the test of time more than science fiction. Science fiction may turn into science fact, – and much of it already has – but fantasy will always be fantasy.

    1. I just followed your blog because I want to read this essay you’re writing.

      I read lots of old science fiction and I already see how SF becomes dated. But dated might not be the right word. SF is mostly about bullshit ideas anyway, so quite often SF stories are no more real than fantasy stories. The sad fact is most books are forgotten. I wrote an essay “Can Science Fiction Become Classics” where I noted that very few books are now remembered from the 19th century. I list the ones I think are most remembered. It’s probably less than 100 books, and a handful was science fiction, actually, more than fantasy. I doubt the average person could even list 20 books from the 19th century.

      There are qualities that transcend genre that determine a book’s longevity.

  6. Hi James W Harris- was reading your article on Katherine MacLean. It happens I knew her (and her father) when I lived in Portland, Maine in the 1970s. If interested give me an email at Carol Ross

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