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

Future History and Science Fiction

We generally live in the now, washing dishes, typing emails, talking to friends, staring at the television.  Looking backwards at history does fill our minds on occasions.  Education seems all about looking backwards, and much of fiction is about the past, and even during football games or golf playoffs on TV, commentators will spend time talking about past games and legendary players.  Many hobbies dwell on the past including collecting coins, guns and stamps, genealogy, airplane modeling, refinishing antique furniture, learning to play music, art collecting, woodworking, rebuilding old cars, and so on.

Of the past, present and future, we mainly live in the present, and look backwards, but some people like to think about the future.  When you buy a lotto ticket you are hoping to change the future.  A political election is all about the years to come.  But there are little ways to think about the future too.  Like waiting for an anticipated job change, or looking forward to your favorite TV show coming back next week, or just thinking about cake after dinner.  Overall though, we don’t spend a lot of time on the future.  People are notoriously bad about preparing for what’s to come, such as saving money for retirement, eating right for getting old, teeth care to avoid large dental bills, and so on.  The future is there and we know it, but we only deal with it in a cursory fashion, like planning your day during a shower, or studying Consumer Reports to pick the best TV to buy.

The past has a sweep of 13.7 billion years to the big bang.  K-12 and college years are when we cram in thousands upon thousands of facts about the past.  We don’t however dwell on the next 13.7 billion years, that is unless we read science fiction.  I’ve always felt that reading science fiction was studying future history.  Robert A. Heinlein even called some of his SF stories his future history series.  Now science fiction isn’t meant to predict the future, but its alternate name is sometimes speculative fiction.  We could also call science fiction, tales of future histories.  Science fiction may come true, but that’s accidental, what science fiction tries to do is show what happens if this goes on, regarding a single point of speculation.

I’m not particularly old at 56, but I can remember the Mercury space program and how TV commentators talked of the future Gemini and Apollo programs.  I waited a few years and those missions came to pass.  Then NASA talked about orbiting labs, space shuttles, robotic missions to the planets, and a giant space telescope called Hubble.  I waited and they too came to be.  Stuff NASA has been doing since 1958 was vaguely suggested by science fiction going back hundreds of years.

It is possible to change the future through imagination.  Take for instance T. Boone Pickens and his Pickens Plan?  Pickens, an oil billionaire gets an idea, and now he’s trying to create a future in which his vision unfolds.  It helps to be a billionaire if you want a big idea implemented fast, but it also takes a practical idea that millions will support.   Whether Pickens’ plan plays out according to his intent still remains to be seen, but I think it’s pretty obvious that energy windmills will start sprouting all across the U.S. midsection like giant dandelions.  You don’t have to be a science fiction visionary to spot a money making idea.

There’s a new nonfiction book out called 10 Books That Screwed Up the World by Benjamin Wiker.  Wiker is a Christian moralist worried that ideas can be unleashed that adversely affects our culture.   I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I do think ideas can be like seeds that blossom into cultural change.  Over the years I think science fiction, and it’s earlier incarnations, have planted many of these seeds.  Some have taken a very long time to come to fruit, and others won’t blossom until far into the future, and many still, will never germinate at all.

Space Travel

Science fiction’s biggest claim to fame is space travel.  Stories of fantastic voyages to the moon, planets and stars go back centuries, but many people give Jules Verne and H. G. Wells credit for popularizing the ideas for the 20th century, which led to modern science fiction, rocket experimenters, and eventually the Russian and American space programs.  I won’t dwell too much on this idea because it’s so obvious, but I will say it’s been over speculated.  Although the word “science” is part of the label “science fiction” the field has always been weak on the science aspect and heavier on the fiction component.  Many readers can’t tell fantasy from speculative fiction.  The potential for mankind traveling across the galaxy is there, but it probably won’t look like Star Wars or Star Trek.

The human race is about three years away from its 50th anniversary of manned space flight.  Long dormant, manned space exploration has gotten renewed interest with the take-off of the Chinese space program.  I think the odds are good for humans returning to the Moon, and slight for making it to Mars during the next 50 years of exploration.  For imagining further we need to study both space science and science fiction, and reconcile the two visions.

Robots

Almost as old as space travel are dreams of creating mechanical men.  If you watch the science shows on television you will know that the science of robotics is taking off like a Atlas V.  Most people are familiar with toy and movie robots, and some even know about industrial robots, but will intelligent, free moving humanoid robots ever appear in the next 50 years?  Guessing that involves following a number of scientific breakthroughs.

Electronic and mechanical bodies that are roughly shaped like people, and are as mobile as our species, should be ready within 50 years, and probably much earlier.   We have humanoid robots now, but they are slow and limited. Like futuristic cars, battery technology will limit the range of android life.  Robots will always be hungry for energy and an AI companion that can go where you go, and for as long as you go, will require some very good batteries.

Next in limitation is intelligence.  There will be two levels of intelligence involved.  What scientists are working on now is what we might call mammalian intelligence.  They need to create a machine with the hardwired wits to survive in the real world like an animal.  Currently the progress seems to hover around the development of insects, but I’ve seen one robot that reminded me of a dog in its behavior.  Of course the real goal of our robotic dreams is artificial intelligence.  We want our mechanical pals to be as smart as Data on Star Trek.

What we’re waiting for is an AI breakthrough, the singularity, like that promoted by Vernor Vinge.  Personally I don’t see any laws of science stopping us there, not like Einstein’s laws putting the kibosh on FTL interstellar travel.  Like the kid in 1961 waiting for the moon landing in 1969, I feel like seeing intelligent robots is merely a matter of waiting.  This is going to have a big impact on society.  For a period robots will be like serfs and slaves, but at some point the civil rights of AIs will come up.  At what point does your faithful Rosie the Robot maid become too close to a manmade Hazel?

I’m hoping personal robots will be ready by the time I get old and need a caretaker.  I’ve watched a lot of people age and lose their independence, so I think the most obvious purpose for a personal robot is as a companion and helper for when we get frail.  Interestingly, this overlaps perfectly with another science fiction prediction, life extension.

Life Extension

Science predicts that I should die around age 79.  Those are my odds.  I might beat them by a bit, or I might cash in early.  In other words, on average I can plan to live another 22 years.  With the direction my body and mind has taken during the past decade I worry that even those 22 years will not all be good ones.  However, I’d like to think that medical technology could fix me up and keep me going.  If I had decent health, especially if my mind holds out, I could picture wanting to live to 100 or 110.  There’s plenty of science fiction predicting people will live hundreds, if not thousands of years, but for the next fifty years I think those stories are in the realm of the fantastic.  My personal fantasy is to double those 22 expected years and live a bit past 2051, and enjoy a 100th birthday.

The odds are against me, but medical science is moving fast.  I really don’t want to live to be 100 so much as I want to see what life will be like a 100 years after my birth.  Will we make it to Mars.  Will intelligent robots be common.  Will we make SETI contact.  Will space telescopes detect Earth like planets with artificial chemicals in their atmospheres?

With a little bit of life extension, baby boomers might get to see another decade called The Sixties.  What will life be like then?  Well, we all know what science is predicting for those years, the weather.

Global Warming

Science is usually not in the business of predicting the future, except for the limited time frames of controlled experiments, but climate scientists are now oracles prognosticating quite far into our futures and it isn’t good.  Despite the beliefs of climate change deniers, thousands, if not millions of scientists, engineers and technicians are working on the assumption that human activity is changing the climate of planet Earth and they are working hard to engineer ways to stop it.  In relation to science fiction, global warming is not an idea that came out of left field, because science fiction has often explored the end of the world through environmental catastrophes.

Global warming, overpopulation and the limits of resources will really determine the true nature of the next fifty years, and those forces could drastically effect what happens with space travel, robots and life extension.  If you want to get an idea how bad things could get, and why we should avoid any possible chance that we’re damaging the environment, then take up reading after-the-collapse stories written by some of the more gloomier science fiction writers.

For science fiction to be truly speculative fiction it must consider the laws of science carefully.  Will it be practical for 10 billion people to own a robot and live longer?  We know we can apply alternative technologies to solve the problems and answer the question in the affirmative, but science isn’t very good at predicting human nature, and that’s the real factor in how our future unfolds.

The reason why I’ve taken side tracks into exploring polarized attitudes and speculating on twin human species is because I’m not sure we can change our habits even with the aid of better technology.  If you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, you’ll see with some changes in the laws we could dramatically transform society.  That transformation will be like the major societal shifts we’ve seen in the last few hundred years.  Examples include converting to an industrial economy, the migrations to urban environments, the move from horse power to horsepower, learning to fly, and supplementing our neural brains with silicon thinking.  Climate change deniers may have no more impact on slowing change than Luddites or lovers of the horse and buggy did in the past.

If this is true, science fiction has a lot of room left in writing future histories.  Despite what conservatives want, and fundamentalists dream, we won’t stay the same or move backwards in social development.  Fossil fuels will run out, but new technologies will replace them.  The future can be as bright as we want, the question is will we dial darkness or light.  If we can unintentionally change the world, can we intentionally change it back?

Adaptability

Humans show a talent for adapting, just look how fast DVDs, cell phones and iPods were adopted.  I think integrating robots into society will happen just as fast.  Reading science fiction will give us a range of future histories to study on how to handle that problem, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories, to City by Clifford Simak, and Blade Runner‘s demand for empathy for androids.   Space travel is harder to accept because most of us will be paying for a few people to have all the fun.  And how many will reject life extension if offered?

Humans are very quick to accept change if it’s cheap and easy.  Dealing with Global Warming is more like not smoking, eating healthy, exercising and flossing your teeth.  Being disciplined on a world-wide level will require laws because on average we’re not a particularly disciplined species.

I read science fiction to think about all those centuries that I won’t get to see, all those billions of years of evolution I won’t get to study.  If you’ve explored the past you know great upheavals are common.  It would not be all that hard to write science fiction novels about futures where the number of carbon molecules in the atmosphere doubled and tripled, and the population halved and then halved again, and then again and again.  Humans have the adaptability and survivability of cockroaches and eventually we’ll make a comeback.

People do not like change.  Overall, we’re all like gamblers who go to casinos every single night hoping to break even.  What are the odds on that?  We don’t like change, but we certainly have the training for it.

JWH 9/28/8

How Soon to Commander Data?

Of all the great ideas of science fiction our society seems to be working the fastest towards making stories about robots come true.  How soon will it be before we have a Commander Data?  We are still in the early stages of engineering a SF robot but yesterday I saw a film that made me think things are leaping ahead:

If you have been following the development of robots you will know this is a major advancement over what robot designers were doing just a few years ago.  Before robots always looked like struggling machines.  This video gives the feeling that the machine is part animal because it mimics dog like qualities.  It’s just a hint, but enough of a hint that I felt sorry for the machine when they kicked it.

Another film that was sent to me yesterday also suggests that designers, this time an artist, are finding their way closer to natural designs for their mechanical creations.

And yet a third robotic story crossed my path yesterday, “Japan Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence as Part of Daily Life.”  This is all without going to Google and doing research on the topic.  I just remembered I also started reading a F&SF story last night “Five Thrillers” by Robert Reed that mentions robots.  And I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and if I think hard I could probably remember some more instances of the topic of robots coming into my life yesterday.  My friends and I have been wishing for robots to be developed so we’ll have machines to help us when we get old.

Robots are happening.  Start paying attention to how often you see them mentioned.

If you want to see more videos of robots jump on over to YouTube because they have loads of them. Japan seems hellbent on creating a trade show cutie. I hope they don’t put out all those bikini professionals we see marketing high tech goods out of a job.

Jim