Book Shopping in the 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, September 22, 2019

It’s early Sunday morning. My wife isn’t up. The stores are closed. And I’m book shopping. I just bought Those Idiots From Earth by Richard Wilson, an author I don’t even remember. I just loved the cover and title. Book shopping is so different from how it was back in the ancient times of the 20th century.

In the 21st century, I perused thousands of booksellers from around the globe in a fraction of a second. From the time I decided I wanted this book till the time I pressed the order button was about 25 seconds. Of course, I’ll have to wait several days for Mr. Wilson’s collection of SF stories to show up in my mailbox.

Maybe I should jump back before I even knew about Those Idiots From Earth. I’m in a Facebook group The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction of the Year created by Paul Fraser. It’s devoted to collections and anthologies of science fiction short stories. I hadn’t posted in a while, so I wanted to find a unique old science fiction anthology that had a cool cover. I was using the Internet Science Fiction Database and searching on anthologies edited by Groff Conklin. Several of his paperbacks had cover art by Richard Powers, a favorite artist of mine. I then clicked over to look at books with covers by Powers. That’s when I noticed Those Idiots From Earth. Checking Richard Wilson’s entry showed a few novels and a lot of short stories. He was a writer I don’t remember at all. If you follow those links you’ll see just how truly useful ISFDB.org is for book shoppers.

Once I saw that cover and title I was intrigued. I’ve owned hundreds of science fiction magazines, so I’m sure I’ve seen the name before, and maybe even read a story of Wilson’s. I just didn’t recall anything this morning. So I got on Google and found a review of the collection by Joe. He gave four stories 5-stars, and the rest either 4-stars or 4.5-stars. I’ve never read any reviews by Joe before, but he did make Wilson’s stories sound like something I wanted to read. I love finding new SF authors with a different slant.

I wanted to test read the title story, but it was never published in a magazine. Luckily, the first 5-star story, “The Inhabited” was in the January 1953 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. I checked my collection of Galaxy but didn’t have that copy. But I do have a complete run of the magazine on digital scans. You can read the story on the Internet Archive.

The Inhabited by Richard Wilson

“The Inhabited” is about an alien mind coming to Earth to scout out our planet. Are we worth invading? The alien mind occupies a cat, two men, a boy, and a pregnant woman before ending up in the mind of an insane man. The alien ends up confessing to a psychiatrist. It’s a neat little story. I decided I wanted Those Idiots From Earth and went to ABEbooks.com and ordered a copy. The original paperback was in fine condition and cost $4 (plus $4 shipping).

It took me a pleasurable ten minutes to find out about the book, but only about 25 seconds to find and buy it on ABEbooks. I’m hoping you’re getting the power of the internet for 21st-century book shoppers. ABEbooks claims it has thousands of booksellers in 50 countries selling millions of books. There were three copies available from all those locations. Now that’s efficient book browsing!

I remember the first bookstore I went to back in 1964. It was a little hole-in-the-wall shop in a strip mall in Perrine, Florida. The shop was dark and dusty. I was twelve. It was before I earned my own money. Back then a used paperback was a nickel or a dime – candy money. I had no idea what I was buying, but it was exciting. I knew I loved science fiction, and I’d buy books based on how cool their covers looked.

As I got older I would go all over town looking through old book shops. Whenever I visited another town, I’d look up their used bookstores. There were books I searched for years in several states and cities before finding them. The hunt for a book used to be quite thrilling. Then in my late teens, I learned how to use mailorder rare book dealers, which had its own kind of fun. I could almost always get my book, but sometimes it took years. There were some books I never found until the internet and ABEbooks.

In the 21st-century it’s much easier to track down a used book, but not quite as fun. Without the internet though, I would never have heard of Those Idiots From Earth. I often surprise my friends when they mention a book they’ve been searching for years and I find it in minutes.

I sometimes wish the internet had never been invented. I’m not sure if living in the hive mind of social media is healthy. Nor do I love keeping up with data overload. It does let me find the few people that share my exact interests. But then I have those highly specialized interests because of the internet. I remember when there were only three TV channels, Top 40 radio, and the science fiction section was two shelves of books at the new bookstore. At school, we all talked about the same movies, television shows, and songs. Nowadays every friend seems to have their own favorite show, so there’s less sharing, even though on social media what we do is called sharing.

The internet lets me get up on a Sunday morning and search through millions of books in thousands of booksellers from around the planet in a matter of seconds. That’s pretty damn far out. It’s not the same as riding my bike down to an old shop and spending an hour looking through stacks of unordered SF titles trying to find just the right books to get the most for my quarter.

The times keep changing. I can’t imagine how we can go any faster. Maybe I should wonder how to go slower?

JWH

 

 

Can We Elect a Leader That Will Make Us Better People?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 26, 2019

If Democrats win the 2020 election will we become better people? We assume whoever we elect will change the country for the better but isn’t it “we the people” rather than a single leader that will make that happen? Liberals believe Donald Trump has brought out the worst in us. But conservatives feel the future is brighter than its been in years. Which is it? Trump gave the rich a gigantic tax cut but added a staggering amount to the national debt. Trump is fighting for economic fairness with our trading partners yet Wall Street is in a panic, our farmers are going broke, and our allies think we’ve gone nuts. Trump has rolled back on all kinds of regulations just when we need more regulations to save the environment. Trump has revealed the hidden racism and xenophobia we thought we’d had overcome.

However, if a Democrat is elected in 2020 will any of this change? Can a new president pass sweeping laws that will halt climate change, stop greed, or end hatred of other people?

I’ve been reading two books that are so positive about the future I almost think they were written by someone named Pollyanna: The Future of Humanity by Michio Kaku and Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance by Naveen Jain. Kaku is a physicist that sees a glowing science-fictional future of mankind colonizing the Moon and Mars. Jain is an entrepreneur that pleads with us to think positive and overcome our self-fulfilling pessimism.

Positive books

I have to wonder if Jain is right. Can we be better people if we think positive? His book is quite inspirational, but I wonder if he isn’t selling snake oil. There’s a huge industry out there selling success, with costly seminars, courses, and books that people buy to convince themselves to become rich by willpower. Both books show how we’ve accomplished so much in the past so why not believe we’ll do the same tomorrow.

Doesn’t chasing abundance ignore the price of abundance? Trump says I can make you richer by cutting taxes. That appears to be true. But how rich will we all be if he runs the economy into the ground? When the Republicans deny climate change are they saying, “Don’t spoil the magic of abundance by bringing in reality!”

And I’m not just questioning the conservatives. If we elect a Democrat will that person stop global warming, halt illegal immigration, eliminate gun violence, dissolve racism and reduce xenophobia? Isn’t that also magical thinking? What Trump revealed is society can make people speak and act politically correct but still think political incorrectness in their hearts.

The only way to stop climate change is for everyone to use 90% less of fossil fuels. That means driving less, flying less, eating less meat, heating and air conditioning less, and I mean a whole lot less. The only way to keep the oceans from filling up with plastics is to stop using 90% of the plastics we use now. The only way to end racism is to fully integrate, make everyone truly equal under the law, and bring about economic equality. The only way to end sexism is for everyone to live by the Golden Rule.

However, if we quit using fossil fuels the economy will collapse. How do we shop when practically everything comes in a plastic container? The government has been trying to bring about integration for decades and we haven’t allowed it. And who really lives by the Golden Rule? I don’t think Elizabeth, Kamala, or Bernie can pass laws to change these traits. We have to change ourselves. But if we could do that wouldn’t we have done so already?

I’m an atheist, but I do read the Bible. The most common thread in the Old Testament is the prophets constantly pleading with the people to follow God’s will. They never do. The Bible is one long story of people failing to live righteously, failing to change. Hasn’t laws replaced scripture as a method of social engineering? Can we vote in righteousness? Haven’t we already decided religion failed and our best hope is law and order?

If you look at history, people are better under laws. Isn’t the social unrest we’re seeing, the mad shooters, the road rages, the street gangs, the political corruption really a rebellion against laws? Republicans hate regulations but isn’t that because those laws hinder their greed? Conservatives want libertarian laws for themselves, but law and order for everyone else.

One interesting insight that Naveen Jain points out in his book is Americans are extremely pessimistic about the future, but the Chinese are practically glowing with optimism. Why would that be? Isn’t China an extremely regulated society with a rigid Big Brother government? Shouldn’t living under an Orwellian rule crush the Chinese people’s spirit? Why do they have hope when we don’t?

I don’t think people are going to change. But I do think society changes. And I think society suppresses human nature, controls greed, and codifies the Golden Rule. I wonder if the followers of Trump love him because he apparently frees them from the growing burden of rules. Trump is all for regulating people he doesn’t like but isn’t he loved for deregulating human nature in his true believers?

Essayists are those folks making running commentary on the side-lines of history. We don’t have the answers. We’re just trying to guess what’s happening from making consistent observations. I believe both conservatives and liberals wished the world was more orderly, just, and fair. The conservatives want to be free to pursue their dreams of abundance and hate regulations that hinder their success. They don’t want to see limitations. Liberals see life on Earth like being in a lifeboat. We must share our resources fairly. Conservatives hate that attitude because it assumes there isn’t unlimited abundance for all. How does picking a new leader change this dynamic?

Have we reached a stage in society where laws are no longer effective? Many people will say they were never effective, but if you study history and other societies around the globe it’s obvious that’s not true. What might be true is we’ve reached a new stage where they are becoming ineffective because too many people are ready to revolt. We are getting very close to “It’s every man for themselves” panic. (I wanted to rephrase that old saying to not show gender bias, but when society collapses, women will lose all their political gains and the bias will be true again.)

I got a clue from this New York Times article, “How Guilty Should You Feel About Your Vacation?” In Sweden, air travel is down because enough of their citizens worry about its impact on the climate. Some of their citizens have voluntarily acted on their own for the good of all. But that’s from a smaller, less dense country than ours, and one that’s socialistic, which means they are more concerned with the common good. We are more concerned with individual freedoms and opportunity. Our nationalistic psyche is different. We believe we should grab all we can take, to go for the gusto. We have revised greed from sin into a virtue. Are Americas fundamentally different from citizens of other societies?

I’m not sure if we vote in Harris, Sanders or Warren that will change. I’ve been thinking about how I’d have to live to walk my talk. I already feel I do a great deal to be environmental, but I doubt its enough. If I used 1/7,000,000,000 of my share of sustainable resources, what would that be? And if I polluted 1/7,000,000,000 share of sustainable waste, what would it be? And what’s the difference between choosing on my own to live environmentally, and voting in a person that will pass laws that make us?

Even though I’m an atheist, I would say that difference would be finding the Kingdom of Heaven within, and being a slave in Paradise.

JWH

[Damn, I write about weird shit sometimes, don’t I? No wonder some writers feel they are channeling a muse. Sometimes I feel its all pointless philosophy and I should go play in my science fictional worlds.]

Keeping Up In The 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 8, 2019

I’m reading a rather disturbing book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It’s disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it shows how completely out of touch I am. Second, it’s very relevant about today’s politics, problems, and conflicts, but makes me realize that I don’t have the tech skills I thought I had – and I’ve been working with computers since 1971. And it’s about a new stage in human communications that I might not be able to join or want to join. I might need to accept I’m too old and let a new stage of human consciousness pass me by.

It’s very difficult to explain why people need to read this book. But here’s a setup that might help. It’s my take on things but relates to what I learn from the book. It’s about the different stages of communications.

  1. Language. This gave us a tremendous boost compared to the other animals, and it’s probably why we’re sentient.
  2. Writing. Let us store knowledge and communicate at a distance.
  3. Printing. Let us mass-produce knowledge.
  4. Telegraph. Let us communicate over distances very fast. This was a tremendous boom for business, war, and journalism.
  5. Telephone. Faster two-way communication without codes.
  6. Radio. The beginning of mass communication. For example, LikeWar quotes Joseph Goebbels saying the Nazis couldn’t have gained power without radio.
  7. Television. More effective mass communication. Truly transformed society.
  8. Computers. They magnified our thinking power and speed.
  9. Networks. Created a world-wide digital nervous system.
  10. Social media. Mass communication with mass participation, or two-way mass communication. LikeWar is about how social media is transforming politics, crime, business, and war. One example LikeWar uses is ISIS, which used social media to overpower traditional national powers.

If you don’t have social media skills you’ll be left behind. Most people’s reactions will be, “Too bad, I don’t care about Facebook.” LikeWar provides significant evidence that all future political power will come from the people who can master social media. LikeWar showed how Trump gained his power with Twitter. Don’t dismiss that out of hand. Singer and Brooking make a powerful case for it being true.

I’m 67 and barely use social media. I blog, I keep up with family, friends, fellow hobbyists on Facebook, I use Twitter to keep up with news about science fiction. That’s essentially nothing. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When I was growing up I watched the CBS News every night to follow the Vietnam War. The news was about 24-48 hours old. Some people today keep up with wars in real-time, watching people conduct war using the internet to outmaneuver people conducting war at television and print journalism speeds. LikeWar showed how ISIS used social media users worldwide as recruits in their local battles.

In other words, in any field of endeavor, any conflict, if you’re using print, radio, or television to keep up you’re way behind. We really are developing a global hive mind, and it involves new skills. I can use the excuse that I’m too old to chase that bus. But younger people or older folks who want to compete can’t. And I think that’s stressful. I think a lot of stress in our society is because we’re stratifying by the speed in which we can compete.

I’ll predict there will be a new class of Luddites, those people who choose not to race at social media speeds. But it means giving up power. We’ve had wealth inequality forever, and education inequality for hundreds of years, but what LikeWar envisions is a new kind of inequality. I’m not sure what percentage of the population will be able to keep up.

LikeWar

JWH

 

The 2020 Election Will Be A Referendum

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 1, 2019

The 2020 election will be a referendum for a single issue, we just don’t know what that issue is yet. If Bernie Sanders or Elizebeth Warren get the nomination the referendum will be:

  • Vote Yes for Medicare-for-All
  • Vote No for Medicare-for-All

Right now, the Democrats think it will be:

  • Vote Yes for Trump
  • Vote No for Trump

Every Democrat in the debates offered a freebie as if they could buy voters. But that’s not going to work. Free education or forgiveness of college loans will only appeal to a fraction of the voters, so it won’t work as a clear decisive referendum. Medicare-for-All would affect every voter, that’s why it’s possible referendum question.

The Democrats could pick a vital issue and make a stand, for example:

  • Vote Yes to Stop Climate Change
  • Vote No to Keep Doing Nothing

Which would essentially be a referendum that says:

  • Save the future
  • Fuck the future

But I think the Democrats are afraid to commit to such an issue. To save the future would require sacrifice and we aren’t the Greatest Generation. We’re the Greed Generation.

Bernie Sanders wants Medicare-for-All. It’s logical. It would eventually save money. It’s pro-equality. And it’s egalitarian. But it’s not a critical issue to the future. The future doesn’t depend on equality of medical care. Only those issues that will destroy us in the future are universally applicable. Of course, the issue of climate change is global, so our greed affects a lot of people who can’t vote in the U.S. 2020 election.

Donald Trump and his flock have decided the referendum is:

  • It’s every person for themselves
  • The parable of the fishes and loaves

I expect the Republicans to find ways to spread their “Think Selfish” philosophy to all voters, even to voters who never voted Republican before. I find it rather ironic that Republicans live by a Darwinian philosophy. They say they’re Christian, but they live by survival-of-the-fittest — and let the weak die.

Politics is not logical. I keep thinking we should be logical, but it’s much easier to be selfish. Not that I’m a saint. I’m quite selfish. I just think we should be logical just enough to avoid self-destruction. You’d think that would be considered a healthy kind of selfishness. But it’s like that psychological experiment where they offered kids a choice between a cookie they could eat now or two cookies if they waited for fifteen minutes. Most kids took the immediate cookie.

JWH

 

What Would Give Us Hope for the Future?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 25, 2019

I have little hope for the future. I’m not alone, my most popular essay with over 60,000 hits is “50 Reasons Why the Human Race is Too Stupid to Survive.” So I keep asking myself: “What would give us hope for the future?”

If certain changes were made in our laws I might change my mind about the future and be hopeful. However, I seriously doubt they will be made because the current state of corruption is too ingrained. Until we can solve these five problems I don’t think there can be any hope for the future.

  • Greed
  • Corruption
  • Deception
  • Inequality
  • Pollution

Our current system has wired our society for self-destruction. If we don’t do something to alter course our civilization will collapse in the next 50-75 years. Just count the countries that have collapsed around the world in recent years. There are several bald spots on civilization right now. Civilization is thinning around the globe. We need to repair those bald spots and make civilization sustainable economically and ecologically.

I no longer feel electing a new leader every four years is a solution. We need to tweak our political system so that it’s more democratic. We need to redesign capitalism so it’s equitable and ecological. Our current political polarization leaves a majority of the population depressed because we effectively have minority rule. Even we got rid of the Electoral College it will only help a little. We’d also need to get rid of all the corruption in the voting process such as gerrymandering and unfair laws to control who votes.

Even if we overhauled the voting system so that it’s 100% fair and open, we’d still have lethal problems. The most important of which is corruption. People with money control too much. We live in a plutocracy. The solution here is to remove all campaign contributions. The government should pay for all campaigning so every candidate has equal resources and no reason to be beholding to any special interests.

Ending political contributions would not end corruption. We’d also need to overhaul the tax system so businesses couldn’t strive to get a better deal. By allowing tax breaks for certain industries or to lure them to specific locations we create a structure for corruption. The influence of greed needs to be removed from politics.

Some people don’t want a true democracy because they fear it would bring mob rule. I’m not so sure. But we might need to change the definition of majority. Winning with 50% causes polarization. We’ve coalesced around two parties by forming coalitions of special interests. We need to get back to bipartisan compromises. We should change the percentage to win an election to 55%, and maybe eventually larger. We should change the percentage for a law to pass to 66%. And more laws should be based on referendums, rather than politicians.

We need to elect leaders who work for 100% of the people. Every political issue, no matter how divisive needs be base on solid compromises. Right now everyone wants extreme solutions, ban all guns – allow all guns, ban all abortions – allow all abortions, etc. We need to find middle paths that satisfy at least 66% of the country. If two-thirds of the population were satisfied, I feel the country would eventually heal itself.

And we need to stop endlessly arguing. Our polarized politics have made the country into one giant trench warfare where the lines never move. We need to find compromises, and then shut up for a while. We need to make a decision and stick with it for at least a decade before we argue over it again.

Part of our problem is we argue with lies and deception. We need to learn how to validate the information we club each other with. People with power and money know how to deceive. If we had a true democracy, those who want to influence change would have to appeal to everyone, and not just a few corruptible politicians. We need to eliminate lobbyists to politicians shift lobbying to the voters.

Part of the problem is inequality. A powerful minority are born with decisive advantages while too many are born without the opportunity to compete.

Capitalism is the only mechanism we have to create wealth and inspire innovation, but it unfairly creates too many losers. We want a system that rewards effort, but we don’t want a system that allows unjust competition. All of us are born on Lifeboat Earth without our choosing, but some were giving more of the provisions than others at the start. We are a greedy species, so we couldn’t stand a society that divided everything equally. However, for stability, we do need a fairer divvy up of what we have.

I would have hope for the future if everyone had an equal say, had equal opportunity, and the winners of society left the losers with at least a respectable life.

And we have to do all this while preserving the Earth. Seven billion people cause a lot of pollution. Climate change is a byproduct of pollution. Our pollution is destroying the environment for us and all other species. Not only should we seek equality for all humans, but other species deserve a share of equality too.

I think it’s possible to create a fairer sustainable society, but I’m not sure we will. As you consume the news each day, pay attention to these five problems. Are we moving to solve them, or increase them? Keep your own scorecard. How would you bet on the future?

JWH

 

As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH

Judging Science Fiction by its Extrapolations

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Science fiction writers believe they can extrapolate from current events and imagine possible scenarios that will prepare readers for the world of tomorrow. Science fiction writers never claim to have crystal balls that predict an exact future. Instead, they write stories that will never come true but theoretically could. Generally, they are of two types. Let’s make dreams come true (i.e. colonize Mars, build intelligent machines) or let’s avoid a nightmare (i.e. a fascist America, an eco-catastrophe).

But, how good is science fiction at extrapolation? What invention or social movement in the last 100 years has the genre fictionalized using extrapolation and speculation? Here’s an overview of the last 100 years that came quickly to mind. I put links to Wikipedia for those of you who want deeper reminders.

  • 1920’s – The Roaring Twenties, The Jazz Age, Prohibition, The Lost Generation, the stock market bubble and crash, Charles Lindbergh’s flight, women getting to vote, the rise of the KKK across America, gangsters
  • 1930’s – The Depression, talking movies, Big Bands, The New Deal, the Dust Bowl
  • 1940’s – World War II, the A-bomb, V-2 rockets, the United Nations
  • 1950’s – The Korean War, The Cold War, the H-bomb, television, Sputnik, NASA, interstate highways, Beatniks, Rock and Roll
  • 1960’s – The Viet Nam War, The Space Race, the Counter Culture, Civil Rights, Feminism, Gay Rights, Ecology, Apollo 11, Surveyor, Mariner, and Pioneer spacecraft, hippies, LSD, back to nature communes, muscle cars
  • 1970’s – The Oil Crisis, Watergate, Apple II, Atari video games, Viking Landers, Voyager spacecraft, environmentalism, organic farming, singer-songwriters
  • 1980’s – The Space Shuttle, MTV, IBM PC, The Macintosh
  • 1990’s – The Hubble Telescope, The Internet, World Wide Web, Amazon.com, Dolly the sheep, German reunification, the collapse of the USSR
  • 2000’s – 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, An Inconvenient Truth, iPhone, Barrack Obama, New Horizon spacecraft, high definition TV, Columbine
  • 2010’s – VR, Boston Dynamics robots, Donald Trump, Sandy Hook, active shooters

Were there any SF tales written before these decades that imagined their significant events? Science fiction’s big winner has always been space travel. Would we have gone to the Moon if science fiction hadn’t imagined it many times for hundreds of years? Did Robert Goddard build rockets because of the fiction he read? A few science fiction writers wrote about the atomic bomb before 1945, but they got their ideas from scientists who were already talking about them.

Of course, this is getting away from my topic. There is a difference between claiming science fiction speculates about the future based on current trends and saying science fiction pushed us into doing something. Science fiction lasts longer than people’s inspiration and brainstorming sessions. The more I read about the history of science fiction, the more I discover that science fiction writers were always inspired by inventors and scientists, rather than the other way around.

Analog Science Fiction July 1968

What I’m talking about is different. There’s a famous cover to the July 1968 issue of Analog Science Fiction for the story “Hawk Among the Sparrows” by Dean McLaughlin. It shows an SR-71 Blackbird-like jet sitting on a WWI runway with a biplane in the background. That cover represents fun hindsight for a time travel story. But what if a 1918 issue of The All-Story Weekly featured that cover painting? Extrapolating that biplanes would eventually evolve into something spectacular like the SR-71 is what I’m talking about. How often has science fiction done that?

unbelievable_time_required_to_cover_immense_distances_of_space__1918 by Harry Grant Dart

Here’s Harry Grant Dart’s 1918 artistic imagination of future aircraft/spacecraft. Not quite Lockheed SR-71s, are they? I’m not sure just how capable we are of extrapolation.

In 1911 Hugo Gernsback wrote Ralph 124C 41+ that contained many inventions he expected to be invented in the future. Just follow the Wikipedia link to read a rather long list of them. It’s 1925 hardback cover apparently shows a doctor interviewing a patient over a videophone. Science fiction has a pretty good track record of imagining possible future gadgets, but generally, their authors were inspired by current technology. Hugo Gernsback was probably the biggest proponent of technological extrapolation, but by the 1930’s science fiction had become 99% adventure fiction.

Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback 1925

Science fiction seems less capable of extrapolating Black Swan technology, especially the social repercussions of those gadgets. The genre just wasn’t ready for computers, especially personal computers, the internet, the web, smartphones, and most of the technology of the last several decades. Science fiction quickly embraced all this technology, but only afterward. Evidently, change is happening faster than science fiction writers can imagine it.

Books like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stand on Zanzibar seem prophetic now because they appear to foresee our current social and political nightmares, but are they extrapolations? Weren’t they reactionary to the times in which they were written, and just happen to come into vogue again?

The 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster is one of the most prophetic SF stories I’ve ever read. But it didn’t seem so in 1970 when I first read it. It was only recently, well into the Internet Age when I read it again, that I thought Forster was such a genius for writing it. The main character, Vashti, an old woman, is essentially a blogger using a machine to communicate with other agoraphobic citizens. Everyone lives alone in their rooms, communicating through the machine. Forster knows nothing about computers and networks, only imagines a very clever machine. Her son, Kuno wants to escape the machine. Forster says he was inspired by H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” and it’s Eloi and Morlocks. But I can also imagine Forster thinking writing for magazines and book publishers was like being tied to a machine, and fantasizing about doing something in nature was appealing.

I am working on a science fiction short story. I’d like to think I’m imagining something people will do in the future that they don’t do now. But am I deluding myself? (I’m not going to explain my idea until the story is published.) I’d like to think I’m imagining something new, but I’ve got to analyze if I’m extrapolating or just describing what we do now in a new way.

The more I read old science fiction, the more I see science fiction in a different light. Science fiction has never been just one thing. Extrapolation has only been one aspect of the genre. Even as a kid, I didn’t believe people could predict the future. But I did think science fiction could be a cognitive tool for making good guesses. I’m now wondering if the best science fiction is deeply insightful about the present, and extrapolation about the future is a bunch of malarky.

I’m starting to wonder if I want to write a great science fiction story I should work as hard as possible to see into my own hopes and fears, set the story in the future, and then assume my dreams and nightmares might resonate with future readers.

JWH