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.


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

Science Fiction’s Imagined Black Swans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH – 9/20/9