The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

The opening of Plan 9 from Outer Space reminds us that “we’re all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. That must be why so many people write about the future. Especially science fiction writers. Duh, you might say, of course science fiction writers write about the future, they have to. But they don’t. Lots of great science fiction is set in the past. It might be about some fantastical invention or alien visitation or discovery that changes history as we know it. Or doesn’t, because the castle of the mad scientist went up in flames along with all his creations, or the aliens flew off, leaving nothing but scorched earth and a few unreliable witnesses, or the science sufficiently ahead of its time as to be indistinguishable from magic was merged into the evolving knowledge of the day.

But I’m talking future future here, the kind of “out on a limb” speculation that intrepid sci fi writers have been doing ever since the concept of progress collided with the scientific method. Think technology and space. And no matter how wildly off the mark predictions of advancements in science and technology prove to be, sci fi writers continue to write about the future. Because it’s so damn interesting.

I have open on the desk in front of me a yellowed paperback edition of “The Mote in God’s Eye,” written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and published in 1974. The chronology of events on pages 9 and 10 begin with Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969 and end with “First Contact” in 3017. It’s only 2015 as I write this, but already the trajectory of their predictions is seriously off course. For example, “2008: First successful interstellar drive tested.” Interstellar? And if that is not rapid enough progress, you can look forward to the first interstellar colonies just 12 years later. These guys were incredibly optimistic about the future of space travel.

I think we’ve evolved in our thinking about the directions science will take in the future, and how quickly. Discoveries and applications that are inexpensive in terms of materials and energy will precede those that require massive resources. Hence genetic research will probably advance faster than space travel. The “Sauron Supermen” predicted to appear 600 years after interstellar drive will likely, in reality, come first. Because manipulating DNA is cheaper than building generation ships and is based on extrapolations of current science and techniques (rather than the magic of faster than light travel). Ditto for computing and AI. We’re going to change ourselves and our planet long before we leave it. I’m not sure it makes for better sci fi than “The Mote in God’s Eye,” but it will probably hold up better against the test of time.

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