December 20th, 2009

Earth from space

Allow me to make you a present of the future

Today's post follows up on yesterday's comments about time. The title is a bit of a pun, because to some extent, our present— the world as it is today&mdash represents the future as I thought of it when I was growing up. Case in point: we did not get a newspaper delivery this morning because of the two feet of snow on the ground, so I turned the wireless on in my Kindle and bought today's Washington Post. This actually matches up to what was shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the astronauts read a "news pad" that can display news stories from around the world. The Kindle store offers 83 US newspapers, 8 Canadian papers, 5 British, and about 25 from other countries. The news pad looked a little spiffier than the Kindle, and it had a bigger screen (it actually looked a lot like the QUE eReader that's coming out next month), but the concept is the same.

Since I had also requested a sample of a science fiction novel for which I had seen a positive mention of, online, that downloaded, too. I was reading through the sample, not sure if I would buy the book, when a character happened to be reading a leather-bound book. When she stopped reading, she marked her place with a torn strip of newspaper. Now, this story was set far enough into the future that the setting was a space ship. And yet somehow people in this mythical future were not only still reading printed books, they were still reading printed newspapers.

Having owned (and loved using) a Kindle for a year, I simply could not buy the scene as written. It's not that I don't think there will be paper books in the future, it's that they won't be common in technologically advanced societies, certainly not on space ships. And I don't believe newspapers can survive more than a decade or two as they are now. They certainly will not be found on space ships.

It's always difficult to envision the future, but never more so that when technology is growing in leaps and bounds, and when the economy is so uncertain. Look again at 2001, as it was written by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. It's not that we don't have the technology for commercial, routine flights to space stations, it's that we can't afford them. PanAm, the carrier for the space plane (at least in the movie; not sure it was in the book), is no more, as is the Soviet Union (also mentioned).

Now think about STAR TREK, TOS another staple of 1960's science fiction. Their communicators looked one heck of a lot like cell phones, and Kirk was always signing off on orders and reports on something that looked a lot like Kindle. TOS was supposed to be hundred of years into the future, but by the 1980's, viewers could see a communicator was too big for its time. In TNG, they updated them to make them very tiny and wearable. Cell phones have caught on in a big way because they offer tremendous convenience (and sometimes life-saving features) and thus proliferated fast enough to gain economies of scale. They got more affordable and more advanced.

Publishing is caught in the technology/economy squeeze in a big way. New technology makes eReaders possible, and the cost of publishing in paper (not just printing but shipping and storage) makes change inevitable. If you read one voracious reader's account of using a Sony Reader for a year, you will see that, in the long term, this may well have a good impact on reading and on publishing.

But meanwhile, people who write science fiction need to really exercise their imaginations or risk losing credibility. Can you think of any other classic (or recent) science fiction that left you saying, "no way would that be the same in the future"?

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