March 3rd, 2011

Earth from space

Why it's getting even tougher to write the future

One of the things most writers got wrong about the future was computers. If you read some of the classic science fiction of the 1960's for example, you will see that writers then envisioned powerful computers that took up whole rooms or even buildings. The idea that a computer could be 1,000 times more powerful than something like the early ENIAC and also be a fraction of ENIAC's size didn't seem to occur to many writers. But at least back then, writers had a chance to get the story out there for a decade or two before technology overtook it. These days, things are moving so fast it's hard to keep up.

Look at the communicators in the first Star Trek. When we didn't have cell phones, those pocket-sized things seemed incredibly futuristic. Now they look honking big for technology from the future. That brings up another big thing writers missed on— space travel— but I won't talk about that because what's done that in is mostly economics. It's not that can't do, it's that we can't afford to do it it.

Another trope that a lot of writers fell for is the flying car. I'm not quite sure why it has such an appeal— think about how many crashes there are with lines painted on the pavement to separate the cars. Seen any lines in the air lately? Of course not! So unless the cars were purely automated, the mayhem would be terrible to behold. And yet, how can it be the future without flying cars?

I recently saw Blade Runner for the first time. The movie was made in 1982 but the Philip K. Dick story on which it was based was written in 1968. The written story is set in 1992 and the movie in 2019.

Think about that. In 1982 someone made a movie that suggested that in 37 years (the Dick story had only a 24 year Gap to the Future) we would be able to make androids that could pass for human, colonize space, and drive (naturally) flying cars. I should point out that not all cars in the movie are flying cars; some Blade Runner cars look pretty ordinary. But the movie does have something that is car-sized and flies without wings or rotors. Well, we only have eight years left, so we had better get moving on those flying cars and androids!

But in looking back, I consider that what's really hard to predict is human society. When you read some Heinlein classics now, it's painful how incredibly sexist some of his futures seem. Although at least he's better than Alfred Bester, who had women confined to their homes after the discovery of personal teleportation in The Stars My Destination. Alfie, baby, what if we refuse to go along with it? Ever think about that? Obviously not.

So, I wonder how some of today's award winners will hold up? How will readers judge Beggars in Spain, for example, or The Windup Girl. I begin to see the appeal of writing fantasy. Either that, or far, far future science fiction.

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