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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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( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 4th, 2011 01:30 am (UTC)
The more I think about it, the easier it is to write fantasy.


It's not that can't do, it's that we can't afford to do it it.

Ironic that Heinlein got that one right.
Mar. 4th, 2011 01:34 am (UTC)
I did not say it was easier to write fantasy, I said fantasy does not run the risk of getting overtaken by the present. Big difference. J K Rowling does not care what direction technology takes.
Mar. 4th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC)
Right. But creating SF that is plausible and won't be outdated within a decade is becoming very difficult.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Fantasy is easier because you can just wing it; you can't. But at the same time, the technical difficulty of writing Fantasy hasn't changed much over the past several decades.
Mar. 4th, 2011 02:46 am (UTC)
Exactly. You could even say the challenges inherent in writing fantasy are timeless.
Mar. 4th, 2011 03:26 am (UTC)
Remember the TV series, Space 1999?? Way back in the mid-seventies.

Mar. 4th, 2011 04:06 am (UTC)
Yes, I do! OMG! e should all have spent the last decade wearing white jumpsuits!
Mar. 4th, 2011 04:58 am (UTC)
And don't forget the strings holding up the spaceships.
Mar. 4th, 2011 07:47 am (UTC)
I begin to see the appeal of writing fantasy. Either that, or far, far future science fiction.

Or SF set in "fallen" societies.
Mar. 4th, 2011 12:58 pm (UTC)
That's very true. You can control the tech level by destroying society. Drastic, but effective. :)
Mar. 4th, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)
And sooooo satisfying...
Mar. 4th, 2011 01:05 pm (UTC)
I do think writing spec fic appeals to the control freak in writers. What's better than being in control of an entire universe?
Mar. 4th, 2011 02:00 pm (UTC)
Re: computers and computer technology
I watched an interview on CNN with the CEO of Inovations for the company, very artiqulate and humour man, BTW, and he was saying if they'd stopped trying to improve on the hard drive after they made the first one in the 1950's (yeah, that blew me away too), the laptops we have now would weight around 250,000 tonnes! TONNES!

I think for writing science fiction it isn't a matter of what we can think of, but what CAN'T we think off.
Mar. 4th, 2011 02:46 pm (UTC)
Re: computers and computer technology
Wow, that's a real "hard" drive all right. I love that the original DOS could address 640K in memory because that was 10 times what most PCs had then and how could anyone want more than that?

>I think for writing science fiction it isn't a matter of what we can think of, but what CAN'T we think off.

Very true, especially for Alfred Bester!
Mar. 4th, 2011 02:28 pm (UTC)
Great post. What immediately crossed my mind is that the androids are a heck of a lot closer than the flying cars...

Of course, flying cars DO exist, and they have for a while, just that the common person hasn't heard of them - even though you can buy one today.
Mar. 4th, 2011 02:43 pm (UTC)
I know a place in the US mid west that makes them, but I consider them to be more of a driving plane than a flying car. They still need wings, but the wings fold up so you can drive your plane on the highway.
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Mar. 4th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
I think that's true, on some level. I forget who said it, but someone once said that every book is about the time it's written in, regardless of the actual setting. I suppose you say spec fic is an attempt to get past that limitation.
Mar. 6th, 2011 10:57 pm (UTC)
It's a quibble, but I do think we have the resources to go into outer space. We just spend it on weapons instead. It's one of the points I make when people wonder, if there's life in outer space, why aren't they visiting us?
Mar. 6th, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC)
When you consider the size or just our galaxy, let alone the universe, it takes a certain amount of hubris to be certain we're the only planet with intelligent life. Which is not to say, as you point out, that aliens are planning to stop by for coffee. Who says they even like coffee! -)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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