Sunday, February 22, 2015

We Have No Clue What Will Come

We have arrived in 2015. A truly exciting year. This year we will see the invention of flying cars and highways in the clouds. We will see hover boards and self-drying/self-adjusting clothes. At least that's the way the 1985 released movie Back to the Future has foreseen the world. Well, they got some things right, like the flat screens, video chat systems or head-mounted displays.

How Much Has Changed
I grew up in the 80ies in a bi-polar world. I got my first computer when I was 10 years old - a 286 processor where I had to load MS-DOS via floppy disk because it had no hard disk. Looking back now, how could anybody have predicted the Internet and much less the impact it had on our daily live.

Last week I saw an article on about 5 women that represent the last 5 people born before 1900. How could anybody have foreseen what they would see in their first forty years, the first plane flying, the rise of communism and a world war. And how could they even have seen the second world war coming.

So how can we predict the future? Well, we can't. 

Some Were Wrong, Some Were Right
The web is full of examples of people who were hilariously wrong.  

  • In 1920 the New York Times wrote that a rocket would never be able to leave the earth's atmosphere.
  • "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," said Ken Olson the founder of DEC in 1977. 
  • "What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?" wrote The Quarterly Review in March 1825.

On the other side there were especially writers pretty good in painting a rather accurate picture of the developments. H.G. Wells predicted the massive bombings in WWII in his novel "Things to Come" and Jules Vernes predicted the  travels to the moon and large submarines.

Still, even the ones that hit the technological progress had two problems, timing and development of society. Let's look at Jules Vernes' stories. With him it almost feels like it could have happened the day or the week after he published the novels. Society, political landscape even clothes did not keep up with the technological development.

But How Can We Write About the Future?
But if we can't predict the future, how can we write science fiction? Here is my take to it.

a) Home Grown Development
If you assume the technological development is purely human based you have to factor in economics as well as political constraints. Let's look at space travel. The decommissioning of the space shuttle marked somehow the trough of disillusionment in the hype curve and now with handing over to private industry we might be on the slope of enlightenment. I dare to predict private service to space stations within the next 5 - 10 years. But this is basically very short range only.

The step afterwards would a permanent basis on the moon. Well to establish that certain circumstances would be needed, such as benefit, e.g. minerals or a hub for further space travel due to the lower gravity and the missing atmosphere. The rational could also be for political or geopolitical reasons. Warfare was always leading development in a way and the gigantic efforts could be used to keep millions of otherwise unemployed people occupied. Anyways, for this step we probably need 20 - 50 years.

What comes afterwards? Travel to Mars or within the solar system - I'd say 50 - 100 years, give or take a decade or two. Over-light speed would need an breaking technological invention, which could be tomorrow as well as never. However, such an invention would immediately lead to a boost in the overall development.

That was quite easy - now comes the more difficult parts. For example, if you write about travel in the solar system in the year 2100, how does the geopolitical situation look like? Would it be bipolar again with USA and China or rather the United Nations of America and Asian Union? It could also be a united earth government, however, that would need more explanation than the bipolar world, e.g. a threat that would keep it together. Another angle would be the society. How would society look in 85 years? Is it the upper class living in highly secured communities and the vast majority living in ghettos or does the world consist out of supercities and large empty and poisoned countrysides.

Don't get me wrong, you don't have to put all this in your story, but you need to have it in the back of you head. 

b) Technology Infusion from Outside
One trick to overcome the constraints of home grown development is a technology infusion from outside. Extraterrestrial species could make contact and help or force humanity to do a technology leap or technology could result out of our own future (i.E. time travel). However, in both cases you have to be willing to deal with the implications.

First you have to provide a little more information about the why, when and how in order to not let it look like deus ex machina. But also, you have to deal with the impact on society as soon as humanity realized they are not alone. Will it result in staying in a war against the aliens, like in Independence day or Enders's Game, or in peaceful development under a global government, like in Star Trek. 
Additionally, as soon as you use time travel you have to decide which philosophy you are following - Back to the Future, where the past can be altered or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where the impact of the time traveler is already baked in the events of the present. I don't want to go deeper into time travel theories, but I just want to emphasize the importance to remain consistent and believable.

c) The Lucky Punch
I wouldn't go there. Most of technological development follows a long time of foreshadowing. For airplanes it took over 100 years from the concept to the first flight and there were 25 years between the research start in nuclear fusion and the first atomic bomb and I am pretty sure it would have taken longer without the war.

Not that there might not be a lucky invention, even though it doesn't happen too often, but I think it will be very hard to make your reader believe it. You risk that your story appears unrealistic.

To bring all this to a point: I think Science Fiction and Social Fiction should go hand in hand.

In that sense, happy forecasting.
Your writer in a foreign land

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