Revisiting the Future: Science Fiction and the Shape of Things to Come

This paper was originally presented to the 2007 International Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy, Chengdu, People's Republic of China

Ten years ago I delivered a paper to this conference on the future and science fiction. My thesis was that science fiction as a literature of ideas has a societal function separate from its role as entertainment. By creating a public dialogue around such topics as robotics, space flight, nanotechnology, and cloning, science fiction prepares readers for technological change. Some would argue that it actually encourages young people toward careers in the sciences. At the least, in a society battered by future shock, with the sum total of human knowledge doubling and redoubling with frenetic velocity, it could be that cultivating a "sense of wonder"—perhaps the defining characteristic of science fiction—is a prerequisite for success in our brave new world.

The ten years that have passed since I presented "The Future and Science Fiction" have strengthened my belief in the value of the genre as a cultural guidepost. In fact I now suspect that I underestimated its importance by an embarrassing factor. For one thing, the future is arriving even faster than I expected. Many stories of mine, mostly fiction when they were published in the nineties, have become, essentially, fact. This is not a comfortable thought, since a good portion of my work concerns things going wrong and falling apart. Like Ray Bradbury, in many cases I write not to predict the future, but to prevent it.1

My first science fiction story, "Some Fine Cuisine2, was set in a near future world where the boundaries between humans and animals had blurred due to a plague virus that transferred genetic material from one species to another. At the time it was written, the tale was pure speculation. Exactly a decade later, in 2003, Chinese scientists at the Shanghai Second Medical University successfully fused human cells with rabbit eggs, creating a chimera embryo. And in 2004 researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the United States bred pigs with human blood running through their veins. Unfortunately, it is already commonplace for modified varieties of grain to escape from their fields to spread their altered genes among the wild strains.

"A Bad Case of the Flu"3, also set in the near future, albeit a different one, followed a man whose identity is stolen from him through the Internet. When the story was published in 1996, "identity theft" was a phrase known to few. Now hacking and phishing are commonplace crimes. Just last week a friend’s credit-card number was compromised for the second time. This very morning I received an e-mail directing me to a Trojan website, where my personal information would have been stolen from me had I been more trusting. Although currently there are no "thumbers"—criminals who surgically remove their victims’ digits in order to bypass security devices—the advent of laptop fingerprint readers has made me uneasy. Could it be only a matter of time before the first finger is harvested in order to access its owner’s financial accounts?

When "The Curtain Falls" first appeared in 19954, the idea of global warming was almost unknown to the general public. Even the majority of the scientific community considered climate change to be alarmist speculation. Now my cautionary tale of ecological collapse has turned out to be, if anything, an understatement of our planet’s real condition. Climate change is not only known to be fact, it is also a known fact that the warming is occurring more quickly than anyone would have believed possible just a decade ago. As I compose this essay, sheets of ice of geographic size are breaking free of the polar caps. Current climate models predict a rise in sea level of 20 feet, perhaps within a generation, with the consequent inundation of every shoreline on earth.

Why I was so wrong in terms of the time-frame of the future became clear to me in 1999, when I was commissioned by the prestigious, if short lived, e-zine, HMS Beagle, to write a short story5 based on The Evolutionary Trajectory6, an academic work by the futurist Richard Coren. Melding together such disciplines as chaos and information theory, cybernetics, thermodynamics, systems theory and paleontology, among others, Coren calculated that evolutionary and technological change is taking place not at an arithmetic but at an exponential7 rate. In other words, my stories are becoming dated sooner than I expected because the future actually is approaching sooner than I expected. Bearing both hope and peril, new scientific advancements are coming on-line with logarithmic speed. It is imperative that our civilization as a whole, and especially our children, learn how to use them wisely—not in ten years, not in five. The time is now. The future is already here8.

Another issue that puzzled me about my body of work was why so much of it seemed to be coming to pass—not the story details, of course, but the background technological changes. With all honesty, I cannot claim any special prescience and, as with all writers, I lack clear title to my own ideas, having built them on foundations laid by others.

In large part, I believe, my accuracy comes from the ordinary reason that my stories address processes that were already in play at the time I was writing about them. Climate change, for example, began with the industrial revolution, and its effects were already being recognized in the early 1990s—so it was no great speculative leap to assume that global warming would get worse as time went by. Nor was it a true feat of imagination to predict cyber criminals—at the time I wrote stories about them, there were already computers in most offices and many homes and the first hackers were already being prosecuted for their activities.

As a generality, I suspect it’s likely that many logical near-term predictions about observable processes have a good chance of being right. Forty years ago computers filled entire rooms. Now one much better sits beneath my fingertips. At this point who would seriously deny that machines far smaller will become commonplace? The only question is when. And that time is sooner than we think.

However, I have also begun to suspect that another mechanism may also be affecting my predictive scorecard.

In The Evolutionary Trajectory Coren argues that "The [biological] evolution we have experienced for 10 billion years is reaching a state beyond which it cannot proceed without a fundamental and radical change of direction, form, mechanism, and nature." That radical change, whether achieved through cybernetics, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or through a combination of technologies known and unknown, will result in the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence, an event referred to by futurists as the "singularity"—a term coined by the science fiction writer Vernor Vinge9. In the physical world a singularity is an object about which nothing can be directly known. A black hole in space is a singularity, its gravity so intense that nothing may escape, not even light. Similarly, as humans, our ability to conceptualize breaks down when we confront the singularity that is super-human intelligence. The singularity may result in the end of our species or in the augmentation of mankind to post-human perfection. It may bypass the human race entirely, leaving us in an evolutionary backwater10, or envelop every inhabitant of our planet11. No one knows. That is the intrinsic nature of the singularity. Any guess we can make about it is merely a reflection of our own image.

Vinge believes that "if the technological singularity can happen, it will." Assuming his assumption to be correct12, one direct consequence is that science fiction stories that look clearly at the future have a greater potential for being predictive because there will be less possible futures among which to choose. In the same way that any story set within the next thousand years must have a background that includes climate change as historical fact, potential worlds that do not include the singularity are becoming logically implausible, making them untenable scenarios for SF authors of intellectual rigor. The singularity is drawing the present toward it in an inescapable grip, as river water is funneled through an ever-narrowing sluice.

I confess that at this point I am still unsure as to the extent to which I accept the inevitability of the singularity despite the logical allure of the concept. However, I am absolutely certain that it is a potential future, if only one among many. Coren expects that the singularity will be born in approximately 140 years. Other futurists cite time-spans ranging from 20 to 60 years. It could be that our own children—or their children—will be faced with decisions affecting what it means to be human. Whether sooner or later, it is vital that our culture begin a general discussion of accelerating change and the path we are taking toward the future. Science fiction, as the only literature that deals explicitly with the impact of technology, is uniquely positioned to encourage this conversation. Now!

1 - "What Science Fiction Can Tell Us About the Future" in 1997 Beijing International Conference on Science Fiction, by Frederick Pohl.
2 - Midnight Zoo, Vol. 3 No. 4: 1993.
3 - Aboriginal Science Fiction, Spring: 1996.
4 - Green Echo, ed. Gary Bowen, Obelesk Books, 1995.
5 - "The End of Evolution as We Know It" in HMS Beagle (e-zine): Oct. 1999.
6 - The Evolutionary Trajectory: The Growth of Information in the History and Future of Earth, by Richard Coren. Gordon & Breech Publishers: 1998.
7 - In the computer industry, Moore's Law predicts that the number of transistors in a given area will double every two years. .A decade ago, chips were built on the scale of 500 nanometers (nm). This year, most PC processors are currently fabricated on a 65nm scale. Intel has already demonstrated a 45nm chip.
8 - I cannot help but wonder how many people would have been spared financial loss or ruin if only they had been science fiction readers and become familiar with the concept of "identity theft" in time to prevent it happening to them.
9 - The Coming Technological Singularity, © 1993 by Vernor Vinge. The original version was presented at the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, 1993. A slightly changed version appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Whole Earth Review.
10 - See Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke, for a wonderful novel built around this idea.
11 - See the novels Vacuum Flowers and Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick.
12 - For a comprehensive introduction to singularity theory, visit the websites of Acceleration Watch (www.accelerationwatch.com) or The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (www.singinst.org).