I ran across an interesting blog analyzing/critiquing my recently released hard SF novel – Solar Express. The blog used the intriguing construct of a discussion of the book between a futurist, a science fiction reader, and a UFO researcher… and none of them were particularly pleased with the book. I’m likely simplifying, but the bottom line was that the book portrayed a future a hundred years hence that was far too much like the present, and that I’d failed to show massive social changes, or any of the potential new scientific advances predicted by SF fans and futurists.
And all three of these presumably fictional characters were generally right. I didn’t, and I didn’t because most of them won’t happen, and most certainly won’t happen in a hundred years. Now, I’m not saying that there won’t be changes, some of them dramatic, over the next hundred years, because there will be, but very few will be of the nature postulated by those three characters, or by most futurists or science fiction writers.
Why? Because, despite all the rhetoric, hype, and hope to the contrary, we’re entering the Age of Limits. I’ve touched on this before, but it’s true nonetheless. We now have, on this planet, instantaneous communications. The limitation now is our ability to process and act upon those communications, and even if we replaced our biological circuitry with instant/electric capabilities and cyborged bodies, the physical speed of effective reaction couldn’t be that much faster. Nor would most human beings, even in that state, assuming we as a planet could afford it, which we can’t, think and comprehend that much faster.
We aren’t going to see superfast interplanetary or interstellar travel either. While there are some intriguing theoretical possibilities, using those possibilities would require massive amounts of energy,and for interstellar travel that would mean harnessing energy at the level contained in small black holes, and using that much energy near any planetary body or surface would have devastating impacts.
We now have ebooks, the instantly available electronic texts on every subject… and it doesn’t appear that they have markedly increased literacy or learning [and may have decreased reading longer works among the younger population], which is scarcely surprising, given that learning is limited by the individual’s biological and cultural cognitive development. Technology itself doesn’t automatically improve cognition.
It’s very possible that we’ll see solar voltaic films with much higher power generation efficiency than anything so far developed, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see that, but to use that energy requires supporting technological devices, and while 3-D printers can do a lot of that on an individual basis, where will all the raw material come from, because not everything can be printed solely out of carbon-based feedstocks?
We’re seeing incredible advances in medical technology, but those increases have come with equally incredible price tags, so that the real limitation on the implementation of some of these technologies wouldn’t be the technology, but the resources with which to pay for them. Greater and greater percentages of even the citizens in developed countries are either unable to afford or are precluded from obtaining cutting edge medical treatments, and using those technologies to extend and save lives only increases a society’s energy and resource requirements. Add to that the fact that population is still increasing and is projected to exceed 11 billion by a century from now. That means a greater demand on resources.
The bottom line is that the universe has physical limits, and human societies do as well. We have to make choices about how to allocate the application of effort and resources, because we can’t do everything we theoretically could do for everyone. And that’s why any halfway realistic portrayal of the near future is going to incorporate many factors and limitations of the present. They just don’t vanish because it’s the future.
Does this mean that Solar Express is a total “downer”? I scarcely think so. The greatness of human beings, I believe, lies not so much in exceeding limits, but in the struggle for meaning and greatness against those limits. That’s why, as an author, I’ve struggled against portraying unrealistically great and soaring achievements, and why my characters usually pay very high prices for their achievements – because struggling against the limits of the universe – any universe – is costly.
But recognizing this is hard for most people to accept, and that’s another reason for the proliferation and success of mighty heroic, and totally impossible, comic book heroes in movies and books these days. And why some people who call themselves futurists really aren’t at all, because the future our children and grandchildren will live in will be based, like it or not, or aspects of the present-day reality.