The SF Future: More of the Same — Except Better or Worse?

Recently, in his column about Arthur C. Clarke in the New York Times, Dave Iztkoff explored whether present and future writers would be as successful as Clarke had been in envisioning future technologies. Over the years, various writers and academics have attempted to quantify in a rough fashion just how accurate SF has been in predicting the future. In his Foundation series, written around 1940, Isaac Asimov did anticipate the pocket calculator — and even the color of the numbers — but he thought it would be thousands of years before they were developed, instead of twenty or so. Clarke himself thought we’d have expeditions to Jupiter by 2001, and he lived to see that men hadn’t gotten farther than a few missions to the moon. In his book, The Forever War, first published in 1974, Joe Haldeman envisioned interstellar travel by the twenty-first century, and we still don’t even have interplanetary travel.

At the same time, in most areas, we’ve advanced further than Verne and the visionaries of the late nineteenth century imagined, sometimes much further. So what happened? Why has that changed?

I’d submit that the failings of later SF writers to anticipate the future rest on three factors. The first is that while our world has become far smaller than anticipated by early writers, our solar system, galaxy, and universe are far larger and more complex than even most scientists truly understood. The second is that future advancement depends on an increasing share of our resources being devoted to science and technology. And the third is that most predictions, either from scientists or from SF writers, are based on extrapolating from the known, because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of what lies beyond the known, without basing it on what is known. Yet many technologies have come from what was not previously known or understood. In short, most predictions suggest more of the same, except with changes that imply the future will be better… or worse, but not all that different. Human motives and emotions aren’t likely to change; that’s true enough, but the framework within which they’re expressed is likely to change greatly.

In fact, the future is likely to be different, and most probably both better and worse. Given the great advances in micro-electronics and communications, as David Brin has suggested, future society is most likely to be the “transparent society” where almost everything can be discovered by almost anyone, and the most valuable commodity may be privacy. In some of my work, particularly in The Elysium Commission, I’ve explored this to some degree, but I don’t think I’ve more than scratched the surface in terms of how that kind of technology will change society, and I’ve seen very few books that do explore that possibility.

All too many future SF stories postulate trade between solar systems. In fact, the only trade, if there is any at all, will be knowledge or unique art or artifacts, because the energy cost of such travel would be so great that any good could be produced within any given system far more cheaply than it could possibly be transported and sold.

What about finance? We’ve just seen the world-wide impact of the failure of a U.S. financial subsystem consisting of sophisticated and highly leveraged mortgage-backed securities. What sort of new financial complexities lie down the road — and what sorts of regulations?

A recent study I ran across suggests that people who are not good readers are far more susceptible to manipulation by con men and politicians and more likely to take at face value what they see on video presentations. Add to that the fact that the rise of a video visual culture has almost halved the percentage of supposedly “educated” people in the USA [those with a baccalaureate degree] who have the reading skills to follow sophisticated written arguments and statements. In other words, less than 30% of those with a college degree can do so. What are the political implications of that? What sort of future — and stories — might come from it?

Even ten years ago, could anyone — did anyone, except the Israelis — imagine citizens of the United States lining up for security searches more reminiscent of communist Russia just to get on an airplane?

In almost any area or discipline where one might look, there are similar changes beneath the surface, and all of them will impact the future. What is certain is that, beyond the next decade or so, the future won’t be what we’re likely to think it will be. But then, even for scientists and writers, it never has been.