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.

7 thoughts on “Limits”

  1. Tom says:

    I would agree with you that the human mind is the present limitation to evolution of humanity. So the SF writer that writes about the next stage of human evolution will need to consider the extension of those of us with OCD, ADHD, Schizophrenia etc. and what sort of society would result. There is of course the possibility that we can tweak our society into something approaching positive empathic practicality.
    I thought you had left an opening for “superfast interplanetary or interstellar travel” because you wrote that the solar “flare” had a cut-off end to it. All the photos I have seen have rounded and streamed ends. So you say the Solar Express did not enter a worm hole after gathering the requisite energy? Oh bother.
    I enjoyed ‘Solar Express’.

  2. Robert The Addled says:

    I rather enjoyed the whole thing. Logical progression (the more things change the more they stay the same). The limited communications for a radio telescope are spot on – no stray EM allowed.

    In my opinion, drive systems are what is limiting human (in person) exploration (and to an extent – probe based as well). It felt like the drive systems were still fairly new tech to me. And unfortunately, new tech like that usually ends up weaponized.

    I also felt that this novel ended on a positive and hopeful note, since there wasn’t the cautionary element some of your stand-alone or short sequence novels have had. (Not that I’m complaining – I like the fact your novels make me think.)

    I think the reviewers forget that Novels are not prophecies, they are STORIES, based on a progression of events from an assumed starting point in society and tech. As such – they take themselves too seriously.

  3. D Archerd says:

    Your counter-arguments to the reviewer’s objections are spot on. Not only would it be intellectually impossible (not to mention physically impossible) to extrapolate on every single current technological and sociological trend, it would almost certainly be wrong.

    The only thing we can say for certain about the future 100 years hence is that a great many of the things we currently expect to have dramatically changed will remain stubbornly and mundanely familiar, and that some of the biggest changes will be completely unforeseen today.

    For an example of the former, what futurist in 1915 would have predicted that the automobile would remain basically unchanged in its technology for 100 years. Sure, it has become much more efficient, faster, and comfortable (not to mention safer) but it’s still a chassis on four wheels with rubber tires, powered by a gasoline internal combustion engine, with room for passengers and cargo inside. Those who were in the midst of witnessing the dramatic transition in transportation from animal power to steam and internal combustion machines would almost certainly have expected progress to continue at that same rate, not the long series of engineering tweaks that are responsible for the differences between a 1915 and a 2015 automobile.

    On the other hand, even the most perceptive observer in 1915 would have been extremely unlikely to have predicted the amazing marriage of instant communications and computing power that have resulted in the modern smartphone, let alone the ubiquity and impact of that technology on our lives today.

    Any writer of speculative fiction has to make choices about what current trends are important and/or interesting enough to make the extrapolations that are the underpinnings of their story. And they don’t owe any explanations or justifications of which trends they chose to extrapolate and which they chose to leave out…certainly not to reviewers or anyone else whose noses are out of joint because their pet theory wasn’t mentioned.

  4. alecia flores says:

    I thought the world you created was right one. And I felt that the political, sociological, and media situations you extrapolated were excellent. Your book was one of the few that actually clearly defined the probability of what the world would look like in 100 years, and I found the book thought-provoking, well-written, and character-driven. I also thought that it would not be appreciated by most readers who are looking for whizz-bang hard SciFi. Tough – I liked it a lot.

  5. Joe says:

    Looking forwards to reading it.

    It is amusing how few new things there really are. From paintings, through film, through digital cameras to cellphone cameras, we have just invented new ways of doing the same thing. Likewise from bards, theater, through radio and TV to streaming video. Or scribes, to Gutenberg, to photocopiers, to scanners and digital documents.

    Indeed, although people process more data daily, I doubt most understand its implications as well as they used to when it wasn’t so easily available. As Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”.

    The fact we do not change much is why I fear we will not adapt willingly to the limits you mention, leaving the only real source of change: involuntary change. The most likely scenario for massive change is ecological collapse, followed by a new Dark Ages. The less likely scenario is the impact of true AI. The least likely scenario is that we learn to live within our limits before we cause irreparable harm, and that would also be a massive change, but in our way of conceptualizing the world around us.

  6. Daze says:

    Another common misconception is that the pace of technological change is speeding up: it isn’t. The wavelength from proven lab concept to widespread / common use remains at about 25 years: from useful theory to proven lab concept isn’t generally much shorter. What is happening is that there are a lot more waves running simultaneously, which feels like faster, but is actually just ‘broader’.

    It is also true that by and large governments and corporations no longer fund truly theoretical and blue-sky research in the way that (eg) Bell Labs did: so, much harder now to come up with the transistor, or Unix …

    As others have said, much innovation anyway is new ways of doing old things. Example: battery / energy storage technology has been on a remarkably steady curve of price / power / weight for more than a century – as each old technology reaches its limit, new ones become price-competitive – but the guy who told me this on a technology forecasting course in the ’70s already had Li-Ion and hydrogen fuel cells pencilled in on his forecast curve as the candidates for the next two waves.

    It follows that anything that is going to be in widespread use much before the end of this century is already being tinkered with by a theoretical lab somewhere, probably by someone in a back room at Google on their 10% time allowance. It really is that predictable.

  7. mournelithe says:

    Just wanted to say I just finished Solar Express and really quite enjoyed it – as a different take on the classic Big Dumb Object idea it scratched that itch rather nicely. I also liked the much more impersonal nature of the object and the complete indifference to any interactions, very much more like Rendezvous with Rama than the sequels.

    The wider world was an interesting premise. I certainly agree with much of the thrust, though I found some of the references a bit less subtle than your usual style.

    The tight view on the protagonists helped a lot, though I would have preferred the Sinese to have been other than faceless enemies or yellow peril, and the Indian situation in space felt it could have had more development.

    As for advanced in technology … It felt about right to me – the post collapse situation would have shifted basic research away from sexy space stuff into unsexy staying alive against the floods stuff, so a mixture of old science and new is very apt.

    Oh, and as a minor complaint – it is impossible to use your captcha on a tablet.

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