Sunday, 13 June 2010

On the New New Forum, Andrew Burt raises the question of why the future seems so much less exciting to so many people than it used to. Here are some thoughts in response.

In Schroedinger's Cat Trilogy, Robert Anton Wilson invents and explores the consequences of two alternative social revolutions: "The Revolution of Rising Expectations" in which the general desire of humanity for a better quality of life is answered by the use of technology and automation leading to a cybernetic Nirvana and on towards the stars, and "The Revolution of Lowered Expectation" in which the "old, crafty alpha males" who have dominated society for so long systematically drive the rest of the species back into latter day serfdom.

It seems to me that variant forms of these revolutions are in play today and are fighting it out to determine the shape of the future. And one result is that the future seems more confused, uncertain and fearful than it used to be.

In his marvelous "Europe: A History" Norman Davis refers to the late Middle Ages as a period of "prolonged crisis for which contemporaries had no solution." It is a description that could be applied to our own times. Global warming, over-population, mass extinction, resource depletion, war: there are so many challenges for which science seems incapable of providing answers, not least because they arise out of the interaction of (largely unaltered) human natures with the world that scientific progress has created.

Post-Second World War, Science and Science Fiction both promised us wonders. Having seen the worst that the world could be and having come through a war which had been won by (amongst other things) a combination of liberalism, technology and industrialization, the notion that tomorrow could be better than today was one that people both wanted and needed to believe in.

But the delivery of those promises turned out to be much, much harder than either Science Fiction writers or the scientists anticipated. I am in my forties. I remember watching a documentary back in 1983 or 84 about the Japanese project to build a Fifth Generation Computer which, in the space of ten years, would deliver a machine that could communicate in natural languages and engage in something analogous thought. I remember watching an episode of "Mission Impossible" in which a chess playing computer (complete with flashing buttons a reel-to-reel tape deck) betrayed its true nature by being better than the world's greatest human player. I remember watching "2001 A Space Odyssey" in the assembly hall at school and watching the Pan Am shuttle craft carrying passengers to a giant space station.

All of which is just to say that SF writers turn out to be every bit as ignorant about how "the future" is going to work is, and that treating SF as prediction is about as intelligent as treating "Animal Farm" as a description of agricultural innovation.

In many ways, our world far more remarkable than the one which writers like Asimov were envisaging during SF's "Golden Age". The combined processing power of the world's mobile phones surely outweighs that of "Multivac" by many tens of millions. But Robbie and HAL seem further from us now than when Arthur and Issac were inventing them.

And as the shuttle program closes down for lack of funds we are forcibly reminded of Douglas Adams's dictum that, "Space is big. Really big;" that serious space travel is far harder than we had expected; and that reaching even the nearer planets may be a task for our grand children rather than ourselves.

In terms of opportunity, the world seems shrunk from what it was. The sense of the universe as a a place of expanding vistas (a vision which runs through Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and surely helps to explain the enduring appeal of a series as otherwise inept and pointless as "Star Trek") is one it is increasingly hard to believe in. (This may explain the relentless march of Fantasy as a commercial genre. Fantasy provides marvels we are still allowed to enjoy because we don't have to believe that they might, in some sense, be "true".)

We live in an age of miracles, and the sheer ubiquity of technological wonders render them commonplace. The first steam train, balloon or iron ship was surely a cause of more astonishment than is the latest iPad, although in almost any way you care to think about it the iPad is far more complex and surprising. The more remarkable the technology is in theory, the more banal it seems in practice. Looking at the word, from the abandoned skyscrapers of Dubai to the oil-stained beaches of Louisiana, it is hard not to feel that if we are living in an SF Future then it is the future of J G Ballard and not of Robert Heinlein.

Despite all this, I remain cautiously optimistic, both about humanity and about SF. The "long crisis" of the Middle Ages eventually flowered into the glory of the Renaissance. Innovation and development may be a process of replacing one old problem with five new ones, but progress still occurs and the world does change for the better.

SF and science alike will continue to trade in "Big Ideas" but the sense of what a big idea is has changed and will continue to change. It's not just about warp drives and the Three Laws of Robotics. Economics, cybernetics, cosmology, genetics, information theory, astrophysics and dozens of other equally interesting topics continue to provide fuel for both research and fictionalizing.

There are still a multiplicity of wonders out there and writers like Egan, Stross, Brin, Bear (to name just the first ones who happen to come to mind) continue to explore them to huge effect. Life today may well be difficult, dangerous, confusing and uncertain. But there was scarcely ever a time when it was anything else. But there was rarely, if ever, a time when it had more potential for wonder.