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Science Fiction, Futurism and the Failure of the Will to Imagine
Alex Steffen, 17 Aug 04

Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind? That's the question Popular Science asks this month.

It's mainly an article about worldchanging allies Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow (and we're happy to see 'em get the much-deserved press). But the frame within the story is set is a now-familiar one: "Awed at the pace of technological advances, a faction of geeky writers believes our world is about to change so radically that envisioning what comes next is nearly impossible."

Been there, done that. Here's a draft of a piece I wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2002, which got bumped by the appearance of a vaguely-similar piece in the Week In Review section:

Who's afraid of the future? Science fiction writers, apparently.

It seems a strange charge to level. After all, science fiction has been the genre of choice for writers who love to ponder the future, its possibilities and its dangers, ever since Mary Shelley mythologized both the expanding vistas of science and the perils of technological hubris in Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus almost 200 years ago. Nonetheless, a growing number of science fiction writers and critics contend that works which tackle the future with true originality are becoming something of an endangered species.

"There's still plenty of space opera out there, with heroes running around in galactic Disneylands," says author Bruce Sterling, "but almost no one is addressing the nature of the 21st Century, or putting together, like, genuinely novel visions of life in the year 2050."

In the 80's, Sterling notes, it gave young SF writers such as himself "a hormonal rush" to see their wildest predictions begin to come true a decade later; in the 90's, that lag had run to a couple years; now, he says, between the time a SF writer can predict something and his publisher can get it on the shelves, reality will have caught up. "Genuinely novel ideas about the future have a short shelf-life these days."


In fact, some of the most respected American science fiction authors recently haven't been writing science fiction at all. Instead they're turning out scientific thrillers, spy stories, even historical novels. Sterling himself – though a founder of the "Cyberpunk" school of SF (the preferred term, "sci-fi" being outmoded), and the author of several books widely regarded as classics in the field – says he's now working on a "techno-thriller" set in the present day.

And many of those who are still writing in the genre, argues critic Judith Berman in her much-noted recent essay "Science Fiction Without the Future," are turning out stories "full of nostalgia… fear of the future in general, and the experience of change as disorienting and bad."

Berman, speaking in an interview, said she's concerned that the genre as a whole is moving away from stories which use future settings to explore the nature of societal change – think, for instance, of William Gibson's Neuromancer, or for that matter, 1984 or Brave New World. Instead, she says, writers are turning increasingly to escapist stories which rely on tropes from science fiction's past.

"A huge proportion of the books out there are about time-travel, or are set in alternate futures, or have a retro feel, like steampunk," Berman said, referring to the trend for science fiction set in the Victorian era. Where, she asks, is the novelty, the exhilaration about change, the engagement with the future's possibilities that SF used to offer? Why are science fiction writers shying away from the future?

There are a number of different answers. Berman herself blames the graying of the field, contending that the majority of SF writers and fans are Boomers, and that the discomfort and disorientation they feel in the face of technological change manifests itself in a desire to look back to simpler times.

Sterling sees a larger problem, a sort of "cultural anemia" in our society. Americans' confidence in the future has been rocked by events like the 9-11 bombings and the Dotcom collapse. We no longer have any "new, exciting destination myth," Sterling says. "Space certainly isn't it. Our space program has become a hollow symbol, something like one of those giant Stalinist statues of the worker and the peasant, full of rust and crumbling brick."

A simpler explanation, though, seems to make the most sense: the world is an increasingly complicated place, changing more and more rapidly, and finding ways to tell stories which make sense of the nature and direction of those changes is becoming more and more difficult. The accelerating pace of change is making the present harder to predict.

"Changes in our social relationship to technology – the speed with which people adopt technology and find strange ways to use it – beggar the ability of science fiction writers to stay ahead of them," says writer Neal Stephenson. And, he says, since SF stories set in the near future (as opposed to the Flash Gordon kind) rely on bursts of dizzying foresight for much of their narrative force, being unable to stay ahead of the curve tends to make authors shy away from writing them.

This, Stephenson says, may explain the current obsession with SF's past. When writing intelligently about the future is strewn with so many pitfalls, trying to make your case through historical analogy begins to seem more attractive. "Once you begin taking a science fictional viewpoint, you find that there's no reason it needs to be confined to an imaginary future," he says. "Science and technology have been shaping human destiny since the start." Stephenson himself is now at work on a historical novel.

The plotlines of last decade's SF is the stuff of headlines today. Genomes are deciphered, lifespans of 130 years promised, sheep (and cats and mice and dogs and cows) are cloned (and does anyone expect the first cloned baby to be far off?). Schoolkids trundle off to class with notebooks running ten times the computational power it took to put a man on the Moon. Wireless Internet is common enough to become grist for stand-up comics. Engineers use virtual worlds to evolve new tool designs through a sort of artificial Darwinism. "Napster fabbers," machines which can turn out simple models of three-dimensional objects using lasers and gels, promise to do for simple material goods what their namesake did for music. Globalization is so pervasive that college students from Seattle to Genoa protest for trade reform, fundamentalist wackos of all stripes launch terror campaigns and somewhere in Kuala Lumpur or Helsinki a pimple-faced hacker is preparing the next virus to crash your computer. And it all shows no sign of slacking off.

Quite the opposite, actually. Change shows every sign of accelerating. Advances in computation, biotechnology and artificial intelligence are colliding to produce breakthrough after breakthrough, tumbling one after another. While politicians may make disapproving noises about stem cell research, and venture capitalists have grown wary, no one seems really to doubt that the overall trend is up, up and away. There's even a vogue among some younger SF writers to see this manic acceleration as heralding the arrival of a phenomenon known as the Singularity.

The Singularity describes a moment when technology begins evolving so rapidly that the future ceases in any meaningful way to be subject to anticipation. Imagine change charted as an exponential curve: at some point the line goes veering off the top of the graph. It that point, we will have run into the "prediction horizon," the theory goes – a transformation of such magnitude that nothing can be seen beyond it. Beyond the Singularity, the future goes opaque.

Though the idea of the Singularity has been sometimes dismissed as "the rapture of the nerds," many of the new generation say that all serious thinking about the future, perhaps even the present, must be done under the its shadow.

"If even science fiction authors are finding it difficult to think about the near future," says futurist and author Jamais Cascio, "it's a good sign that change is happening faster than anyone can reasonably apprehend." That in turn, he says, may be a sign that the prediction horizon is upon us, "that we aren't heading into the Singularity, we're already immersed in it."

If that's true, then science fiction faces a unique crisis.

"More than anything SF has propagated the meme that the future is linear and can be extrapolated from the present day," says Cory Doctorow, novelist and author of the Complete Idiot's Guide to Science Fiction. "What the genre's role is when the future becomes truly nonlinear and unknowable is an open question."

I no longer think this is true, though. I now believe that the failure of futurists and writers of speculative fiction to "see around the corner" is a failure of the will, a symptom of too much closed-loop thinking. For while folks who think about the future pride themselves on being out there, the kind of out there that gets you kudos as a SF writer or corporate futurist has become utterly predictable. There are few shockingly new visions, I think, not because it's impossible to envision the future, but because an increasingly narrow band of visions resonate with these communities.

I don't think the Singularity impossible. And it's definitely a useful metaphor. But it's current over-use strikes me as much more a matter of the last, industrial paradigm in futurism explaining away -- in its own terms -- its inability to see ahead, than of any intellectual or cultural vigor in the idea itself.

Then there's the cultural baggage of the predictors themselves. JC Herz said it best, when she wrote,

"Hatched in the atomic age, the Singularity is the embodiment of our fears and desires about 20th-century technology: that someday, all the machines that we have created in our factories and computer labs will become sentient, awakened like giant robots by the promethean fire of our technological ambitions. And then they’ll get wise to their monkey masters, stage a coup, and kick us to the curb. From HAL to SkyNet to The Matrix, this fantasy of AI consciousness always reflects a particularly human cocktail of fear and guilt: fear of dying (and the attendant hope that instead we will be able to upload our brains to the uber-server), and a sneaking sense of guilt that this impulse is hubristic and naughty, and for it we will be punished by our silicon successors. It says little about technology, and everything about human beings."

The predicted schedule for arrival of the Singularity has also raised eyebrows. It’s more than coincidence, some say, that many Boomer scientists and writers predict the coming of the Singularity (and with it immortality) within a timeframe they may hope to see—indeed several writers have pointed out that the predicted ETA of immortality has an odd way of coinciding with the predictor’s seventieth birthday. (Ironically, though, while Boomers themselves are unlikely to see the real benefits of life extension promised by new technology -- benefits accrue far more heavily to the young, especially children -- the scrambling of their panicked hands may build the medical foundation for the next generation’s ability to live Methuselahn spans.)

Re-seen through these cultural and historical filters, he Singularity seems less and less likely, the product of a school of "freeze your head futurism" that fails to see that what's most interesting about technology is not what it does to us, but what it lets us do together.

Things are changing. Technology is accelerating. Few are betting much on the idea that technological progress is about to grind to a halt, or even slow down. Curves still rocket skyward. It’s hard to anticipate what breakthroughs may still await us in the next decades. The majority of scientists ever to live are alive today. Scientific paradigm shivers are so common that the press has gone blasé about reporting them. When it comes to technological prediction, as Stewart Brand points out, we’ve consistently gotten it wrong by being too optimistic in the short term, but far too conservative in the long.

But people with foresight today don't fetishize computers or biotechnology as some sort of nearly spiritual objects, any more than electricians go googly-eyed about the mystical power of the dynamo, the wonders of the electro-light and the transgressive thrill of "commanding lightning." If you grew up using them, it's pretty easy to see that computers are tools, and only a fool worships her tools.

The Singularity seems transgressively imaginative, promising to melt all that is solid about humanity into air under the white hot heat of computation, But really, ranting about the Singularity is actually a way of dodging our responsibility to imagine the future. We can't, by definition, know what's on the other side of the Singularity, so all we have to do today is work on cranking up those processing speeds. No need for messy debates about the trade-offs of different forms of technological development or the motivations behind various designs -- it's all just grist for the mill of technological transcendence. The Singularity has become a sort of rhetorical slight-of-hand, distracting us from the real work of making tough decisions and creating bold designs.

You can see a similar set of forces at play when it comes to the environment. It should be obvious that I take the consequences of our misuse of the planet seriously. But talk about the planet "dying" is just absurd. There are very few imaginable threats to humanity, much less life on Earth. Short of cosmic mishap -- we could get smashed to bits by a passing asteroid or fried in a gamma-ray burster -- or willful stupidity like all-out nuclear war, life will go on. It may well be horrific, and it is certainly something worth fighting against, but even widespread ecological collapse will not put an end to humanity.

That we continue to talk about the end of the Earth seems to me again less about the reality of environmental problems and more about who's been doing the talking. One gets a sense, reading the work of many older and prominent environmental thinkers that they sort of relish the idea of the planet burning to cinders sometime shortly after they die. It's a sort of "after me, the deluge" thinking. It seems a sign of older thinkers' inability to imagine that history will go on without them, perhaps even end up writing them into an unflattering role, or consigning them to mere oblivion: that the late 20th Century may be seen, centuries hence, as just a sordid little outburst of short-sighted greed, best forgotten.

Those of us who are younger don't have the luxury of failing to imagine the future. If you're under 30 now, the odds are excellent that you'll live to be a hundred. If you do, you'll live over half your life after the year 2025. For many old people, the world we're creating is (unfortunately) of little concern, except perhaps when they grow concerned over their legacies. For you, it is home. For old people, the idea that the future will be radically different is a cause of Singularitarian hand-waving or anxious scoffing and fearful skepticism. For you, it should be a source of hope and inspiration.

We need better visions, better predictions of the present, not more mumbled excuses about the Singularity and the incomprehensibility of the world.

Bring on the next generation of far-seers!

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The world as always leaves you behind sooner or later and they are too trapped in thier concete to see they arnt leading anyone anywhere.

Posted by: wintermane on 17 Aug 04

Where are the FTL drives? Interstellar empires? Time traveling humans? The immortals? The ringworlds? Artificial intelligences? Superhuman intelligences?

Even fusion energy and fusion propulsion seem out of reach, such simple ideas but so unattainable. Nanoassemblers will remain science fiction for decades at least. Talked to any downloaded or uploaded humans lately?

The developed world is growing more egalitarian in politics. If a nail sticks up, pound it back down. Such societies don't produce very good science fiction or science.

Posted by: RB on 18 Aug 04

This is a well known thing among SF authors. Jamais and I have talked about it before... the dearth of near-future SF that is not completely dystopian has been going on for a long time.

Part of the problem is obviously the current enamoring of SF authors with the "singularity", which is a literary equivalent of a cop out in a way, as Alex mentions. A more fundamental issue is sort of a "cannot see the forest for all the trees" conundrum, as it is much more difficult to write about the world in the immediate future without being a bit stylistically blinded by the facts of today.

It's probably a good time to pimp Jamais' Transhuman Space GURPS books; I think he does a pretty decent job of crossing this gap in them.

But the fact remains that except for singularity wanking and pure dystopian visions, there is a real lack of imaginative near-future SF being published. WC allies Cory and Bruce are notable exceptions, of course.

Posted by: Howard on 18 Aug 04

I think that Charlie Stross and Ken Macleod do a good job of presenting plausible & surreal visions of what the next couple of centuries might hold. They're both residents of Scotland (along with Iain Banks, who has crafted in his Culture novels a description of a far future I really would love to live in) -- I wonder if that means anything...

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 18 Aug 04

I'm not sure I would classify their work as near future though, maybe "mid future" (especially for MacLeod). Though I need to read more Stross.

Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks are two of my favorite authors as well.

Some of Banks' non-SF fiction could perhaps be described as near-future SF, though of course some of it (Song of Stone, etc) falls into the "dystopian" category.

Posted by: Howard on 18 Aug 04

I'm also a big fan of MacLeod. I've just about worn out my hardbound copy of the Fall Revolution trilogy. His reading is very dense: every time I reread one of his stories, I find something I missed before.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on 18 Aug 04

Ed Cornish of the World Future Society - has a new book out: "Futuring", that discusses a lot of this, though from a more serious angle than science fiction - authors are not the only ones who try to predict what's coming. An interesting aspect of Cornish's argument is the need for a positive vision of the future, to sustain an individual or a society. And how we've lost that over the past century (it's not just a recent phenomenon). I reviewed it here:

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 19 Aug 04

I have never really understood what we mean by "singularity".

If you look at histroy as a timeline its very easy to see, that predicting future in time gets much harder: in 10000 bc, a visionary could see thousand(s) of years in to the future, in the middle ages hundreds and today only decades. But if we look at it as the level of change in the world i don't think predicting future has become any hader. Its just that the change that used to take a millenium can now happen in a decade. So we can still predict the change just as well, but it will only happen much faster.

What comes to Singularity i don't see the point of whole term unless we define the speed of change we mean. As abstract as it is now, the Singularity will always be one step ahead of us. And if we only mean "exponential development" then why don't we just say that and get rid of all the mystism?

Posted by: Jussi on 19 Aug 04

The future is not all that hard to predict ive been doing it for quite some time myself and rarely ever get all that wrong.

5 years is easy.

Battery tech will make electric cars in the mild and full hyrid form factors much cheaper then current and as such full and semi hybrid cars will replace many but not all old style cars.

Computers will be alot more powerful BUT not so much faster then now. containing 4 or more cores the main cpu will be able for the first time run a very good voice synthesis and voice regocnition system AND do everything you want without hiccuping. It will however still refuse to do what you want it to just when you need it to do it most.

Cities will be slighly different in 5-10 years as hybrids that can use eletric power in city driving lower overall pollution levels. BUT it will take 10-20 years for that to realy snowball as all the old cars move to third world nations or get converted or just die.

Tv will still have nothing on when you are bored only now it will be hd and thus more realisticly boring. Alot more boring stuff for hd will come out and only a few good things will at least 3 of wich will be borderline anime porn.

Global warming... we will still be going down the toilet we will just have a better idea exactly how we are doing so.

10-20 years.

Cars will look even more dorky and stupid then currently. Even more people then now will die in car accidents only now it will be all knew and interesting horrible ways to die stupidly. Oh and the cars will be much better fuel/energy/eviro wise... tho as always YOUR car never will do that well.

Computers will stop talking to us after they realize we realy are annoying to listen to and never do what they say anyway.

Robots will be everywhere doing all sorts of things yet for some odd reason no matter where you go you will still see 7 men pointing at something while 1 guy does all the work.

Homes will be amazingly wonderful energy effiecent spacious things of grace and style.. except that is for your home which will look like drunk robots put it together using duct tape.

Aliens will visit earth... and tell no one.

20-50 years from now.

The moon will be colonized and quite a few people will be living there... Then when the first lawyer and politician land on the moon the charm and wonder will of course end.

Computers will talk to us again after having made sure we do listen now and that we shut the heck up when they dont wana listen.

Cars will be amazing powerhouses of tech and futuristic style. But they still will look like a fast moving poo. They will just be amazing fast moving poo.

Sometime between now and 50 years from now there will be a war or two a BIG war at that. But in 50 years no one will care to listen to old war stories from us old farts.

Oh and in 2054 we will be posting wondering what it will be like in the 22nd century and wondering why so much of sci fi sucks... forgetting the real reason is so much of humanity sucks.

Posted by: wintermane on 19 Aug 04

We can't, by definition, know what's on the other side of the Singularity, so all we have to do today is work on cranking up those processing speeds. No need for messy debates about the trade-offs of different forms of technological development or the motivations behind various designs -- it's all just grist for the mill of technological transcendence.

There's an uncomfortable amount of truth in this sentence, but I see evidence that transhumanists are moving away from this view. Consider Eliezer S. Yudkowsky's Creating Friendly AI. What's past the Singularity might be largely unforseeable, but how that final leap into the unknown is created will certainly affect how it turns out.

For some interesting predictions about the future, why not try Randall Parker's FuturePundit?

Posted by: User on 19 Aug 04

I would note Maureen McHugh as an author dealing in plausible, not terribly surreal futures.

She looks at human society just a little further down the path, to where there are colonies on Mars, say, or underwater dome cities, or computer-assisted immersive architectural design environments more informed by Taoism and feng shui than Modernism (because mainland China has become the dominant socio-economic culture). Then, she explores the human relationships and interrelationships: what the tech does or fails to do for people as they try to improve their lives; how the economic have/have-not dynamic has evolved; what race and gender and sexuality mean in her gently futuristic "now."

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 20 Aug 04 also has a well balanced approach to climate issues. I recommend reading a variety of sources, in order to balance different ideological viewpoints.

Posted by: RB on 21 Aug 04



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