Science fiction writers have it tough. Although it is fun to predict what the world will look like in the future, the track record of success of past works is not great. (A caveat on what follows: I cannot really call myself a science-fiction fan, having read only a scattered sample of this vast genre, so I am expressing views based on a very limited awareness. Those who have read most of this genre may well disagree with my conclusions.)
Whether the future that is envisaged is dark (as in the films Blade Runner or Colossus: The Forbin Project) or somewhat optimistic (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the book Rendezvous with Rama), much of the predictions seemed to be focused on architecture, modes of transport, and video communication.
There seemed to be a consensus that the most dramatic changes would lie in our cities, featuring either exotic skyscrapers and clean, open spaces between, or dark visions of crowded, decaying dystopias. Transport is also a big focus. Flying high-speed cars or people movers or other forms of personalized transport seem to be a given. Space travel was assumed to be commonplace. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, travel in space was seen as almost routine as plane travel is now, with comfortable and spacious reclining seats for passengers and flight attendants serving meals, which is kind of ironic now that air travel is becoming cramped and food is a thing of the past, except on international flights.
As for advances in communication, the focus was on ubiquitous two-way video with a few exotic features like holograms thrown in.
Those predictions have not held up well. What we see is that the cities of today are not that dramatically different from those of fifty years ago and transport has not changed much either. There have been improvements no doubt, but no real breakthroughs.
What most writers failed to predict was the advent of the microchip and the resulting miniaturization of computers and other devices that allowed for new technologies, and the arrival of the internet, which has resulted in the highly diversified communication mechanisms that we now have.
But I think it is a mistake in evaluating science fiction literature to focus on the gee-whiz details of possible technological advances. The better and more lasting science fiction is that which focuses more on how human beings meet the new challenges that confront them.
In the science fiction that interests me, the author tries to deal with how people’s views and behaviors might change as a consequence of increased sophistication in science and technology. In particular, how human society might reorganize itself in the future. Arthur C. Clarke seems to envisage a future in which racist and sexist attitudes largely disappear, marriage is a limited-term contract, and people have abandoned religion and belief in god.
One interesting question is how people might react to the sudden realization that we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, that more advanced civilizations exist, and that we have got in contact with them. Most of us simply do not consider this possibility or give it much thought. Try to imagine how we might react to the sudden announcement of contact with aliens. Would it be greeted with fear? Despair? For me, personally, the prime reaction would be excitement and hope. What new knowledge would this alien civilization bring and how would that change our views of everything?
While the fearful might worry about the harmful intentions of the aliens, it seems unlikely to me that an alien power would want to destroy us since we are so weak and no threat to them.
In Childhood’s End, the initial shock and fear at the sudden appearance of a fleet of alien spaceships hovering over all major cities is replaced with resignation and submission when humans realize that they are being overseen by a vastly more powerful and sophisticated alien civilization whose intentions, fortunately, seem benign. The overlords quickly put an end to war and with the elimination of all the waste that it entails, humans find that they can produce enough food for themselves, that crime and violence disappears, and work requirements become so minimal that people only do the jobs they like. While all this seems like a good thing, Clarke suggests that without the challenges that adversity brings, the human drive to produce new science or works of art can become atrophied and people could become bored and lose their drive.
Clarke sees a future in which the arrival of aliens who are obviously highly advanced in science and scientific thinking and technology results in an end to beliefs in god and religion, which then become seen as quaint superstitions on a par with the way we view astrology and witchcraft now. I think that this is plausible. Most people’s concept of god is very parochial, highly dependent on the uniqueness of Earth and humans. Finding that other advanced and powerful civilizations exist that have never heard of Yahweh, Jesus, or Muhammad, would likely make traditional religions obsolete. Of course, those who yearn for a father figure to look after them (which is what god is, when you think about it) might transfer their worshipful attitude to the aliens.
POST SCRIPT: John Yoo, torture accommodator
If you were a constitutional scholar and had been deeply involved in analyses about what the limits of interrogation were, you would think it would not be difficult to answer the question “Could the president order a suspect buried alive?”
And yet John Yoo, now professor of law at Berkeley after serving as legal advisor in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, and author of the infamous torture memo, seems to find it very hard to do so.
People like Yoo are despicable, serving as enablers of the worst abuses of human rights and basic civilized behavior committed by this administration.