The difficulty of predicting the future


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.

Comments

  1. Renuk de Silva says

    I am an avid SF fan, and the books which you should definitely read for the social-evolution hypotheses they make: “The moon is a harsh mistress” and “Stranger in a strange land” by Robert Heinlein (quite old, ’60s vintage), and the “Foundation” series by Isaac Asimov. Very thought-provoking. And more recently, “Excession” by Ian Banks, one of a series using the assumption that computers have become smarter than humans, and that the social order simply adjusts.

  2. kural says

    Mano,

    Sam Lundwall the polyglot/scribe Swedish SF writer and SF critic draws an interesting comparison between Asimov and Clarke on one side and Jules Verne and HG Wells on the other. About how Clarke as with Verne focused on the pure potential of scientific progress, while Asimov and Wells (more so Wells) explored other questions as well. Unfortunately as modern literary critics as a rule are scientifically illiterate, Asimov and Clarke have never received their due as serious writers, while Verne and Wells living in an earlier and possibly more turbulent times escaped the unnecessary and irrelevant scrutiny some popular writers today must bear. Clarke and Asimov were great writers and could have made a fortune writing just about anything. Asimov crops up in the unlikeliest places, as in an anthology of PG Wodehouse criticism! Asimov comes down heavily on PG (I never did conclude if it was in jest) for his disregard of efficiency, hard work, and truthfulness. Asimov’s heroes include Baxter – whom he considers a paragon – and the Bobby, our police constable, whose great virtues PGW has no use for!

    There was another Clarke who wrote the wistful and melancholic “The Road to the Sea” a 50 page novella, in 1950. It is about two brothers (obviously in the distant future) one of whom is a space farer, and the other an artist who lives on earth, painting, sketching, and writing plays. The earth is now inhabited by self-sufficient village communities, living in peace, making a minimal impact on the environment. Simple folk festivals and street theatre provide entertainment, socialisation avenues etc., But in space we find the wild expanding frontier – the older human drive, manifest destiny etc., The spacefarer has come to warn his brother of an impending asteroid collision, and offers to take him away to safety to other lands where he will find unseen landscapes to draw upon for his themes. This was Clarke who later went on to advocate simpler high density inhabitation, dependent on public transportation, and other things.

  3. says

    Renuk and Kural,

    Thanks for the book recommendations.I am more and more dependent on the recommendations of knowledgeable people for book and films, since there is so much junk out there!

  4. says

    Kural,

    I am intrigued by the anthology of PG Wodehouse criticism. What is the name of the book? I am huge fan of PGW. It is a bit weird because the people he writes about, the idle rich in a deeply feudal society, stand for everything I am opposed to. I find that I am not alone in this. Alexander Cockburn, a socialist, is also a huge fan, writing an introduction to one of PGW’s later editions.

    Somehow PGW seems to be able to appeal to a lot of unlikely people. I think it was the sheer craftsmanship of his work, his wonderful command of language, his deft use of literary allusions, all of which overcame any objections to the fact that his main characters were people who never seemed to do an honest day’s work!

    I think it was also the fact that although he was writing about a class-based society, he was never mean in his characterizations. The characters he made gentle fun of spanned all classes.

  5. kural says

    Mano,

    This anthology is a big fat library issue hardbound 9″ x 11″ with a plastic book jacket, that I found at my uncle’s one afternoon during my days in Madras. We got it – you guessed it – from the British Council Library. Being a great incurable fan of PGW I had to leaf through it, and much to my delight found this essay by Asimov. There was a time when Dickens’s books was pirated, reaching American shores in one case even before the writer could turn up here to launch it. But these days ignorance of writers across the pond is almost pervasive, even if it is someone such as PGW who spent decades in NYC. So to find a popular writer like Asimov writing on PGW was a pleasantly surprise. I will try once again to trace that essay. Thanks for your appreciation!

  6. says

    Kural,

    I read a bit about Asimov and PGW and discovered that Asimov was a huge fan and on occasion consciously wrote in the style of PGW. So his “critique” of PGW must have been tongue-in-cheek.

    The Efficient Baxter is one of PGW’s most brilliantly-drawn characters and the Blandings Castle novels would not be the same without him. The book Leave it to Psmith, where Baxter and the Emsworth clan first appears, is an absolute laugh riot.

  7. says

    While many of the “grand visions” haven’t panned out, it’s not hard to see many commonplace devices that have made the leap from science fiction to everyday life. “Star Trek” is a great starting point; the mobile phone is descended from Trek’s communicator. Orson Scott Card may have invented modern blogging in “Ender’s Game.” I carry on weekly videoconferences with my parents several timezones away so that they can keep up with their granddaughter (Apple has made this just as good and even easier than depicted in “2001”). And I find the combination of iPhone and Wikipedia to be remarkably similar to Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

    Maybe these aren’t cases of predicting the future so much as inspiring it?

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