Friday, January 1, 2010
Is it the future already?
I'll admit it. I'm old enough that 2010 sounds like the future to me. I nicked this poster illustration off the Facebook page of my grad school buddy Jeremy, and while it doesn't put me in the mood to let out a crimson scream, I was kind of hoping for a flying car or anti-gravity boots by now.
The idea for my new blog It's News 2 Them™ is a variation on a theme I came up with last decade for a one-a-day calendar that I was not able to sell called This Day In Science Fiction. The calendar would have info interesting to sci-fi fans, like the birthdays of writers, directors and actors associated with the genre, anniversaries of movie premieres and the like, but also quotes from books and movies with predictions of what life would be like "in the future", stories written mid-century set in the time period from 1980 to around 2020.
There was a meme back in the day that science fiction was uncannily accurate about what the future held. I'm here to tell you that's just not true. Lots and lots of sci-fi writers were clueless about real science. They wrote adventure stories and nicked ideas from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Wells could spin a good yarn, but do we have invisible men or time machines or supplements that turn people into giants? No, we don't and odds are we never will.
(You can imagine how disappointed I am about the whole "no giants" thing, especially the "no giant women" angle, but that's a topic for another time.)
A jetpack would be incredibly loud, suck up massive amounts of energy and likely to burn your legs if you got out of position. According to Einstein, anti-gravity is akin to anti-geometry and that's a hard thing to be "anti" to. Landing a flying car would be like landing a small plane, and as any pilot will tell you, that's the really hard part.
Even the most scientific of the sci-fi writers loved the idea of space travel, but the reality is that it's very expensive and it's hard to see how to make a buck out of it. Americans romanticized the era of exploration in the time of Columbus and hoped space exploration would follow that metaphor, but these guys weren't just getting in ships to boldly go where no one had gone before. They got in ships with the hope that they would find a way to make their trips insanely profitable, and many of them succeeded, which meant more guys got in more ships hoping to catch lucky. The insanely profitable manned space trip hasn't happened yet.
Space travel isn't like a ship pulling out of port in Lisbon or Portsmouth. The distances to travel to the even slightly interesting nearest rocks are really long. It also turns out that air, water and gravity are really useful to humans and in very short supply once we get into orbit. Artificial gravity, like was supposed to exist in 2001, is not as easy as Keir Dullea and Stanley Kubrick made it look.
So the reality of physics 'splains a lot of the stuff we were promised that we didn't get. Here's something we did get that sci-fi writers got really, really wrong.
The thing you are using to read what I wrote. The computer. The internet.
If you read sci-fi or watch the TV and movie version, some of the stories set in the future are given specific dates. Any story that mentioned cool computers like Star Trek was set many centuries away. Even in the 1960s, the miniaturization of electronics was not realistically explored by sci-fi writers, even though they had the example of transistor radios being astoundingly different from the radio sets of a few decades earlier. Stories about computers in the near future still had the machines huge and only used by the government or big corporations.
We have seen some remarkable advances, but the laws of unintended consequences have not been repealed. TV was the great time waster of the mid 20th Century, but it's having a hard time competing the computer and videogames today, and the amount of time we are wasting being sedentary is contributing to making us fatter. Heart disease is becoming a treatable condition like diabetes, but the increased lifespan means more people dying from cancer, a problem we haven't solved yet. There's money to be made in using renewable energy sources and recycling the things we use, but there's a hell of a lot more money in just burning the world to the ground and throwing all our crap in dumps. We haven't a really big war in over sixty years and the last deadly pandemic was about ninety years ago. The counterbalance to that good news is that the world's population has quadrupled in 100 years, from 1.7 billion to 6.8 billion.
Welcome to the future. It's still a wild ride, but probably not a wild ride to the moon or Mars. And honestly, jetpacks are much cooler in movies than they are in real life.