Writing the Future

I invented CDs when I was 12.

To be fair, CD technology already existed before that, even if it wasn’t very common, and it’s not like I invented a working prototype or anything. What I did do was play a lot of roleplaying games.

Stay with me here.

I played a ton of roleplaying games as a kid (and still do). I didn’t get into Dungeons & Dragons until college, but I played other, similar games with all sorts of themes and settings, mostly science fiction. In one of them, there was an adventure supplement detailing a force of self-replicating killer robots, which I loved because I’d just read Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series, so I dove in and started making up all kinds of stories about them.

In one such story I wanted the heroes to find a message that one robot had left for another, and I knew it couldn’t just be a piece of paper–these were robots, they needed appropriately robotic forms of writing. Never mind that the more practical way for robots to communicate would be wireless transmission; I needed a physical note, so I started to think about what kind of a note a robot would leave. They had incredible sensors and optical magnifiers, so they could see letters that were very small, and they had powerful lasers so they could write on anything, and with incredible precision. What if, instead of paper, they wrote on sheets of metal or plastic, and in letters so small that they couldn’t be discerned with the naked eye–so small, in fact, that they would be perceived not as individual letters but as a reflective sheen on the surface of the metal? A human would see it as just a shiny disk, but a machine could read entire libraries stored on it.

Kind of like this.

Sure, I got some details wrong–my disks didn’t spin, and they stored the information differently–but that’s not the point. The point is that science fiction presaged real technology. This is not a rare thing: science fiction writers have been creating the future since the beginning of the genre. Remember Captain Kirk’s communicator? Early cell phone engineers have essentially admitted to basing the flip phone on that design; science fiction created it, and the real world copied it. In this case, the real world has progressed so far that our cool science fiction ideas now seem outdated–flip phones are practically quaint these days.

How about our vocabulary? The website io9 recently did a short post on common scientific terms that originated in science fiction, and a lot of them are downright shocking. Have you ever had a computer virus? You can thank Dave Gerrold for the term, coined in a short story in 1972. How about robotics? Isaac Asimov, 1941. Genetic engineering? Jack Williamson, also 1941. It was a good year for speculative fiction.

We live in a time where the real world is catching up to science fiction, making the imaginary real at an ever-increasing rate. In Dick Tracy, 80 years ago, Chester Gould posited the two-way wrist radio, eventually followed by full visual communication in the two-way wrist TV; today we have pocket computers so powerful, and so connected, we can do all of this and more. In Ender’s Game, 26 years ago, Orson Scott Card predicted a world where politics and social change were played out in a vast web of computer-based essays; today we have blogs and websites so vital to our culture they’ve basically replaced traditional newspapers. In The Social Network, a mere one year ago, Aaron Sorkin wrote about a world where millions of people connect in a virtual space–and it was nonfiction. We’re catching up to our science fictional future, and we’re surpassing it.

Entire books could be written, and many have been, on the impact our science fiction has on our reality. I’m more interested in the process than the effect–the creation of new ideas, new fields of study, and new fictional concepts that will become tomorrow’s science. Isaac Asimov was thinking so far ahead of his time, he named an entire branch of now-common engineering. Who’s doing that now? Who’s extrapolating our current technology so ambitiously that they’re presaging and inspiring tomorrow’s greatest discoveries? Science fiction is the surest and clearest proof that art not only portrays but creates truth; it blazes new trails for the real world to follow. Who’s going to take up that challenge and fire our imaginations?

The first space shuttle was called the Enterprise, explicitly because the engineers who made it and the astronauts who flew it were inspired by Star Trek to a lifelong love of science, discovery, and wonder. That was decades ago; today we are dismantling our space program altogether. We need writers and artists to remind us once more how amazing the future is–to reach out and beckon us onward.

About Dan Wells

Dan Wells is the author of several supernatural thrillers, including I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, MR. MONSTER, and I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU. He is a co-host on the podcast Writing Excuses, for which he has won two Parsec awards; he also won the Whitney award for Best New Author of 2009. He plays a lot of games, watches a lot of movies, reads a lot of books, and eats a lot of food, which is pretty much the ideal life he imagined for himself as a child.
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4 Responses to Writing the Future

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Science fiction is the poetry of the geek class. Or at least, it has been in the past. Nowadays, my kids (geeks all) read science fiction, but they spend more time reading webcomics and sometimes playing video games. Tomorrow’s poetic media? Perhaps.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the idea that one role of literature in general (and science fiction in particular) is to fire the imagination and push us forward, both socially and technologically. The ability to speculate on the possible and help focus the mind on making possibilities real is creation at its most basic and powerful.

    As you point out, Star Trek inspired many a modern invention, including the cell phone, palm top computer, and thumb drives (those wonderful yellow blocks of wood that they plugged into consoles to get access to more data)—and has contributed to extraordinary research into quantum phenomena as people continue to try to figure out how to make a matter transporter.

    Still…

    While those sf writers may have popularized those technologies or coined memorable terms for new concepts, they were far from the originators of either the ideas or the implementations. So while I applaud forward-thinking, technologically literate geeks for seeing emerging technologies, imagining their possible futures and impacts, and firing public interest in them through wonderfully engaging stories, let’s give them proper credit as advance messengers of work already in progress.

    Just as you shouldn’t shoot the messenger, I’m not convinced you should give that messenger all credit for the contents of a message originated by another. It’s one part of a continuum of interconnected parts, all of which are necessary.

    To be fair, sf writers have often been engineers and active participants in both research and development. Asimov worked on many a government contract (as did Heinlein and others); more recent hard sf writers like Robert Forward, Kim Stanley Robinson, or Greg Bear were contractors to NASA and other engineering firms; and the grandfather of sf, Hugo Gernsback, felt that legitimate speculation on potential applications of emerging scientific discoveries and their resulting technologies was the raison d’etre for science fiction as a fundamental driver of future advancement.

    (Side note, Asimov got the term “robot” from Karel Capek who wrote about Rossum’s Universal Robots in the early 1920s; self-controlling machines were already well understood even them. Asimov’s speculations on machine intelligence, rule-based autonomic computing, and human/machine interaction were indeed enormously forward looking and helped drive others to solve the problems he raised, but those concepts were based on well-established ideas within the scientific community.)

    I suppose I’m being a poop for diverging from the point about the need for speculative fiction to inspire new generations of geeks, but one of the other playtime activities of sf nerds is to quibble about the facts and what they mean—itself another benefit of the genre, and part and parcel with probing possibilities.

    I love this game.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    Does that mean someone’ll invent serial-killing demons in twenty years?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Some would argue they’ve been around all this time. Once again, the writer described the existing technology(?) trend rather than creating it.

      But that question was directed at Dan, so I’ll slink back into my hole now.

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