ReaderCon Panel Recap: “Everybody Loves Dirigibles—Science For Tomorrow’s Fiction”

This was the one panel that I thought had a lot of potential, but turned out to be a major disappointment for me. Chaired by Jeff Hect and including Paolo Bacigalupi, Charles Stross, John Crowley, Joan Slonczewski and Michael Stanwick, this looked to be an interesting talk on how science fiction would be influenced in the future by upcoming trends in science. There was some of that, but not in the way that I hoped.

Stross started off with a quote that probably best defined the discussion that followed: “Technology has an afterlife, and it is very strange.” Indeed, a major topic of discussion was the potential uses of existing technologies. As one audience member said, how often does someone actually use a cigarette lighter in a car for its intended purpose anymore? Very few, as more and more people use them as an electrical outlet.

Another major area of discussion was centered around not what technologies were likely to come, but how technologies might come about through their surrounding environments. Environmental concerns, certain advances in technologies, but certainly also major social and economic elements would bring about new uses and new needs for certain items.

Additionally, it is good to keep in mind that not all technologies last, a couple examples being talking cars and vending machines, which were noted as being highly irritating, but somewhat futuristic. At the same time, things such as the eight track tape, laserdisc and high definition discs have also gone by the wayside because of consumer demand. The same can reasonably be expected of other technologies. They might be fairly good ideas, but that in and of itself might not be an indication of longevity.

Still, there are a number of other technologies that are still just outside of our reach. Space tourism is a highly limited venture that is likely to grow over the coming decades, while exoskeletons that lift hundreds of pounds are being created. Huge advances have been made in the fields of prosthetic limbs and computer technologies to guide them, saving thousands of lives, while mobile technology is growing at an astounding rate. (This piece is being written on an iPad, which, just a couple years ago, would have been considered something out of science fiction)

While this panel covered some very good topics I was a little annoyed that there wasn’t more covered on some of the technologies that were on the brink of becoming commercially available—or at least plausible—and looking at how that would impact fiction in the long run. Instead, the discussion shifted several times to dirigibles, an outdated technology that seems to continually capture the imagination of science fiction fans. I had hoped that there would be more discussion on the development of robotics, which can be found everywhere from the living room to the front porch, genetics and the advances that are being made, and computer technology. Simply, what advances in the present will inform the future, and thus, future fiction?

Indeed, while sitting in on this panel, I was seated next to author David Forbes, who had an iPad of his own, while I, and several other people were on Twitter, posting up quotes and I’m pretty sure that I saw a couple of laptops in the audience as people looked up examples of some of what was being discussed. This in and of itself seems to be the most science fictional thing that I can think of, and I have little doubt that in the science fiction novels of the future there will be more awareness of how people communicate across the world. It is things such as Facebook and Twitter that will undoubtedly be an influence in and of itself for coming authors as the environment in which we live changes with time, bringing about new types of technology with it.


Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer, historian and longtime science fiction fan. He currently holds a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University, and has written for SF Signal and io9, as well as for his personal site, Worlds in a Grain of Sand. He currently lives in the green (or white, for most of the year) mountains of Vermont with a growing library of books and a girlfriend who tolerates them.

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