SF authors are some of the most compelling thinkers around. Scientists might be closer to the cutting edge of human understanding, but SF authors often possess a combination of amateur knowledge, curiosity, open-mindedness, and sheer instinct for entertainment that makes for really insightful commentary and discussion.
Yesterday's panel, Looking at Our World: Eye on the Future, featured a rousing discussion of the future by some eminent author/futurists: Robert J. Sawyer, Ann Aguirre, Tobias S. Buckell, William C. Dietz, Alan Dean Foster, Charles Stross, and John Zakour. Here are some highlights:
The panelists were asked why they prefer to write science fiction over other genres. Sawyer replied, "The future is indeterminate. Writing SF is an opportunity for me to be a part of the dialogue that determines what it's going to be."
And when it comes to getting the predictions right or wrong, he added, "If I say something will happen 100 years in the future, you have to understand that I plan to be alive then, so if you disagree with me on something I've written, we can argue about it then. You can't complain until the imaginary date has passed."
Foster blamed his choice of genre on his love of travel. Although he has traveled a lot in his life, he said, "The world isn't enough. So I invent others." He described himself as an "interstellar travel agent." (If I were an SF author, I would totally put that on my business card right now.)
Dietz writes for "a sense of joy," and describes SF as "the heroin of literature. You get one hit and you have to come back for more." Very true.
During a discussion of imagining future technologies, Sawyer, a strong believer in the Singularity, talked about how, no matter how rapid the pace of change has been, it will only accelerate, making the futurist's job truly difficult:
The last 5 decades years aren't a good yardstick for the next 50 years. SF says more about the science of the time it's written than the future. One day, we'll be able to date a work of SF to within 12 to 18 months based on the implicit scientific assumptions in the text: the age of the Earth, what's encoded in DNA, and so on.
Sawyer collects toy dinosaurs, and he will only add a toy to his collection if it's accurate according to the scientific consensus at the time of its manufacture:
Today, we believe that the brontosaurus's tail stuck straight out from its body. If I see a new toy brontosaurus with its tail on the ground, I won't buy it. But if it was made 50 years ago, when they thought the tail lay flat, that's OK.
Stross, another Singularity proponent, warned against the idea that the technologies of the future would entirely replace the technologies of the past:
In some parts of the world, steam engines are still used to move people around. In others, it's mag-lev trains. As William Gibson said, 'The future is here, it just isn't evenly distributed.' Things will only get more complex. The future is now, with extra stuff added.
Near the end of the panel, when asked for one piece of SF technology they would like to see realized, Dietz suggested a phone for speaking to the dead. "If you accept the idea that we continue on in some form after death as conscious beings, you have to accept that there must be some way of communicating with the dead."
Dietz asked the audience to consider what a development like that would mean to our society, once the secrets people took to their graves were no longer secrets. Author David Brin, who happened to be in the audience, joined in the conversation:
That idea illustrates what separates comic books and SF, and why comic books never seem to get SF stories right. Comics are descended from The Odyssey and The Iliad. Superheroes are demigods, wielding powers only they possess. SF is about the effects of technologies that anyone can use, and how those technologies would change the way we live.