Jul 18 2010 4:11pm

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.

Craig Pay
1. craigpay
Actually dirigibles may be on their way back in, from use in the miliary as unmanned drones to environmentally friendly long distance cargo carriers. The only reason the technology went out in the first place was the Hindenburg and R101 accidents (and others) which scared everyone away from the technology. I'm sure in most other timelines there are dirigibles everywhere!

With regards the general theme on technology for SF well, isn't that the whole point of SF? Guessing what's around the corner? OK, so perhaps you mean more what's 'immediately' around the corner as opposed to what's around the corner in 1000 years, the latter being a much safer bet so's to speak.

I guess that's the problem with writing SF based on 'just around the corner' technology. It becomes dated extremely quickly. Perhaps even before the book hits the shelves! I started to re-read Neuromancer the other day - it's one of my top ten favourite books from my teenage years...and I put it down after the first few pages. It's dated. And I didn't want to ruin my memories of it. Maybe I'll get around to reading it again at some point.

OK, last comment: I'm currently writing a book based around events surrounding a Launch Loop. How about that?
Christopher Johnstone
2. Christopher Johnstone
I think the use and abuse of robots and sub-AIs or pseudo-AIs is pretty darned relevant to the near-future of society and the human condition.

AI wish it weren't so, but in particular the military field is likely to be where we see some pretty amazing and worrying things... in a way I see this as a situation a bit similar to the mechanisation of war in the late 1800's leading to the first world war. We could easily find ourselves with weapons technology that lies outside the bounds of our current ethics and rules of engagement. That led to a war of atrocious slaughter last time around. Here's hoping we adapt quicker this time.

And this is entirely disregarding the old science fiction problems of deciding when an autonomous robot is autonomous enough to have rights.

There's a lot of other stuff rumbling down the pipeline towards us. Life extension (though probably not indefinite) is a matter of time now. We've just this last year created entirely synthetic life--life built from *nothing* but the raw materials: lipids, amino acids and nucleic acid. That's amazing and the strange and full of science fiction potential, but it doesn't seem that science fiction authors or readers are aware of it.

I wonder if the current publishing trend towards steampunk and dirigibles has a lot to do with fear of our increasingly unknowable and perplexing science. Our technology is becoming incrementally obscure, and for many people, it's turning to a form of magic--and not the good sort either. For a lot of people technology is becoming a sort of witchcraft; a thing of fear.

Science fiction as a genre has been in decline for a long time, and again... yet, interesting, retro-science fiction is currently booming. I wonder if steampunk represents a world in which the average reader can understand the technology (everyone understands cogs), and therefore it is less intimidating. The technology is comforting and has a sort of pseudo-Luddite appeal. It's the Shire all over again, but with a grease-thin pretense of dirtiness and knowingness.

I don't know. It seems a little sad to me that we are entering an era in which science fiction is likely to be desperately needed to help people think about things ahead of time, yet that class of considered and forward-thinking science fiction seems to be increasingly absent from the literary landscape. I don't have any answers, nor any strong understanding why readers have retreated so strongly from books that think about the future.

And as for dirigibles, they're unlikely to be practical any time soon, and probably not until such time as we have materials that are light enough and strong enough to withstand an internal vacuum (which I suspect is a long, long way off). Hydrogen is far too dangerous and Helium is a limited resource that has to be mined (all the Helium in the atmosphere drifts off into space, not surprisingly, as doesn't react with anything and thus can't become a heavier molecule). If I'm recalling this right, most of the Helium bearing rocks are in the US. The US government views them as a strategic resource so is loath to mine them more than is considered necessary. Also, dirigibles are susceptible to inclement weather. Being lighter than air and generally unable to fly above weather, they have a bad habit of being torn apart in storms.

A spate of light than air vehicle designs have hit the press lately, but they're mostly just, well... full of hot air.
Mouldy Squid
3. Mouldy_Squid
Christopher @#2:

The most recent issue of Scientific American contains a very interesting article on weaponized and purpose built military robots and some speculation on the future, ethics and morality of mechanized warfare.
Paul Arzooman
4. parzooman
I've always found the idea of a talking anything less futuristic than just plain cringe inducing. Why would I want my actions and purchases narrated by some technology? I always feel that I'm either being mocked or scolded. It's bad enough that the automated voice at my bank's help line is constantly impatient with me ("I didn't get that...") but now the self-service register at the supermarket feels the need to announce everything I'm buying including the price. Why not just add the calorie count to the announcement and really make me feel like a schmuck?
Christopher Johnstone
5. James Davis Nicoll
The self-serve at my preferred store turns out to have had bakery goods removed from its searchable data-base. If you know the 4-digit code number, you can put that in but if hypothetically you didn't write it down because there was a menu that covered it the last time you bought a donut, you will be stuck asking the clerk for help, which defeats the purpose of self-serve.

By "you", I mean "me."

I've also learned never to shop there the day after they do a major software upgrade.
Christopher Johnstone
6. Antonia T. Tiger
Dirigibles were the wonder of their age.

We don't launch Saturn V rockets any more, and the supersonic airliner has stopped flying. The days of the large flying boat as mainstream aviation are over.

It's a what-if fascination.

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