Jul 18 2012 10:00am

Have We Lost The Future?

This isn’t a proper writeup of the Readercon panel of this name that I was on this weekend, it’s more a series of reflections of things around it. The description of the panel was:

Where science fiction once looked to the future as the setting for speculation, nowadays the focus seems to be on alternate pasts, fantasy worlds, or consciously “retro” futures. We’re no longer showing the way to what things might be like. We discuss whether this is connected to the general fear of decline and decay in the English-language world—or has science fiction simply run out of ideas?

Jim Cambias, the moderator and proposer, had stats from recent Hugo nominee lists compared to older ones that did show a decline in actual future-based SF. I think this combines with futures we can’t get to from here — steampunk, John Barnes’s The Sky So Big and Black, Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel, Stirling’s Lords of Creation series, etc. — to reflect an actual problem in current SF.

But of course, it’s more interesting than that.

It’s possible to exaggerate how optimistic and positive and future-looking SF was in the past. In fact, when you look at them, often the worlds were really pretty horrible. I’ve written about the dystopic Earths of Heinlein’s juveniles, overcrowded, guild-ridden, short of food, in a perpetual nuclear deadlock... but of course the point was to leave. The message was to get into the new frontier of space, where a man could stretch his legs and there was a looseness about things.

Steven Popkes suggested that it was the technical difficulty of space travel in reality and the emptiness of the solar system combined with the excellence of computer graphics that had led to a withdrawal from a space future. (This may be true for movies, but how much of a budget for CGI did Poul Anderson need?) Paul Park thought on the other hand we’d lost the will to the future. There was some hand-wringing about U.S. decline.

I think there used to be a science fiction consensus future in which we’d expand slowly out from Earth and colonize the moon and Mars and the Belt, which would be full of independent-minded asteroid miners, and outward to the stars, at first slower and then faster than light, meeting aliens and ending with galactic empires. The Cold War, naturally, would still be going on in the twenty-sixth century, and if not there would be some Cold War analog dividing humanity into big ideological blocs. Lots of the SF written between 1930 and 1989 fit into this rough future outline. It didn’t belong to anyone. Everyone could set things within this rough future and make their own specific corner of it shine. Details differed, but this was The Future we were headed for, this was almost destiny. Leviathan Wakes is set in this future, but I can’t think of anything else written this century that is.

I remember reading Bruce Sterling’s short story “We See Things Differently” in 1991 in a Dozois’s Best SF, and having the same feeling I had when the Berlin Wall came down. This wasn’t the future I expected to be living in. We were off track for that SF consensus future. And we sent robots out to explore the solar system for us, and there weren’t any Martians, and it seemed as if maybe space wasn’t the U.S. frontier with a different atmosphere.

When I’m writing here about older SF, I often laugh at their hilarious huge clunky computers and add “But where is my moonbase?”

During the panel I mentioned Arthur C. Clarke’s examplary little boy who would read SF and say “When I grow up, I’m going to the moon.” I was that little boy, I said, and of course everyone laughed. There are ways in which this future, the one we’re living in, is a whole lot better than what we imagined. It has women in it, and it has women who are not just trophies and are not manipulating their way around because they have no power. This future has women with agency. It has men and women who aren’t white and who aren’t sitting at the back of the bus or busy passing. It has gay people out of the closet, it has transgender people, and all over the place, not only in the worlds of Samuel Delany. Beyond that, unimaginably shaping the future we couldn’t imagine getting, it has the internet.

So this is my question. If, when you were twelve, somebody had given you a straight choice for 2012, which would you have chosen, moonbase or internet? (Let’s assume they could have explained fully what the internet was and how it would affect your life.) Moonbase, or internet? It really isn’t easy.

Because the future’s still there. The moon’s there and people have walked on it, the stars are there and extra-solar planets, and I still believe we’ll get there. We won’t get there the way we imagined, but the future is never the way you can imagine. After the panel, I was talking to a group of four fifteen year friends who had been in the back of the room and asked interesting questions. They were local, they had come to the con on their own after one of them had come last year. They didn’t think that we’d lost the future, far from it. They thought it was just that we had too limited an idea of what the future could be.

We make our own futures — it doesn’t have to be a binary choice, we have the internet and we can keep working towards a moonbase too.

As for SF — I don’t think it has run out of ideas. I do think it’s a betrayal of the future to write things set in futures we can’t get to. And I always want more books with spaceships and aliens. But I recently read M.J. Locke’s Up Against It, which is set in space in our future and is wonderful and just the sort of thing to give me faith that there’s a lot of juice in the genre yet. And there’s plenty of future coming for it to work out.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Joey Geko
1. Joey Geko
I just read through it, so it's on my mind, but where does Scalzi's 'Old Man's War' fall for you? It seemed to present your "old style" sci-fi. Galactic Empire. Vast array of alien life. I think there was a moon base. ;)
It has a flavor of the dystopic, with the sequestered earth and totalitarian Colonial govt.
Joey Geko
2. James Davis Nicoll
Leviathan Wakes is set in this future, but I can’t think of anything else written this century that is.

Aside from Pirates of Mars, The Quiet War, The Moon Maze Game, The Highest Frontier, The Next Continent, The Ouroboros Wave, Platinum Moon, Leviathan Wakes (which you mentioned), Caliban's War, Back to the Moon, The Quantum Thief, Gardens of the Sun, Up Against It, Usurper of the Sun, Winning Mars, Threshold, Blue Remembered Earth and 2312 I cannot think of any either. Well, unless anime counts and then you have stuff like Planetes and Rocket Girls .

Wait, there was that stinker set on Venus. It belongs here too but I hesitate to mention it lest that cause someone to try to read it.

1: Yes, Rocket Girls and Rocket Girls: The Last Planet usually go here but they were first published in 1996 in Japan.

2: The anime is from 2007.
Joey Geko
3. James Davis Nicoll
Wait, forgot David J. Williams' dystopic Autumn Rain trilogy. Yes, THAT David J. Williams:

(OK, now someone else comment so if I keep thinking of stuff to mention this doesn't turn into one of those five comments in a row by James articles)
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
So, the future seems to not be so much lost as momentarily misplaced. Thanks James for collecting those into a list.
Andrija Popovic
6. Urdith
Is the future we used to see, with humanity out in our solar system, a victim of the fact there's no money in it?

"I want to be an aerospace engineer!"
"That's nice, son, but you'll never make any real money that way. Get a consulting job with a financial firm, that's a good boy."

Are we getting the future we deserve because of where we are stacking the monitary rewards our society provides?
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
James -- I don't think Up Against It is in that consensus future, though it's certainly in the future and in space. I haven't read your others, though I have tried and failed to read tQT.

Even granting all of them, that's 17 in 12 years, while a comparable figure from earlier decades would be notably higher.
Joey Geko
7. SarahPi
I was at that panel!
Somebody made an interesting comment about the fact that Heinlein and Clarke were free to imagine certain things because restrictions hadn't been placed yet. The example suggested was that they could write about space travel without worrying about the dangers of extended exposure to radiation, since that had not yet been proven. We were still x-raying children's feet in shoe stores for fun.

I think all of this can be intimidating to young writers. You can't create an alien without its viability being critiqued. You have to have a scientifically viable way to get your characters into space before you can write the story you set out to write. It's easier to write a parallel universe or an alternate future than to speculate on possible futures, and you open yourself up to far less criticism.
Joey Geko
8. James Davis Nicoll
UAI is in what I have just now without any consideration at all decided to call the Modified Concensus Future: instead of the inevitable Troubles of the 21st century being caused by a lack of resources (Bova's Millennium), overpopulation (Imperial Earth's backstory), or atomigeddon (Worlds, the Gaea Trilogy), it's caused by climate change* (also seen as a significant background detail in The Highest Frontier, the McAuley drearfests and in the more upbeat Blue Remembered Earth and Bowl of Heaven). Otherwise the set pieces are all pretty familar and with parallels with earlier concensus future SF.

that's 17 in 12 years

It's more like 17 in six or fewer years: there was a long desert when very few interplanetary adventure SF novels were published in America. Even so, note that a good chunk of the good I mention are translated from Japan, not l'anglosphere.

One thing I think is habitually overlooked by most authors - yes, yes, Mr. Stross, I see you waving at the back - is the likelyhood space exploitation will be dominated by machines in much the same way space exploration is dominated by machines. Planetary Resources, Inc., for example, shows a robot to human ratio you would not see in SF. How to make a solar system seething with machines narratively interesting is a task I leave for the writers.

* Apparently I come off as a climate change denier when I point out that crap books like The Windup Girl are still crap books even if they have climate change in them so a clarification: I am not a climate change denier.
Joey Geko
9. seth e.
How to make a solar system seething with machines narratively interesting is a task I leave for the writers.

Apropos of nothing in particular, I loved The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey when I was very small. The little boy character was boring, but I thought the first-person robot narrator was great. I don't see why you couldn't have more of those.
Steven Halter
10. stevenhalter
It's more like 17 in six or fewer years
Yes, that's what I meant by momentarily lost. I haven't looked, but my reading experience was that the "books in space" seemed to become vanishingly small in number, but that they seem to be reappearing.
Joey Geko
11. James Davis Nicoll

When I said "a good chunk of the good", I meant "a good chunk of the books". Sorry.

Somebody made an interesting comment about the fact that Heinlein and Clarke were free to imagine certain things because restrictions hadn't been placed yet.

But constraints can make for interesting stories. For example, if you don't have magical mystery drives able to provide high accelerations indefinitely, suddenly planetary mass becomes an interesting exploitable resource. Specifically, you can get nature to pay part of the delta vee bill by either passive or active interactions with various bodies in the solar system; this is why so many current day probes go via Venus or Jupiter on their way to somewhere else. That makes Venus and Jupiter choke points and that's story fodder.

See also the cruelly underexploited JEP essay "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships".

without worrying about the dangers of extended exposure to radiation

This may be subject to tech fixes. See, for example, the bit in Barton and Capobianco's Alpha Centauri when the characters casually note the radiation levels their internal technology is having to deal with (they're also about as resistant to dehydration as a tardigrade).
Joey Geko
12. olethros
Internet or space travel? Both, motherfucker.
Joey Geko
13. HelenS
The Runaway Robot was basically a human, though. Essentially the story was one long metaphor about human relations (and a pretty boring one, I thought), and not about robots, realistically considered, at all.
Steven Halter
14. stevenhalter
The twelve year old me (1975) would have picked space travel. The internet is somewhat difficult to fully explain without experiencing it. "A way to talk to more people? Why would I want that?, says twelve year old me.
Now, well we've got the internet, so, of course, I want space with the internet.
Joey Geko
15. seth e.
HelenS @13 - Well, to be fair, I think I was seven when I read Runaway Robot. I'm ready for more complex robot protagonists now.
Sky Thibedeau
16. SkylarkThibedeau
Is part of the problem anything new in the Space travel Genre might be considered just copying Star Wars or Star Trek?
Ethan Glasser-Camp
17. glasserc
OK, well, leaving aside the space travel, can we comment about 1. the increasing shift of our genre away from the future and 2. the increasing "darkness" of science fiction? Jo Walton has written on this very subject on this very site, and I'm also put in mind of an essay called "Science Fiction Without the Future" (link is to the Wayback Machine, the essay's gone). My understanding was that the real problem isn't that we don't have a moonbase or rocket-packs, but more that a field that consciously looks towards the future is either shying away from it or ending up distressed about what it sees.
Joey Geko
18. ElizabethB
I think that Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game universe books seem to be in a version of The Future you describe- his newest one (that came out yesterday and is on its way to me right now!) Earth Unaware, even includes asteroid miners! I have also appreciated how even his earlier books have included characters of many different nationalities and his woman characters are usually just as well-rounded as the men, perhaps helping to introduce diversity into that collective Future.
I also think that the Doctor Who episodes set in the future (ex. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, The Waters of Mars) show another modern version of that Future with mixed (gender, race, etc.) teams of scientists/miners/explorers that are either taking or have taken the very first steps to the stars. Another reason to love DW!
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
SkylarkThibedeau: If that were the problem then it would have been a problem from the sixties or seventies on -- and Star Trek and Star Wars were really just taking tropes that had been around for decades in written work.
George Brell
20. gbrell
A random thought about the issue:

Our understanding of what is possible/likely has shrunk. There were people who were alive at both human's first manned flight (1903) and the first moon landing (1969). And not coincidentally, the halcyon days of science fiction we are talking of began at the end of that era. In sixty-six years, we had progressed from our first stumbling steps to a "giant leap for mankind." And what has happened since? I am a proponent of the International Space Station, but (to steal a quote from my favorite novel) "Where are the new frontiers?" The last intrasolar trip will have been taken forty years ago in four months.

Reality has informed us that interstellar travel is difficult. Difficult in money, in time and in terms of human lives (the first travelers to Mars will likely die there, either by accident or by design as part of a colonizing force, it's incredibly difficult to bring them back). The more we learn about space, the more inhospitable and inhabitable we realize it to be (our bodies handle long-term exposure to zero-gravity terribly, a fact known in literature as early as Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; solar radiation makes extended time in transit hazardous to computer systems and living tissue). The comparison of our solar system to the Western Frontier begins to fall apart.

Someone earlier brought up The Quantum Thief, which is probably the best science-fiction novel I've read since Anathem (Jo, it's also one of the few books I'm not sure about how to recommend. If you tried it and found it incomprehensible, I can recommend a lot of outside reading that clarifies much of what Rajaniemi chooses not to explain). But what's fascinating about that book is that the world Rajaniemi describes bears NO resemblance to our own. It's post-humanity.

Our current understanding is that humanity as we know it is trapped on one planet, or perhaps two if we choose to spend the enormous quantity of resources it will require to explore and colonize Mars. Faced with that reality, I don't find it surprising that we would look backwards (either literally or apocalyptically).
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
GBrell: It's not that it was incomprehensible, it's just I seem to find caper novels in genre deeply unsatisfying, and I like to care about what is happening. I read about a third of it, asked Emmet if it was all like that, and gave up when he said yes.
George Brell
22. gbrell

Then I'll not recommend it further. It's very much a caper novel. It's just a caper novel with 50+ ideas that could each be a separate story.

Reading it felt like eating at a Michelin restaurant: every element felt like it could have been further explored, but the whole used them for a specific purpose and no more. Now I want to re-read it.
Andrew Mason
23. AnotherAndrew
I'm wondering whether Hugo nominations really reveal as much as Jim Cambias suggests. What is clearly the case is that various other things are expanding. Fantasy is becoming larger and more diverse, and gaining respectability - once it never got nominated for Hugos, while now it often does. Add to this the growth of alternate history, and the emergence of other subgenres, and of works that resist classification (like The City and the City), and it's not surprising that the proportion of future-based SF among Hugo nominees is declining; it doesn 't follow that future-based SF itself is doing so. (A particular vision of the future does seem to be declining, but that's another matter.)

I'm also wondering, Jo, just what you mean by 'futures we can't get to from here'. Is the point just that their timelines turn off before now? Or something more complicated?

What does strike me is that there are a lot of works that are set in the future, but don't seem seriously to be saying 'the future is like this': they are using it as a setting to do something else. Looking at recent Hugo nominations again, that could cover works as various as those of Connie Willis, Mira Grant and China Mieville (Embassytown). But I'm not sure how new this is.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
AnotherAndrew: Yes, divergent timelines -- futures where things were done differently in the time before the book was written. Or just fantasy -- the Stirling trilogy though recent is set in a solar system where Venus is a swamp and Mars an inhabitable desert, both with intelligent inhabitants.
Joey Geko
25. Jeff R.
Does 'The Sky so Big and Black' count as divergent, really? I mean, the first book in that series was perfectly standard future-oriented SF...

(Admittedly, Kaleidoscope Century muddied the issue there more than a bit, salvaging the story's timeline from unexpected developments in real history, but still...)
Joey Geko
26. KenMacLeod
Jo, I don't see The Execution Channel as set in a future 'we can't get to from here'. The speculative physics? Then we can't get to it from anywhere. The alternate recent past? That was originally just so I could have an implicit backstory that wouldn't get blind-sided by unexpected events. (That's one of those cases where, as Niven/Pournelle said, a nuclear war can ruin your whole morning.) But it ended up suggesting, at least to me, that certain events of 2000 weren't quite the Jonbar point they seemed to some of us at the time. The world we're in still seems pretty much on course for something like that future, only without the physics handwave.
Joey Geko
27. tolladay
I think the kids had the right of it. We haven't lost the future, its just not going as quick as we would prefer.

Its easy to forget the future we grew up on (my gateway drug to sci-fi was Heinlein's juvies) came about because of a rather bizarre and complex interplay between two nations called the Cold War. It was not really a cost effective idea or even made a whole ot of sense, but it sure sounded good. Never mind that there is a huge difference between fixing up an old car, and fixing up an old rocket, it fit our cultural needs at the time, and we bought into that beautiful vision.

Anyway I think there is still pleanty of "space" sci-fi going on, it just takes place in a future that is futher out than it used to be. Say 200 year from now instead of 20. Its not an issue of absense as much as it is one of scale. There's a good read for this. If you look at our current political situation (at least here in the U.S.) it is difficult to imagine the kind of expendures in our space budget to bring about most of the sci-fi we'd like to see. Moonbases cost a lot of money, and it seems that NOT paying for space exploration is one of the few things that many liberals and conservatives agree on.

Lets not forget that all art (including literature) only "works" in a society if it has a role. Think of it as a complex mirror designed to reflect the things we'd like to see most about ourselves. At one point our world needed one kind of sci-fi beceause of how it made us think about ourselves. Now it needs another. Hopefully some of the stuff we grew up on will be popular again, but its not really up to us. Nor do I think it is something we can control.
William S. Higgins
28. higgins
Moonbase or Internet?

Sir Arthur Clarke is an interesting figure because he could see both futures so clearly. He wrote a bunch of nonfiction books about communications, though he wrote even more about spaceflight.

As a moonstruck lad Clarke preached the gospel of spaceflight enthusiastically. As a radar tech in the Royal Air Force, he married his knowledge of radio to his familiarity with rockets, and became the father of the geosynchronous communications satellite. He eagerly followed every new development in computing and telecom all his life.

He was pretty sure we were going to get instant interational contact with our pen-pals and rivers of information at our fingertips. But he was pretty sure we would get lunar cities, too.

If he hadn't been an SF writer, he'd still be remembered as a prophet of spaceflight. If he hadn't been either, he'd still be hailed as a prophet of the telecom revolution. Really, we were lucky we had all three Clarkes.

As for the question at hand, please allow me to garble Gilbert Shelton: "The Internet will get you through times of no moonbases better than moonbases will get you through times of no Internet."
William S. Higgins
29. higgins
In #14 Shalter writes:

The twelve year old me (1975) would have picked space travel. The
internet is somewhat difficult to fully explain without experiencing it.

I know I posted a garbled misquotation above; but now here's an exact quote from Sir Tim Berners-Lee:

"It's so difficult to explain to people who are used to the Web why,
before the Web, it was so difficult to explain to people what the Web
was all about."
Liz J
30. Ellisande
The funny thing is my eight-year-old LOVES space. he loves learning about it, and building lego rockets and such. But because he knows so much and we've watched a lot of science shows, he also knows just how big space really is. He wrote a little story recently where his space ship took 42 years to reach Alpha Centauri. When I was his age, I wouldn't have known that. I would've just put in 'hyperdrive' because I liked Star Wars and gone on with the story. So if he's any indication, it's not that we've 'lost' the future, but that the awareness of how difficult that old school future is going to be has filtered down to a pretty basic level of understanding.
Joey Geko
31. Petar Belic
@ gbrell

I agree to some extent that the sum of all possible futures has shrunk.

But let me redefine the argument.

Instead of the future 'shrinking' I posit that good SF has become harder to write because of the stuff we now know. You actually need to do some research. You need a good grasp of basic physics, math, biology, computer science, even, gasp, social science. Otherwise your reader will 1) not believe you & 2) think s/he is smarter than you. Sense of wonder... gone.

Writing fantasy is a LOT easier than writing good SF. Let's forget about characterisation, plot, etc for the moment. With good SF you have to ensure that your milieu, big idea, technological development, etc, can work - or have a good chance of working - within our currently understood physical world-view. You have to extrapolate the implications of this tech. And you have to see how this impacts on social fabric, ecoverse, etc. This is simply unnecessary in fantasy. Good fantasy does this to some extent, but it's certainly not a feature of the genre in general. No research or understanding necessary to write an engaging fantasy story.

I'm not putting down fantasy - I adore the genre! But it's just not as hard to write well in.

Good SF writing demands you be self-educated and have a love of the new. And then you think about it... a lot! And you have to keep up with that self education.

SF itself is doing just fine, thank you very much. Most big gaming IPs are SF-based. Big budget movies are often SF-based. But literature in SF seems to have gone downhill dramatically. I think this is the fault of writers to some extent, for the reasons posted above.
Jo Walton
32. bluejo
Ken: It was set in a world where Gore won, making it alternate history and not future-set SF. I appreciate that this was solving a writing problem for you, but it's still striking me as part of a trend away from the future.
Alan Brown
33. AlanBrown
I don't think the future has ever been what we thought it would be. I have a book in my cellar called:
Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future by Joseph J. Corn and Brian Horrigan (May 15, 1996)
An interesting book, lavishly illustrated, and highly recommended. It talked about things that people thought would happen, but didn't. Rockets are limited in their power to the point where the weight of fuel in proportion to payload is prohibitive. Radiation in space is more of an issue than we thought. Nuclear powerplants take way more shielding than anyone imagined. And big vehicles are just darned expensive to build.
Everyone looks at all those wild looking aircraft the Nazis had on the drawing board at the end of WWII. The Allied bombing wasn't the only thing that stopped those aircraft from going into production--many of the designs, while creative, were impractical.
On the other hand, developments like pocket computer and communications devices, instead of taking centuries, were developed in decades. And very few, even those who saw the advances in computers, had a very clear idea of how the internet would change how we live and interact.
I think, though, that commercial space travel will help reduce the price of bringing material to orbit, which should open up new possibilities. Regular space travel won't come overnight, but barring some catastrophe, we will slowly emerge from our gravity well, and as we begin to exploit resources in space, mankind will spread among the planets.
I think one of the things that has died in the past few years is the sense that certain situations were inevitable, and that there were constants that would persist in the forseeable future. The Cold War was one. Another was a steady growth in space exploration, a hope that died when Nixon killed the Apollo program. We now live in a turbulent time where we are less sure of what the future will bring. When before we extrapolated the future with predictable straight lines or arcs, now we see the impact of chaos, and wonder what the fluttering of a butterfly might bring next.
For an author, this can be intimidating. But it is also quite freeing. The future is open, and possibilities are limitless.
Steven Halter
35. stevenhalter
gbrell@20:I don't think the future has shrunk so much as it has morphed. Certain things have turned out to be harder/slower than thought (space exploration) while others (PC's, internet, gene sequencing, ...) have proven much more tractable. Some things shrink, others grow.
Joey Geko
36. RiverVox
First of all: Moonbase! Well, actually Marsbase because I was reading The Martian Chronicles at that age.

And to build on @gbrell's comment at 21:

The panel on "Genrecare" at Readercon ran into a similar wall. How can one write beyond the present day's medical marvels of cloning, nanotech, implants, transplants, vat-grown cells, smart prosthetics etc? One can delve into policy, (which seems intractable) and social issues raised by new medical tech, but what frontier does SF have to explore in that direction?
Joey Geko
37. Matthew Austern
As a reader, the alternate history aspects of The Execution Channel seemed to me not exactly like defining a future we couldn't get to, or like the solution of a writing problem (although I'm sure both comments are true), but mostly a dark joke.
Joey Geko
38. Russ Allbery
Wow, for me that isn't a hard decision at all. The Internet is so much better than a moonbase that I find it incomprehensible that someone would pick the moonbase. (I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that position, mind. Just that it seems to me to represent such radically different priorities than I have that I have a very hard time wrapping my mind around it.)

Maybe this is because I was born in the 1970s?
Joey Geko
39. S.M. Stirling
To the extent that SF has shifted away from the immediate future it is in large part because we now have a large backlog of stories set in what -was- the immediate future and they were usually so embarassingly wrong.

Who'd do a Heinlein "future history" now? Science fiction is absolutely lousy at predicting future changes. In the 1950's, the future was full of really big fast things; nowadays it's full of very smart small things; our predictions are probably no better than their predictions.

SF has an ingrained tendency to do straight-line extrapolations of the immediate past, which precisely the -wrong- way to predict technological change. It almost invariably fails to see that a technological curve is about to flatten out after a period of rapid growth.

(Trace the curve of maximum speeds of vehicles from 1820 to 1960, and then from 1960 to 2012, and you'll see what I mean. If the curve hadn't flattened out, we'd have interstellar travel by now.)

We're even worse at predicting political and social changes, because there emotions/hopes are even more strongly involved, and when that happens the capacity for rational thought just flies right out the window.

My own bet would be that the pace of (socially significant) technological change is actually slowing down, a phenomenon somewhat disguised by the more general spread of previously restricted innovations. For someone living in New York or London the period between 1950 and 2012 has seen less change of that type than that between 1888 and 1950. For someone living in, say, China the recent period has seen much -more- change, but a large part of that is catching up to where New York or London were in 1950.

So I do alternate histories, or very far-future stuff, or alternate histories involving very far-future stuff.
Joey Geko
40. S.M. Stirling
To take a historical example, the gap between messages carried by guys on horses and messages sent by electric telegraphs is bigger than the one between the telegraph and the WWW. The telegraph sent the maximum speed for transmitting information from about 30 mph to the speed of light. Everything since has been details.

Likewise, by 1890 it was possible to travel at about 60 mph for long distances overland -- itself a major change from a century before. By the 1960's, when I first flew on a jet aircraft, it was possible to travel virtually anywhere on the globe at about 600 mph.

Now, in 2012, it's possible to travel anywhere... at about 600 mph. Between 1890 and 1960, we went from 60 to 600 mph. I'll give you any odds you care to name that by 2050, it'll be the same 600 mph.

We may have bioengineered tentacles, but we'll be flying at about the same speed.
Joey Geko
41. seth e.
Turning my earlier drive-by aside into an actual comment: I think part of the tapering off of future visions in science fiction has to do not just with visualizing future science, but with the types of stories science fiction likes to tell. The default type of science fiction story is adventure story, which implies recognizable, sympathetic characters in situations with immediate, physical obstacles and tensions. (I mean "sympathetic" in that we can identify with the characters, not necessarily that they're nice.) As we learn more about how the future is actually going to happen--remotely, to a large extent--that kind of story gets harder and harder to frame.

There's a great passage in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Sun, Moon, and Stars in which he says that, though people claim machines remove us from nature, in fact the machine brings us in closer contact with nature. But that was his own experience as a pilot, and had to do with the fact that his machine was a relatively primitive airplane. When he flew through a storm, he could feel the conflict with the elements in his shoulder muscles, and navigation sometimes boiled down to leaning out the window to see if there was a mountain coming up. That doesn't have much to do with our current experience of flying.

As technologies advance and become more common, our experience of them becomes more diffuse, which, I think, makes the old-fashioned adventure story a less useful way of confronting technological advancement. Just because of the time and distances involved in space exploration, I find it easier to imagine a bildungsroman starring space-exploring machines than I do an adventure.
Steven Halter
42. stevenhalter
S.M. Stirling@40:It's true that the speed of a single bit of information transmitted by telegraph goes at the speed of light. However, the amount of information capable of being transmitted via the telegraph was limited by the speed at which a human could press the key/hear the distinct signals and the speed of sending and receiving devices (a few bits per second) now on a modern network things are switching over to 100 giga bits per second and tera bps rates are being reached in the lab. Speed is where you measure it and for data, it is the amount that really matters.
Andrew Mason
43. AnotherAndrew
A couple of things:

a. I'm not sure that having a point of divergence before the present disqualifies something from being future-set science fiction. Heinlein's Future History series is set in a world where an (ultimately successful) foundation to prolong human life was set up in the late 19th Century. I think it's still future-set, in that it's based on a vision of what the future might be.

b. I wonder about the role which knowledge of what's possible is playing in this discussion. We have always known that long-distance space travel will take a very long time given our current scientific knowledge, and there have been stories, about generation ships and so on, which exploit that knowledge. But there have also been stories which ignore it, positing a scientific development which hasn't happened yet, to allow for hyperspace or whatever (and this goes on, Mieville's immer being the latest version of it). Did the authors of those stories actually think that was possible, or did they just embrace it because it provided a setting for things they wanted to do? I know a lot of people think that science fiction should be about the scientifically possible, but in practice much of it isn't, and never has been. I would rather characterise it is terms of worlds whose distinctive features are scientific, in the sense that (within the story) they can be understood by a scientific method. And while one thing you can do with that is speculate on what the future might be, it's not the only thing.
Joey Geko
44. rea
Is the future we used to see, with humanity out in our solar system, a victim of the fact there's no money in it?

I think this is exactly true. We absolutely could build a moonbase now if we wanted to--but what would be the point? What would you do at a moonbase that justifies the expense of building one?
David Dyer-Bennet
45. dd-b
Hmm. When I was 12...was before The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Also before our first manned moon landing.

What does choosing "moonbase" actually mean? Which of the factors that prevented us from having one in this timeline would be changed? They were mostly in place then, after all; science fiction just mostly hadn't recognized them.

As a science fiction reader of that time, I don't see how I could have possibly chosen anything other than "moonbase".
Joey Geko
46. James Davis Nicoll
What would you do at a moonbase that justifies the expense of building one?

I assume "stock the Moon with unexpectedly reactive isotopes" is a no-goer?

One thing the Moon has in abundance is glorious isolation. This could be useful to people carrying out dangerous experiments, well-heeled theologicians, and fans of an ultra-super Gitmo, where enemies of the state who cannot simply be killed can be made to vanish from reasonable human ken. For that matter, any great person concerned about competition amongst their heirs could raise them in well appointed cells on the Moon and then having selected the heir they prefer open the other cells to vacuum.

Tourist facilities on the Moon could be the ultimate Veblen good, valuable to their intended target market not in spite of the price but because of it.
Joey Geko
47. NullNix
Russ Allbery@38, as another child of the 70s, I agree: the Internet is immensely better than a moonbase. But that's not because the Internet is a place where I interact much better than in reality, nor because it pretty much gave me a new life (though it did), but because of the Internet's ubiquity.

Let's pick the best of all possible space-travel worlds and say that we don't just have a moonbase but very cheap space travel, radiation-resistance, and cities on the Moon and Mars, lots and lots of space stations, and asteroid mining. Even in that situation, space travel will not affect most people's lives much (sure, asteroid mining will force down the price of some expensive metals, but that's not something that the man in the street is going to care about). Even in that situation most people will never travel to one of these new space frontiers for much the same reason that a hotel in the middle of the Sahara Desert would go bust (cf Kage Baker's _The Hotel under the Sand_): there's nothing much to do out there and the weather outside is awful.

But everyone in the Western world who wants to be on the Internet is: and via mobile phones, that's pretty much true of everyone else on the planet as well, with the exception of a few benighted hellholes like North Korea. Like electricity, it is ubiquitous and has improved everyone's lives, even if just because you can now befriend, and trade, with people across the world as easily as you could befriend and trade with people down the street. Sure, there are downsides -- any communications medium can be used by black hats and bullies as well as by good guys. But it's a huge advantage in all sorts of ways that a moonbase would not be. What would a moonbase provide? Inhospitable land, a useful scientific platform for a few things, and perhaps somewhere were you can open-cast mine from the Moon's rotten mineral supply without worrying about spoiling the environment. I think the Internet wins.
Alan Brown
48. AlanBrown
You can have all the cool ideas you want, but then physics and economics and all those other realities decides what actually comes to pass. Just to hazard a guess, 90% of the awesome things on the cover of Popular Science never actually come to pass.
Nancy Lebovitz
50. NancyLebovitz
I'm not sure how plausible science fiction has to be in order to be popular-- my impression is that authors have a lot of freedom to just make things up for the sake of the story.

As for the lack of positive futures, some of it might be failed dreams-- communism passed its sell-by date quite a while ago, and regulated capitalism isn't looking so good. I'd like to see more sf about distributed institutions.

I generally don't read milsf-- what's the positivity level there?
Clark Myers
51. ClarkEMyers
#50 - First define youe milsf but by my own definition the positivity level is very low indeed.

Mostly I'd say what I call milsf as opposed to space opera is bleak and intended so. Pournelle's CoDominion series is quite consciously intended as a stop don't go there future. Pournelle's non-fiction is intended as a positive recommendation - do go there. I don't know why we have lost the drive.

A resounding chorus of Hadn't a been for NASA. The moon is half way to anywhere and has ample mass for radiation and solar flare shielding - plenty of room for parking and even for inevitable disasters - the Star Road takes a Terrible Toll - but I don't even see much current filk as building the future I'd hoped for.

It's not technical difficulties that keep us from LEO - see e.g. Pournelle on it's raining gravy. Space travel doesn't bring the Jubilee - see e.g. To Bring in the Steel for what problems space travel might and might not help.

As somebody long ago pointed out the original Von Braun/Disney stage rockets to a wheel space station inspired great public interest and people built model kits - I built model kits after the Disney/Bonestell vision - leading in some part to Heinlein fans at JPL.

There is a young child's toy version of the Lunar Rover but say Revell/Monogram what have you never made precision model kits for the space age as it happened - a fair number of young people once filled their bedrooms with model airplanes. Who has seen dioramas of the real people on the moon?
Nancy Lebovitz
52. NancyLebovitz
My definition of milsf-- the only useful definition I've ever seen worked out online-- is from rasfw, and it's sf about people in a chain of command.
Clark Myers
53. ClarkEMyers
#52 - Using that definition a vast majority of stories with a space ship is milsf and ship does after Arthur C. Clarke mean spaceship if that be positivity.
Clark Myers
54. ClarkEMyers
Temporary Duty by the recently deceased Ric Locke is milsf - bottom of the chain of command - positivist and a good read - and never will be part of a series so read it now.
Joey Geko
55. Stephen Stillme Frug
Ok, obviously this is an old thread, but since it hasn't been mentioned since #2 James Davis Nicoll, I thought I'd mention that one of the (many!) joys of 2312 is it takes this future, that has come to seem so impossible, and makes it believable (obviously not the same thing as really possible, he just sells it). It's great, glorious fun. Highly recommended.
Joey Geko
56. Another John Hughes
#50 ClarkEMyers -
There is a young child's toy version of the Lunar Rover but say Revell/Monogram what have you never made precision model kits for thespace age as it happened - a fair number of young people once filledtheir bedrooms with model airplanes. Who has seen dioramas of the real
people on the moon?

There used to be more - a set of 1:72 lunar astronaut figures with a lunar rover.

I'm pretty sure Revell had at least a LEM and a Saturn V.

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