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 In this case, the real world has progressed so far that our cool science fiction ideas now seem outdated–flip phones are practically quaint these days.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.

5 Responses to “Writing the Future”

  1. Ethan Cobb says:

    Great post. It’s always fascinating how art inspires real life and real life inspires art. This reminded me a little of the autobiography book Covert by Bob Delaney (at least I think it was this book) who went undercover to help take down the mob and found that a lot of mobsters were beginning to copy the movie Godfather.

    And that picture of Dick Tracy kind of made me want a wrist phone now. :)

  2. Don’t forget Star Trek’s moving doors. We’re so used to them now, we forget they haven’t always been around. The makers or Classic ST were approached by a developer who wanted to know how they did it (they had a staff member standing behind the turbolift door and pulled on a rope to open it). The developer was disappointed but wasn’t stopped in his quest.

  3. HamletMonkey83262 says:

    Excellent post, as always. I second the desire for a wrist phone. For that matter, why don’t I have my very own KITT with an ATM and turbo boost? Imagine rush hour traffic with cars able to jump great distances? (Is it the Freeway, or Frogger?)

    I’m not sure I agree with the statement that “art not only portrays but creates truth.” Rather than creating truth, I think art, such as Star Trek, can inspire to act, to solve problems, and to discover new inventions and new truths in the process. Art, at its best, portrays truths on many levels, and can inspire the audience to act and find truths themselves.

    By the way, is it just my computer, or have others had technical problems with this site, i.e. lines and text over the posts?

  4. SeekingPlumb says:

    This is sooo true. Thank you for this psot. It’s so exciting to see those SF ideas come to life!! On the other hand, where are the ideas for tomorrow? Where is the imagination? Maybe it’s out there; I don’t know where to look. SF is becoming reality, we need new air breathed into SF. :) I LOVE looking forward to tomorrow! I want more of that!!

  5. SeekingPlumb says:

    No problems with the site here, HamletMonkey83262. Sounds like it’s likely your browser.

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