The Future 101: Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about the future, but in a different way.  Can we understand the future in any meaningful way?  Now, I don’t mean the actual future that will unfold, but the concept of the future as a feature of reality.  Asking “What is the future?” is more like a Zen kōan than a scientific inquiry.  We think of time as the 4th dimension, as one long continuous stretching of three dimensional space.  And because of science fiction we picture traveling  to other points in time as if they were another spatial coordinate.  I think this is a false concept that corrupts our sense of the past and future.

Another problem we face, is we think of time personally.  Consciousness experiences the now, so it feels like the past is our life before now, and the future is what happens next.  But if the Earth is sterilized by a gamma ray burst in the next minute, reality would continue without us, and so would the future.  Although we experience time as self-aware beings, time exists outside ourselves.  We might exist in the future, and we might not.

Time exists without our consciousness being aware of it.  A tree has very limited awareness of its moment in existence, but its there in the now, and it has a past and future.  Our conscious mind observes the now, remembers the past, and anticipates the future.  Science fiction is the literature about anticipating the future.  We like to think that science fiction both prepares us for possible futures, and helps us build specific futures.  For example, science fiction warns us against the singularity, yet inspires us to build intelligent robots.

The trouble is we don’t take the future seriously.  If we did we would eat healthy and not alter the carbon dioxide ratio in the atmosphere.  We regularly interact with the future, like a squirrel burying nuts, or humans going to the grocery store to buy a week’s groceries, but reaching into the future has a limited range.  Instead of using science fiction to prepare us for the future, we’ve often turned it into Coca-Cola and cotton candy, empty calories to enjoy in the present moment of now.  Our immediate desires always overwhelm any knowledge we might have about the future.  Dealing with the future requires tremendous discipline that most of us lack, including myself.

One analogy that has occurred to me is to think of our brain as a CPU which is the now.  The past is everything written on the hard disk, and the future is the output we’re going to write to the hard disk.  Over time that contents of the hard disk changes.  The now is the main loop of our programming, just idling through the processing cycles.  If we want to interact with the future, we have to write something out to the hard drive, or delete an old file.

Most of us have great expectations about the future.  Some of us worry about the future.  Between dreamers and doomsayers, we find all hopes and fears.  Tomorrow is often pretty much like today, but ten years from now will be more surprising than how memories of ten years ago feels now.  Everything we want is in the future because everything we have is now.  When we throw the dice we want to win big and not come up snake eyes.  We’re all futurologists in that we hope to plan our future accomplishments and predict the obstacles.

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We want to know the future even though we know we can’t.  We predict the future even though we know we’ll be wrong.  We just can’t help ourselves.  Some people believe in crystal balls, others in statistics, but some turn to science fiction.  Science fiction plays on the same dichotomy as most people feel about the future—some SF writers write about what they hope will happen, and others write about what they fear will happen.

For over a century before space travel writers wrote about humans traveling to the Moon, planets and to other star systems.  Did science fiction writers predict that humans would travel in space, or did they inspires people to build rockets and space capsules?  Would space travel ever been invented if we hadn’t dreamed about it first?  Some people believe the future already exists and its just a matter of waiting for it to play out.  Others believe the future does not exist, only the now exists, so whatever the future will be won’t be determined until we reach that now to be.

From my personal experience, and reading piles of science books, I don’t think the future exists yet.  Nor do I believe time travel is possible.  I’m a now person.  However, I do think we can interact with the future in limited ways.  On the other hand, I’m not sure our many fantasies about the future do anything at all.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always said, “The future is everything I never imagined” even though I spent all my time trying to imagine the future.  Now that I’m living in the future, or a future now, it feels like any fantasy I had wiped out its possibility of coming true.  Sort of a weird corruption of the Uncertainty Principle.  I pictured myself going to Mars, so I never went to Mars.  I pictured humans going to Mars, so no one made it to Mars.  Sorry guys, to jinx things.   My mother had a variation on this theme.  She believed worrying about something bad will happen would keep it from happening.

Most of us will wake up tomorrow and find the future, and we’ll do that on average 30,000 times.  Each time a little surprise—until the day we don’t.  Now will cease to exist.  What divides us from the rest of the animals on this planet is we have hopes for the future.  We all want something from the future.  If we’re a child, we want Santa to bring us something exciting, if we’re a teen we want to fall in love and lose our virginity, if we’re in our twenties we want to graduate college and find a great job, and so on, until our only hope is to have a tomorrow, any tomorrow.  Some people want to be rock stars in the future, and others just want more to eat, and some just hope to keep existing.  To me happiness is having something to look forward to, even though it might not happen.

Science fiction books are fantasies about the future, some about things we want to happen, and some about things we hope won’t happen.

The common assumption is science fiction does not predict the future, but speculates on possible futures.  The truth is science fiction is a bunch of wild ideas that we find entertaining and has no relationship to the actual future even when it’s seriously speculative, extrapolating on current events, and is of little use for preparing us for the future.  Science fiction is fun escapism from the present for the most part, and occasionally insightful observations about the here and now.  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is a brilliant use of science fiction, but does it help us with the future, or help us with how we live now?

Robert A. Heinlein took himself quite seriously as a writer of speculative fiction.  He thought three books expressed his ideas best:  Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I doubt he meant to be remembered for starting military SF, creating a hippie Bible, and not starting a popular catch phrase about free lunches.  I’ve read these books many times and I don’t think they say anything about the future at all, but a whole lot about Robert A. Heinlein.  He wanted them to be about freedom and responsibility, but I’m not sure even that comes through.   Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s idea of 1990 from 1960.  Many people think it’s about the 1960s.  After living through both times I don’t feel its about either, but it seems to say a whole lot about Heinlein’s pet ideas and peeves.

I’m starting to wonder if science fiction is about no time at all, like The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

I’m reading Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.   I don’t think we can predict the future, but I also think the only way to talk about the future is through statistics based on knowing a whole lot data about the past.  I’ll write The Future 101:  Statistics in the future. (Is that a prediction or plan?)  But for now, I shall ask, “How many science fiction novels study the past to extrapolate the future” like Piketty?  I think the common quick answer will be:  Many.  However, I think that’s wrong.  If a science fiction writer writes a well thought out book about people living in the year 2114 and how global warming has changed the world, is that really doing the same thing that Piketty is doing with all his graphs and data sets?  It’s obvious that it’s what climate scientists are doing, but is it the same thing for novel writers?

I don’t think so.  Is there any past science fiction novel about our times that sounds anything close to what’s happening now?  Climate scientists have been graphing changes in average world temperature and CO2 concentrations for decades, and our current temperatures and concentrations fall nicely on their graphs.  Is this predicting the future?  Maybe that’s as close as we can come to predicting the future.  The thing about graphs is they do change, and sometimes surprisingly so, but there’s always a reason why the numbers do something different that changes the direction of the curve.  Being able to say what those things will be ahead of time is really predicting the future.  And we can’t do that.

We can predict rising CO2 concentrations, but we can’t predict what we will do about them

Scientists had hoped twenty years ago that humanity would have heard their warnings and changed their habits so their curves would have reversed direction.  They were hoping to change the future.  Science fiction writers writing about the future of humans colonizing the solar system and the galaxy were hoping they were influencing such a future to happen.  Has that happened?

Science fiction never wanted to predict the future, it never has.  Science fiction has always been about shaping the future.  And strangely, isn’t that what we do all the time.  When Apple rolled out the iPhone didn’t they shape the future?  Without Amazing Stories and Astounding, would we have the space programs we do have today?  Did “The Man Who Sold The Moon” shape the future to produce SpaceX?  I don’t know.  That’s why I writing this essay.

The future is relentless, it’s always coming.  Everything in the now makes the future.  A tree making a seed effects the future.  When we buy groceries how much is just putting food in a shopping cart and how much is reaching into the future to make Thursday’s night dinner?  If we knew that, we’d know how much science fiction influences the future.

JWH – 6/19/14

The New Normal (NBC)–Now and Then

The New Normal – I love the title of this NBC show that premiered back in September, it says so much.  Makes you ask, “What was the old normal?”  Is there such a thing as normalness?  Having grown up back in the 1950s during the Leave it to Beaver and  Father Knows Best normalcy, I can remember a long parade of new television seasons where Hollywood tried to capture the new normalness of the American family every Fall for a half century.

(Some of the more famous shows about the American family from the last 50 years were My Three Sons, Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, All in the Family, The Waltons, An American Family, Good Times, Little House on the Prairie, The Jeffersons, Eight is Enough, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Our House, Married with Children, Full House, My Two Dads, thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, Roseanne,  Life Goes On, Family Matters, The Simpsons, Home Improvement, My So Called Life, South Park, That 70’s Show, The Sopranos, Family Guy, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, Grounded for Life, Two and a Half Men, Weeds, Big Love, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Breaking Bad, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Modern Family, Parenthood)

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But were Ward, June, Wally and the Beav ever a normal family?  ABC, CBS and NBC painted America as if everyone were WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants)  in the 1950s, and even though my family was just as waspy, George, Virginia, Becky and Jimmy looked and acted like nothing we watched on TV.  America wasn’t lacking in people of color or various sexual orientations back in that black-and-white TV era, television just didn’t report on their normal day-to-day lives.  Some of those old gay couples getting married today were together back during the old normal.

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My parents were on the ass end of middle class, drank enough to be called alcoholics, fought and smashed things like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and my and I sister ran wilder than any switch or belt could control.  Although television didn’t chronicle my family or anyone I knew, I think it did influence American society, and may have even shaped us.  TV showed us there was no such thing as normal.  Have you ever seen your family on TV?

Conservatives might swear to God that television news is biased to the left, and shows like The New Normal and Glee are propaganda for the liberal lifestyle, but television news reporting and fictional shows have always trailed the changes in society – they have never led the way.  Television has always been the fantasy of how we want to live.  I think America has always wanted television to chronicle the countless types of people that we are, and the accidental byproduct of all this voyeurism was that we have adapted to diversity.  Real life strangers would flair up your xenophobia, but put that same subculture or ethnic group on TV and they became endearing.

Real life and television life seems to have some kind of reverb going, with television echoing changes in society and stimulating society with its feedback.  The New Normal is about two gay men, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) hiring Goldie (Georgia King) to be the surrogate mother of their baby.  This arrangement is far from new in the real world, or even on TV, but it’s taken for granted normalcy is a way to convince all those Americans who haven’t gotten the memo, that this is the new normal.

I find The New Normal just as comforting and pleasant as Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet back in 1958.  These happy families, both then and now, make me feel good and wish all families were just as happy.  Like Modern Family, to which The New Normal is often compared, these and other feel-good liberal shows are designed to make us feel better about life in America in 2012, they are our Sunday School classes about how to be good people.  Our economic lives might suck, but at least we’re evolving as accepting and empathetic beings.

Sadly, this doesn’t work with everyone in our polarized society.  We’re still fighting the war between extreme religious belief and the Enlightenment.  I wonder what Descartes, Bacon,  Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau would make of our modern times, and what philosophical issues would they make out of our television shows?

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That’s the thing, I don’t think television initiates social change, but soothes us to accept it.  Many Americans don’t like gays or gay marriage, but as a whole, those attitudes are changing.  Last October, GLAAD released a report showing the 2012 television had the highest percentage of gay LGBT characters ever.  Not only are there more gay characters on TV, gay characters are finding more fans, and even the hateful grumpy people who protest their outrage are becoming fewer.

Television makes us comfortable with new ideas.  Television is an agent of integration, and I don’t mean that in just the racial integration sense, but in the integration of all change that’s going on in society.  Television is the spoon that stirs the American melting pot.

Television has been programming my social awareness since the 1950s, and it’s fascinating to contemplate all the changes the TV has made to America in the last fifty years.  If we had a time machine and could go back to 1962 and convince NBC to show The New Normal to America back then, how would it have been received?  Of course the show would be seen as a kind of science fictional view of the future.  There’s more new to The New Normal than two gay guys living together, and besides they did have gay people in 1962 so it wouldn’t have been a totally new concept, but they didn’t have surrogate mothers, or iPhones, video games, an African-American president, global warming, etc.  Change is relentless.

Remember, 1962 was before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  The pill had just been released a few years earlier and it still hadn’t made it’s social impact.  If you watch The New Normal it has an whole spectrum of liberal ideals integrated into the show that would have been overwhelming to the “normal” people of 1962 to digest.  On the other hand civil rights and feminism had already begun by 1962, so maybe the viewers of 1962 would connect the dots between then and now.  And even though America was a technological giant in 1962, I just don’t think those 1962 TV viewers had any clue as what computers would do to our society.

Today we have hindsight to see how far we’ve come.  All too often we judge the citizens of the past by the morality and political correctness of today, but let’s reverse the tables.  How will people fifty years from now look back on us in 2012 and will they judge us harshly?  I’m sure in 2062 there will be a sitcom that’s the equivalent of The New Normal, and if we could see that show today, how would we react?

Liberal education marches on.  Will we ever reach an end and be perfectly enlightened?  I’m sure the seeds of future liberal standards of political correctness exist in our day-to-day life now.  Our treatment of the environment and animals will horrify our descendants.  Our polarized politics and fundamental religions will make the people of 2062 scratch their heads in amazement wondering how we could have been so irrational.  Our wasting of natural resources will be judged criminal.  But those are the easy issues.  What are the harder ethical issues we can’t discern with our quaint old-fashioned minds?

What will be the next new normal?

JWH – 12/10/12

Is Cynicism a Side-Effect of Aging? – The Mark Twain Syndrome

Samuel Clemens, known famously as Mark Twain, became extremely bitter and pessimistic about the human race as he got older.  I’m 60 and I’m starting to feel I’ve caught a touch of pessimism myself, so I’m wondering if I’m developing the Mark Twain Syndrome?  And will I get more negative as the years pile up?

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Is cynicism a side-effect of aging?

Now Twain had a lot of reasons to feel depressed and bitter.  His wife, and two of his three daughters, died before he did.  He made fortunes and lost them.  He ran up staggering debt.   In his old age he had to constantly tour the world giving talks so he could honorably pay off his creditors.  Plus he saw a lot of the world that he just didn’t like, and he felt he had good reasons to think humans were a nasty species.  Twain died in 1910, so he never knew the horrors of the 20th century, but the vicious satirical stories he wrote in his later years feel spot on to modern readers.

I would think anyone following the highly polarized politics of the 2012 presidential election would feel depressed about our political system.  I would think anyone studying how humans treat the environment and our fellow creatures would feel gloomy about the Earth.  I would think anyone comparing the growing greed of the rich versus the expanding misery of the poor would feel doomed over the fate of mankind.  It’s hard not to believe that homo sapiens aren’t going to use up every last resource on this planet and never feel guilty.

How can you have faith in Congress when the national debt grows and all they can talk about is tax cuts?  How can feel good about America when one party stonewalls the other for four years in hopes of winning the next election?  When did serving the party become more important than serving the country?

Our current economic calamity is due to a man-made economic catastrophe.  Billions were stolen but no one was ever put on trial.  And the rich are spending billions to get a President in office so they can go back to business as usual.

I can’t help but believe that a perfect storm of national collapse is brewing.  Is the U.S. in decline like the Roman and British empires were long ago?

Here some of the factors:

  • Growing economic chaos
  • World-wide shift to fundamental religious thinking
  • Global warming
  • Diseases becoming immune to our medicines
  • Population growth
  • Dwindling resources
  • Relentless pollution
  • Accelerating species extinctions
  • Uncontrolled debt
  • Political polarization
  • Aging population
  • Growing segment of population that’s not in labor force
  • Escalating crime and corruption around the world
  • Rising healthcare costs
  • Rising food costs

Now, do I dwell on all of that because I’m getting older?  If I was young would I feel that all of those issues were just problems to be easily solved?  I don’t know.  It’s not like I want to walk around with a sandwich sign proclaiming “The End is Near” but I feel like I’m on a fast train and the brakes just went out.  Is that feeling caused by getting older?

How do you know when things are bad or when you’re just feeling bad and think civilization is in decline?

Conversely, when I read about developments in science, technology, medicine, I feel positive and my thoughts about the future are uplifted.  Science is the one constant positive – but most people reject science.  What makes me feel good makes other people feel bad.

When I was young and read about Mark Twain I hoped I’d never become bitter and negative like he did.  Even now I try to stay positive.  But its not easy.  Oh, if I keep busy and ignore the problems I’m as happy as a two-year-old with a box of cookies.  And I tend to think that’s how most folks handles the problem–they eat more cookies.

When I was young, growing up with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs, I assumed we’d have permanent bases on the Moon and Mars by now, and men and women would have explored the entire solar system.  In my teens, I felt before I died engineers would be drawing up plans interstellar spacecraft.  Maybe not manned ones, but at least for interstellar robotic explorers.  I think part of my disappointed about getting old is none of this has happened.

I’ve read enough history to know that the present has always been on the tipping point of chaos.  I should feel confident that we’ll continue to bumble though.  But I’ve also read enough history to know that nations rise and fall, and that all over the globe there are sites where people live who think about their country’s former glory.  We revel is the decline of communism, but who is to say capitalism will last?  Personally, I think free market capitalism will fail under overpopulation.  We have over 12 million people defined as unemployed, but we have over 87 million people not employed, or considered unemployable.  This population is over 16, not in jail or in military service that doesn’t work.  They are retired, mentally or physically can’t work, gave up trying to find work, or won’t work.  Less than half the U.S. population has jobs and they must fund the living expenses for the entire population.  Capitalism isn’t creating enough jobs.  It’s worse in other countries.

And the people who are working and paying taxes want to pay less.  This is at a time when our economy depends on socialism.  The reality is the U.S. has been a socialistic country since the 1930s.  To reject socialism now means condemning tens of millions of poverty.  The growing nostalgia for fundamental religious beliefs and conservative values is no solution at all.  It’s just a plea, “Stop the world I want to get off—why can’t things be the way they used to be?”

Now I’m dwelling on the bad again.  Are my worries just from getting old?  Or do we all have something to be depressed about?

JWH – 7/15/12

Science Fiction’s New Future

Back in the 1950s and 1960s classic science fiction promised a future of space travel, with Star Trek epitomizing our hopes. That future has been revised constantly for us Baby Boomers so what does contemporary science fiction promise the youth of today? Will it be The Windup Girl, The Hunger Games or Ready Player One? Is the Final Frontier off the table? The fact that the United States continues to ignore global warming does not bode well for science fictional speculation. Since we refused to solve our problems we must live with the results.

In Ready Player One people are happy to live in a virtual reality that lets them escape the bleak actual reality.  The United States at mid-21st century is still in today’s recession.  In The Hunger Games, the 22nd century U.S. has collapsed and a new government has formed that’s nothing like what we have today.  In The Windup Girl corporations are even more powerful and the negative effects of technology even more pervasive.  If you combined the speculation in The Windup Girl with Ready Player One they have probably foreseen a future closer to what will happen than what Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov imagined.

There’s little reason to picture the super-science futures of modern space opera happening at all, and at least not any time soon.  By soon, I mean before the year 3000.  And what about what Robert J. Sawyer imagined for us in his WWW Trilogy?  How close is IBM’s Watson to Webmind?

I grew up believing the future would be what Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov showed us.  How do teens see the future today?  A generation ago kids imprinted on Star Wars, but is their faith still firm in that galactic empire fantasy?  Not if they are paying attention to reality.  Ignoring global warming offers plenty of addictive delusions, but really, what science fiction do today’s teens read to see their future in 50 years?  That would be a great topic for a SF Signal Mind Meld.  Is it dark or bright?

Fifty years ago I was ten and all excited about the Mercury program, waiting for Gemini and Apollo.  My early teen years were filled with science fiction books and The Jetsons, Lost in Space and Star Trek on TV.  The future was so bright we had to wear mirrored shades.  As a high school kid I was absolutely positive I’d be watching men and women walking on Mars by 1980 – instead I got MTV and an Atari 400.

Do today’s kids see the future through rose colored glasses?  Do they realize the 1% has already stolen their future by refusing to allow America to work on the problem of global warming, guaranteeing a life like The Windup Girl?  The effects of global warming won’t end our world, but it will but the kibosh on Star Trek and Star Wars space age dreams.

JWH – 1/15/12

The Future

We can’t know the future – not the specific details but we constantly try to imagine the future.  Here are some impressive videos from Microsoft that shows what the future might be like following the trends of current technology.

The first one appears to have been made in 2009.

The next one from 2011 seems very similar, as if they were actually produced at the same time.  Or we have to assume that 2019 seen from Microsoft from two years apart looks very much like.

Do these predictions please you, or scare you?  It certainly seems the Geeks have inherited the Earth.  But if you think about it, it’s a rather tame mundane view of the future.  Adults still go to work and children go to school – the difference is the physical objects around us get more intelligent.  But do we?

We like to think that people are evolving too and in some ways we are.  We’re moving toward a society where everyone is equal regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.  However, if you think about it, we’ll all be treated equally fair, at least under the law, but will we be different?  Greed will still coexist with charity, violence will exist with peace, law and order will still fight the lawless, the rich will get richer and the poor poorer.

I think if you plotted the evolution of humans it would show one long slight incline.  If you plotted the evolution of technology we’d see the classic hockey stick graph.

These two videos show a future for rich people, nothing is implied for the poor.  Without technology and money, the poor of one era seem to live pretty much like the poor of another era.  I’d also imagine if you are politically conservative now, or liberal, you will be the same in the future.  And I’d say if you are a bookworm that loves music and movies, then you’ll probably be a bookworm that loves music and movies in the future.  Most people will even be living in the same house they are living in now.

We can’t predict the details of the future, like who will win the presidential race in 2012, or what life will be like as the Earth gets warmer, or will we find a solution to the financial crisis and the economic divide between the 1% and the 99%.  There are an infinity of factors that go into shaping the future that keeps us from calculating what the future will be.

Some of the tech predictions we see in these Microsoft videos might come close to happening, but I doubt the tech will be as slick and clean as how they predict them.  It would be interesting to find some videos from 1999 and 2001 that Microsoft created predicting 2009 and 2011.

Jim

The Other Side of the Future

If you live long enough you can get to the other side of the future.  In the 1960s I consumed massive amounts of science fiction and quite a bit of it was set in years that have already past.  I have lived through a lot of futures.  1984 was just another year in life, and so was 1999, 2000, and 2001.  One of my favorite novels growing up was The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, which was written in 1956, that I read in 1965, about a man in 1970 taking the cold sleep and waking up in 2001, and who eventually time travels back to 1970.  Even in 1965 the year 1970 was so full of futuristic possibilities.

Of course its 2010 now, and that novel is way in the past, from so many perspectives.

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I’m in an online science fiction book club called Classic Science Fiction where a bunch of members are like me, who came of age reading science in the 1950s and 1960s.  We’re reading the great science fiction stories of our youth from the other side of the future, and it’s a whole different vista than we saw from that distant shore of the past.  Now it’s not like we don’t have a lot of future still to outlive, especially when you think we might live another 40-50 years, the amount of time we’re looking back over.  But we have lived long enough to live past many speculative fictional years.

Let’s just say that the future is everything I never imagined.  I’m sitting here typing on a computer that’s linked to the world wide web while listening to Katy Perry sing “Teenage Dream” over digital streaming, from a library of over 10 million songs that I have access online.  Didn’t see that one coming back in 1965 when I was mowing lawns to buy the latest Byrds’ album to play while reading Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel.

The thing is, back in 1965 I thought I knew the future because I was reading so many science fictional roadmaps.  I was youthfully confident that by 2001 we’d have a colony on the Moon, and we’d have hundreds of men and women roving all over Mars, and there would be manned spaceships heading out to Titan and Ganymede.  Quite a few of us old fart guys and gals at Classic Science Fiction are crying in our beer over that lost future.  How could Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov have been so wrong?  Of course we’re haven’t reached Clifford Simak’s future of City either, but I still wonder about that one.

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In 1964 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic background radiation while I was discovering 1940s and 1950s astronomy in musty old books in the Miami Public Library.  I never imagined anything like the Hubble Space Telescope, or all the magnificent robotic explorers that have flown across the solar system in our lifetime.  And who imagined a future with only eight planets?  Isn’t that a step backwards?  On the other hand, just rent The Universe from Netflix and watch several seasons.  What we’ve learned about cosmology is mind blowing, far beyond the wildest imaginations of legions of science fiction writers.

Back in the sixties our parents told us to clean our dinner plates because it was horrible to let food go to waste when people were starving in China, but now China is about to eat our lunches racing to new far out futures.  Did any SF writer see that change coming?  Did anyone foresee America retiring from manned exploration of space?  Or that maybe the Chinese might do what we once dreamed.

One of the strangest things for me living on the other side of the future are the deaths of Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov.  In the book club we’re mostly partial to books from the 1950s and 1960s and we feel science fiction itself has changed.  In that old back to the future world, science fiction was about conquering reality, but now it’s either about escaping from reality, or dark stories about how reality is going to conquer us.  Science has discovered a universe far vaster and more slower to travel than we ever imagined.

Nostalgia seems to be the order of the day for us old folks at Classic Science Fiction.  We read and reread the good old days of science fiction.  Political and scientific realities make us dream of simpler days of rocket ships and ray guns.  Do we return to the classics of science fiction like opium addicted dreamers giving up on reality?  Do we cherish the dreams of youth more than reality on the other side of the future?

JWH – 11/15/10

Science Fiction’s Imagined Black Swans

Most people watching a movie or reading a book set in the future would label the story science fiction.  Yet, if you look at the backlog of science fiction stories, which surely must exceed a million by now, has there ever been one that even came close to predicting the future?  Despite silly beliefs about Nostradamus, the future is obviously unpredictable.  The idea of prophecy has been around since the earliest of recorded history – which tells us it’s a well loved belief.  In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a full frontal assault on the idea of predicting the future which I think some science fiction fans will find enlightening.  Not only does Taleb feel predicting the future is usually delusional, but he also claims we have an innate mental mechanism that sees connections in ordinary reality where none exist.  He calls that brain function the “narrative fallacy.”

To be clear, science fiction never claims to predict the future.  Science fiction’s primary purpose, like all forms of fiction, is to entertain.  However, for some SF writers and fans, science fiction can be used as a tool to speculate about the future, and for those aficionados, The Black Swan is a book they will want to read.  Personally, I think science fiction is at a turning point – at a cusp – like when a religion turns from revelation to dogma.  Much of the skeptical knowledge that Taleb chronicles in his book has been around for centuries, but I think he produces a new synthesis that should be required reading for anyone who likes to make claims about reality or the future.

A black swan, as proposed by Taleb, is a major event that surprises everyone, usually one that shakes up the status quo, but is quickly rationalized in the public’s mind as an event that should have been foreseen.   9/11 is the perfect example of a black swan.  It’s so obvious after the fact, that terrorists could do massive damage with hijacked airliners that we should have made airplanes hijacker proof long ago.  But we didn’t.  The black swan is the metaphor that Taleb uses as a central focus to show off a lifetime of meditation and research about the problem of predicting the future.

I think all truly ambitious science fiction writers want to imagine a black swan, either getting the jump on a real one, or just conjuring up a fictional black swan that will dazzle the minds of their readers.  Just think, if back in 1898 Martians had really invaded Earth before H. G. Wells wrote his famous novel, what a tremendous black swan that would have been.  Think about Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, and the idea of cold sleep mixed with investments, that would have made a stunning black swan.  Science fiction is all about imaginary black swans.

Taleb’s day job is finance, an industry unlike science fiction, that bets the farm on predicting the future.  When science fiction writers speculate on the future they have nothing to lose but their writing reputations.  However, and this might be a narrative fallacy on my part, science fiction as a general concept also has a reputation to protect.  Sad to say, I feel in the mundane world of the well educated, science fiction has been judged to be no more than a fun toy for children or a literary outlet for nutty thinkers.

Again, I point out that science fiction seldom tries predicting the actual future.  You can judge science fiction with other crystal ball readers but that would be unfair.  However, we can critique science fiction on how creatively it speculates, by how accurate SF writers develop their “if this goes on” stories.  We know Wall Street, backed by armies of specialists and trillions of dollars, usually does a mediocre job for handling future scenarios.  That’s the focus of Taleb’s book, explaining why they do such a abysmal job.  The Black Swan makes it very clear how hard it is to speculate about the future and why.

So how does a field like science fiction composed of self-educated wild idea writers do?  Robert A. Heinlein’s first story, “Life-Line” is about an inventor who builds a machine that predicts how long people will live, illustrating how science fiction sometimes entertains the idea of predicting the future.  Heinlein’s early career was even built around his “Future History” stories.  Reading those stories now in his collection “The Past Through Tomorrow” shows how terrible he did as a pre-cog, but like I keep saying, that’s not the point.  We don’t have rolling roads, the first Moon landing wasn’t financed by a rich man, and people don’t hang out in bars on the Moon or inside space stations.  But men did land on the Moon.

I guessed that there’s been a million science fiction stories, but most short stories and novels usually contain dozens if not hundreds of imagined ideas about the future.  It’s like all these SF writers are firing shotguns at the future, each load a scattershot of ideas, and with the hope that maybe one tiny pellet might hit it’s mark occasionally.  The big black swan success of science fiction was the Apollo landings on the Moon.  Without wild eyed Sci-Fi visionaries it’s doubtful the idea of spending billions to send someone to the Moon would have occurred to the average human.  Now is that a narrative fallacy on my part that I see science fiction giving birth to the Apollo program way back when?

Space travel was the black swan science fiction has been predicting regularly since Jules Verne.  I think we can also give science fiction credit for robots, but what else?  And how many black swans has science fiction missed?  A common complaint against science fiction is it didn’t predict the impact of the computer on society, especially micro computers and the Internet.  A world strangled by terrorism was imagined by John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar.  Zanzibar is definitely not our world, but reading it you realize that it is possible to get pretty damn close at times.  

With hindsight, we can look backwards and make lame comparisons to all kinds of science fictional ideas and compare them to the present, such as Star Trek communicators and cell phones, or find it amusing that Jules Verne had his first lunar mission blasting off from Florida, of course his astronauts really blasted off, as in a canon shell!

Collective, the majority of science fiction stories have been predicting a black swan for over a hundred years now, and that’s the idea that space travel will transform humanity.  For almost fifty years, the narrative fallacy that I’ve personally pursued is space travel if our destiny.  Now I have to wonder if space civilizations are just stillborn black swans.  Do I just suffer doubt and impatience, or am I feeling the reality of skepticism?

To understand the idea of narrative fallacy imagine you are sleeping near an open window and you hear the bushes rustle.  Paranoid people will automatically think, “Oh my god, it’s a burglar.”  Other people might yell out, “Hey Rusty, is that you?” thinking it might be the neighbor’s cat, or some other pet.  Now it could be a raccoon or other varmint common to the neighborhood.  Some people might even worry it’s a vampire, ghost or evil spirit.  Depending on our personality and past experiences, our brains will instantly provide a narrative for the sound outside.  Few people go, “Why listen to the bushes, what a pleasant sound they make.”

Science fiction writers hear the bushes rustle and write, “The time traveler unfortunately popped into our space-time coordinates that were the same as my big holly bush” or “A tiny flying saucer from Betelgeuse must have crashed landed in the hedge just outside my bedroom window – I’m sure nothing else could have made that sound.”

Another way of looking at the situation, we’re all fiction writers constantly altering our perceived reality with narrative diarrhea, and quite often many of us are science fiction writers extending our speculations into the future, but sadly most of our ideas about reality and unfolding futures are absolutely wrong, if not dangerously delusional.  Sometimes the delusion is harmless, like thinking, “If Ashley will go out with me tonight surely I’ll get laid before the night is over.”  But if you think, “If I bet next week’s paycheck on the game I’ll make enough money to cover a check to Frank for that Mustang he’s selling” then the narrative fallacy could end up hurting you.

What Taleb is telling us in The Black Swan:  “Watch out!  Your thinking can be dangerous!”  A Zen master will have the mental self-control to avoid these all too human habits, but few regular folks do.  Watch the nightly news and try to see how many tragedies occur because people falsely imagined something about reality, or tried to predict the future.

The trouble is, we can’t live without laying down narratives to explain bits of reality or predicting the future.  If we truly tried to “Be Here Now” and not imaginatively interpret reality we’d have minds like cats.  If we avoided predicting the future, we wouldn’t see global warming coming.  Look what’s happening with extreme conservatives.  They have created a narrative where they equate President Obama to Hitler and they fear the U.S. will follow the same path Germany did in the 1930s.  But in my narrative, Germany was taken over by extremely aggressive conservatives that would go to any length to achieve their agenda. 

By Taleb’s accounting, we’re both wrong.  Simple narratives are always wrong in explaining complex realities, and the future can’t be predicted.  This also explains why most science fiction stories fail to imagine situations in the future that eventually come true.  We can’t predict the future, and simplified analogies like Star Trek communicators are like cells phones fail.  In Star Trek, Captain Kirk would open his communicator and say, “Scotty,” and Scotty would instantly reply, “Yes, Captain” as if poor Scotty had to forever sit with communicator in hand waiting for Jim’s call.  We know how cell phones work, and they don’t work that way.

The challenge to science fiction writers who want to speculate about the future and who have read The Black Swan will be to write a new kind of science fiction, one that is well verse in the predicting pitfalls that Taleb describes, but also write fiction skeptical about false narratives.  Science fiction has as many miracles in its history as ancient religions, and its done no better than ancient prophets at seeing the future.  A black swan savvy science fiction writer will have to thoroughly know and understand the mistakes science fiction has made in the past, and be extra wary of making new mistakes, and yet know the odds are still a million to one that he will fail.

Science, especially cosmology and astronomy is progressing so fast that it’s invalidating science fiction faster than it can be written.  Current knowledge about SETI and extra-solar planets kill off any ideas that older civilizations of intelligent beings exist in the core of the galaxy, or that anything living as we are aware of what life can be, could exist anywhere near the core of galaxies.  Our growing knowledge of radiation in the solar system is quickly changing what we can imagine for manned interplanetary space exploration.

In other words, for every imaginary black swan science fiction throws out, science throws out two real black swans.  Taleb focuses on financial black swans, like the recent housing market crash, black swans with massive impacts that are obvious to most citizens because they affect their reality.  Science produces black swans that are profound to scientists that can understand them, but are silent to the silent majority.  What I have to wonder if science hasn’t already killed the imaginary black swan of science fiction that sees the future of humanity living on other planets in our solar system and beyond.

Few people like raw reality, they prefer it with juicy narratives and futures of dazzling possibilities.  Billions embrace an imaginary black swan created two thousand years ago with the spread of Christianity that radically transformed humanity with the heavy concept of a resurrection.  Taleb deals with real black swans, but I see imaginary ones everywhere.

The black swan I’m waiting for is the one where everyone sees reality like Taleb suggests.  We live in a universe without gods, without afterlife, without narrative meaning.  The universe extends infinitely in all dimensional directions, always has, always will, and we are insignificant in relation to it.  Any purpose we find will be defined by ourselves, and as Taleb points out, that purpose is generally delusional, but other than that, we’re lucky beyond all measures of mathematics to be living in such a fantastic reality.  One of my favorite narrative delusions is science fiction can help us imagine reality and the future, like history and science give the illusion of how and why things have been working since the Big Bang.

If I fully embraced Taleb’s Black Swan thesis, I’d have to give up science fiction and live like a Zen Master.  That wouldn’t give me much to blog about.  My mental makeup is more like Robert Wright and his book The Evolution of God – I see purpose in reality, not spiritual evolution maybe, but I can’t wonder about the patterns in reality.  It appears that reality is evolving from chaos to order, but that might be my delusional narrative – it’s easy to see patterns in the infinite foam of reality.  I don’t think all of reality was created for the purpose of producing homo sapiens, but I can’t help wondering if our species is the first to wake up in the infinite foam of multiverse reality.  To me, science fiction’s real purpose is to be the natural philosophy that answers that question.

I’ve written about realistic science fiction before, and people who have read those essays probably think I’m becoming a harpy.  But some science fiction writers love the challenge of writing narratives about real reality and imagining possibilities for the future, and some readers love to read those stories.  That game only gets harder and more challenging, and but then it’s so much more fun.

JWH – 9/20/9   

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