Samuel R. Delany is a grand master of science fiction. Literally. The Science Fiction Writers of America association named him a Grand Master for lifetime achievement. He’s a gay, African American author who writes fearlessly about sex and race… and the future.
Tagged with “future” (233)
Is it still possible to have a hopeful future vision? Ed Finn directs the Center for Science and the Imagination in Arizona. He says it’s time to change the stories we tell about science. The Center’s Heiroglyph Project pairs sci fi writers with scientists to dream up the next big science project.
Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the "Mars" trilogy, "2312," and "Shaman," has been called our greatest living science fiction writer AND one of the greatest political novelists. He writes post-capitalist page-turners set in the far future and the distant past. We talk with him about the politics of science and the imagination.
Thinking about the future is so hard and so important that any trick to get some traction is a boon.
Adrian Hon’s trick is to particularize.
What thing would manifest a whole future trend the way museum objects manifest important past trends?
Building on the pattern set by the British Museum’s great book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, Hon imagines 100 future objects that would illuminate transformative events in technology, politics, sports, justice, war, science, entertainment, religion, and exploration over the course of this century.
The javelin that won victory for the last baseline human to compete successfully in the Paralympic Games for prosthetically enhanced athletes.
The “Contrapuntal Hack” of 02031 that massively and consequentially altered computerized records so subtly that the changes were undetected.
The empathy drug and targeted virus treatment that set off the Christian Consummation Movement.
Adrian Hon is author of the new book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, and CEO and founder of Six to Start, creators of the hugely successful smartphone fitness game “Zombies, Run!”
His background is in neuroscience at Oxford and Cambridge.
It’s easy to look back at old science fiction and see it as silly. But there are important ideas embedded in those stories that influenced scientists and the way technology developed. Take the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans La Lune or A Trip to the Moon, based on a story by Jules Verne. This 1902 silent movie blasts scientists to the moon in a giant cannon. Claire Evans, editor of the recently rebooted Omni magazine, says Verne was on to something. “He just extrapolated from the technology around him,” she says. “A massive shotgun barrel shoots people into space. That’s not what happened in the real world” of rocketry, but “that essential gesture is correct.”
“A successful science fiction story — or novel, or film — allows its readers to become comfortable with the future, with radical new technologies and ideas before they become commonplace,” she says. “It softens the edge of change.”
Science fiction continued to inspire, even predict, real-world developments. H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, imagined the first atomic bomb in a 1913 short story titled “The World Set Free.” Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also a mathematician who proposed the first geostationary satellite in a 1945 scientific technical paper. Astrophysicist and science fiction author David Brin remembers, “There was a period during the space race when suddenly science fiction authors were very much in vogue — when they were on the platforms next to Walter Cronkite and talking about the future of civilization and where we were going to go next.”
But as society became more cynical, so did science fiction. In the 1980s, writers imagined addictive digital fantasy worlds long before the web existed. “Cyber-punk was the first science fiction movement to really understand that science and technology weren’t separate from us,” Evans explains. Or as the science fiction writer Frederik Pohl once said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam.”
Talking about building an interstellar space ship makes you sound like a sci-fi fan who’s lost touch with the real world. Unless you’re Mae Jemison, a former astronaut — the first African-American woman in space. Then you might legitimately wonder, “How in the hell do you get to another star system?”
Jemison actually needs to answer that question; she’s the head of 100 Year Starship, an organization the home page of which boldly commands, “Let’s make human interstellar travel capabilities a reality within the next hundred years.”
“That time frame is reasonable, why?” she asks rhetorically. “If you said ten years — ‘Nah, we know that’s not long enough.’ If you said 500 years, people would say, ‘I can kick back for another two to three hundred years because I don’t have to worry about it.’ One hundred years is close enough."
The problem: space is big, and our current rocket technology isn’t cutting it. “If you’re travelling with technology we can already conceive, like say the Voyager spacecraft, it’s going to take about 80,000 years to travel a distance to our nearest neighboring star," says Marc Millis, the head of the Tau Zero Foundation. “And it is going 0.00006 times the speed of light.” Nuclear-powered spacecraft might go much faster, and have their proponents, but are politically and environmentally dangerous: no one wants to risk a nuclear meltdown during liftoff.
The heads of yet another interstellar organization, Starship Century, think they are on the right track. James Benford is president of a company that does microwave research; his identical twin brother Gregory is an astrophysicist at the University of California, Irvine. The Benfords make a strong case for a technology right out of a science fiction novel. The technology is the beam sail, and the book is Rocheworld, written by Robert Forward in 1982. “[It’s] a very solid scientific concept for a starship,” James says.
A beam sail is like a regular sail — “envision it as a giant umbrella, maybe 100 meters across,” says Gregory — pushed with microwave beams, instead of wind, to extremely high speeds. Beam sails are still in the experimental phase, and far more tests will be necessary on Earth and in space before we know if they can propel an object across the galaxy. Even Jemison admits that the hundred-year estimate is kind of a tease — it’s more about figuring out the physics than building the Enterprise.
But Gregory Benford likes to remind us of how greatly we underestimate the pace of change. “Thomas Jefferson said in 1812 that it will take 1,000 years for the republic to reach the Pacific. He never envisioned that 57 years later, a train would run all the way to San Francisco.”
What does today’s sci-fi mean for our real-life future? Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson argues that it’s time to get over our love of dystopia. A class at MIT searches sci-fi classics for technologies they can invent right now, although maybe they shouldn’t. Geoengineers take a tip from Carl Sagan – who saw a green future for Mars – to see if we can save Earth. And we meet some scientists who think that if we ever want to see the stars, we’d better start building the starship.
In 1990, the federal government invited a group of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers to the New Mexico desert, to visit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. They would be there on assignment.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the nation’s only permanent underground repository for nuclear waste. Radioactive byproducts from nuclear weapons manufacturing and nuclear power plants. WIPP was designed not only to handle a waste stream of various forms of nuclear sludge, but also more mundane things that interacted with radioactive materials, such as tools and gloves.
WIPP, which is located deep in the New Mexico desert, was designed to store all of this radioactive material and keep us all safe from it.
Eventually, WIPP will be sealed up and left alone. Years will pass and those years will become decades. Those decades will become centuries and those centuries will roll into millennia. People above ground will come and go. Cultures will rise and fall. And all the while, below the surface, that cave full of waste will get smaller and smaller, until the salt swallows up all those oil drums and entombs them. Then, all the old radioactive gloves and tools and little bits from bombs –all still radioactive– will be solidified in the earth’s crust for more than 200,000 years. Basically forever.
Here’s a reading of a short story I wrote for the July, 2014 issue of Wired UK in the form of a news dispatch from the year 2024 — specifically, a parliamentary sketch from a raucous Prime Minister’s Question Time where a desperate issue of computer security rears its head:
Quick: what do all of these have in common: your gran’s cochlear implant, the Whatsapp stack, the Zipcar by your flat, the Co-Op’s 3D printing kiosk, a Boots dispensary, your Virgin thermostat, a set of Tata artificial legs, and cheap heads-up goggles that come free with a Mister Men game?
If you’re stumped, you’re not alone. But Prime Minister Lane Fox had no trouble drawing a line around them today during PMQs in a moment that blindsided the Lab-Con coalition leader Jon Cruddas, who’d asked about the Princess Sophia hacking affair. Seasoned Whitehall watchers might reasonably have expected the PM to be defensive, after a group of still-anonymous hackers captured video, audio and sensitive personal communications by hijacking the Princess’s home network. The fingerpointing from GCHQ and MI6 has been good for headlines, and no one would have been surprised to hear the PM give the security services a bollocking, in Westminster’s age-old tradition of blame-passing.
Nothing of the sort. Though the PM leaned heavily on her cane as she rose, she seemed to double in stature as she spoke, eyes glinting and her free hand thumping the Dispatch Box: "The Princess Sophia affair is the latest installment in a decades-old policy failure that weakened the security of computer users to the benefit of powerful corporations and our security services. This policy, the so-called ‘anti-circumvention’ rules, have no place in an information society.
From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to George Orwell’s 1984 to Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning Her, artists have imagined what the future will look like. In this week’s episode, Kurt Andersen explores how science fiction has shaped the world we’re living in right now. The inventor of the cell phone gives credit to Star Trek’s communicator; International Space Station superstar Chris Hadfield explains the ups and downs of space; and science writer Carl Zimmer says the giant sandworms of Dune got him interested in life on Earth. And we answer the age old question: where’s my flying car?
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