Sunday, October 28, 2012

Of Science Fiction and Futurology

Science fiction writers have often displayed a propensity to downplay the extent to which the genre makes predictions about the future. (To name a recent instance William Gibson did it again in Wired in September.)

There are good reasons for this. A writer's purpose in producing a piece of fiction is much more likely to be the creation of art or the presentation of an entertainment than writing a manual to life at some future date. Serious guesswork about, for instance, life in 2050 might be secondary to what they are doing, or even incidental. They may also wish to distance themselves from the opprobrium some have directed at futurology.

Yet, in the process they sometimes exaggerate the distance between the two endeavors. The truth is that science fiction writers often ask the same questions as futurologists, and often arrive at the same answers. (After all, "extrapolation," labeled by John Campbell but long preceding him, is at the heart of the harder types of science fiction.) In the course of their work they often look at, and draw on, what their counterparts on the other side of the line have done, science fiction writers referencing futurology, futurologists drawing inspiration from science fiction, for a very long time now. (Looking at Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, for instance, the influence of predictions about aerial warfare by the military theorists of his day is very apparent in the book's often-denigrated early chapters.) And many try their hand at both games successfully (science fiction writers from H.G. Wells to Vernor Vinge becoming accomplished futurists).

Given this relationship it would seem natural that if one of these is stagnant, so is the other, and that has indeed been my impression. There is a wide, though apparently not dominant, view that science fiction has fallen short in the ideas department in recent years. (As Charles Stross recently noted, all we have to show for the last three decades in this respect is radical hard science fiction and the Singularity, both rather well-worn at this point.) It seems to me that futurology, too, has been short on ideas for many years now, evident all across the spectrum from optimistic techno-libertarianism, to pessimistic eco-catastrophism. The former shows little sign of innovation, which has tapered off since the boom in Singularitarian thought during the 1990s. (Since then we have tended to see the same names, the same ideas, those of Vinge and Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec and company cited over and over and over again rather than the production of original, compelling arguments for this idea – as demonstrated in Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler's rather tepid Abundance.) The same goes for the latter. (While ably describing our problems, it has great difficulty describing how the plausible technical solutions might actually be implemented.)

These failings, in turn, point to still larger failures in our intellectual life. The technical frontiers appear to be the same one we've been looking at for decades, except that our prospects for conquering them seem more modest than in, say, the years of the tech boom. Meanwhile, there is a distinct lack of imaginative daring among our thinkers on social and political matters. And it is not only readers of science fiction who are noticing. When the hand on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock moved one minute forward this month, Kennette Benedict, the magazine's executive director, cited the lack of "new thinking" as a factor.

In short, this problem is much, much bigger than the doldrums of a single literary genre.

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