One of the least avoidable dangers of writing about future worlds in science fiction is missing the technological revolution that’s just around the corner. Certainly, it’s equally easy to forecast a technology that never arrives, but that doesn’t date the story. A story written in the 1930’s with flying cars can still feel like the future, but one that leaves out computers is fatally dated.
Missing the Call…
The most glaring example of this that I’ve run into in recent memory was Connie Willis’ 1992 “The Doomsday Book”. It is an excellent novel and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It involves some time travel back to medieval England from the year 2054. It wasn’t the time travel that bothered me though, since that still feels like future-tech. No, what kept throwing me out of this future world of 2054 was that they had no mobile phones.
Certainly, they had advanced video phones, but all of them were tied to landlines. Normally, a little thing like this would have been easily ignored if it remained in the background, but it had a significant impact on the plot. Specifically, characters were trying to get hold of one another, and they kept missing each other because one or another was away from their desk or office when the call arrived. Not being able to get hold of various people was rapidly escalating into a life and death situation. I even recall one scene where someone is told to wait by the phone no matter what. Really – glued to the landline!
When I read it five or six years ago, I’d had a mobile phone for eight years or so, and in that time, they had already gone from miniature bricks that businessmen carried to the early smart phones that were well on their way to becoming ubiquitous. Now mobile phones are everywhere, from grandmothers to African bushmen, and it’s only been twenty years since Willis’ book was released. The notion of not being able to get hold of someone in an emergency because they’re away from their desk now seems ludicrous.
In fairness, it’s hard to fault Willis. In 1992, mobile phones really were bricks, and they were most common as car phones. Even then, they were idle toys for the rich or politically connected, not everyday tools for the common man. It wasn’t just that the technology got so much better so quickly. It’s that the demand that wasn’t there at all in 1992 became rampant in just a decade.
A Fleet of Missed Boats
But Willis is not alone in having missed out on the shape of technologies around the corner. Plenty of authors in the 1960’s familiar with room-sized computers completely missed the desktop computer that arrived just ten to fifteen years later. While several authors in the 60’s and 70’s talked about computers networked together, I don’t think many (or any) of them foresaw the massive peer-to-peer impact that the web has had on personal communications. And I think most everyone missed the pending collapse of the Soviet Union pretty much right up to summer of 1989.
Are We Forever Doomed?
So where does that leave us now? What technological revolutions are just around the corner waiting to mock today’s science fiction writers? Are we on the verge of common and effective anti-viral treatments, i.e. no more common cold, influenza, or AIDS? Are computer implants about to become not only possible but turn into the mobile phone of the next generation? Are we about to get that peace-loving world government, not through war or democratic revolution, but through that unexpected philosophy to be named later?
This is pretty hard to guess at because not getting caught by the unexpected revolution means guessing not just one thing but all things. Miss one life-changing advancement and your story could be like Connie Willis’ with everyone playing phone tag, afraid to get up from their desks. With possibly changes looming in computers, genetics, medicine, politics and more, it’s hard to know where to jump. Certainly, you can jump too far without much penalty since your flying car will be either commonplace or still futuristic, but if you don’t jump far enough in the right direction, you might start looking foolish in just a few years.
This might seem to be an endorsement of some variation on “the coming Sigularity”, but it’s not. I’ll talk about that in more detail next week, but for now I’m going to say that yes, this kind of guesswork is hard now, but it’s always been hard. It was hard for writers back in the 50’s, just as it was hard when Connie Willis missed mobile phones in 1992. Probably the biggest thing that’s changed in the last 60 years on this front is that now we have a real appreciation for how hard this kind of guesswork is.
But still, any tips for the future would be nice. What life-changing advance is waiting around the corner, hoping to make me look foolish in twenty years? I’d like to beat it if I can, but even if I can’t, at least I’ll be in good company.