Perhaps sparked by recent news of 3D photocopiers and the like, I’ve been thinking about SF and new technologies. One of the things you often hear people say these days is that science fiction is in danger of being overtaken by the sheer pace of advancements in science and technology. People were saying similar things too when I wrote my Shoal trilogy. It’s an understandable refrain, particularly when the news is now filled with reports about downloadable blueprints for building guns with those same 3D printers. The feeling that you’re living in a world co-scripted by John Varley and John Brunner tends to grow when you take a quick scan through any number of online news sites and discover front-page features on exoplanets, life extension, and NASA research into Alcubierre drives. It might seem that in the face of such remarkable advances, science fiction might no longer be as relevant as it once was, reality having in many respects caught up with it. You might think that, but you would be wrong.
When I wrote my more recent sixth novel, Final Days (set primarily in the 23rd Century), I had people using contact lenses with integrated circuitry that allowed you to do all kinds of fancy things. But even while I was writing that book, I knew such technologies were going to be around a great deal sooner than two hundred years from now. I figured something like those lenses would hit the shops by the 2030s at the earliest, or maybe a little later. Boy, was I wrong. They’re already here, in beta form at least, and they’re called Google Glasses. How, then, to write about the future, when the present has this irritating habit of catching up with you almost before you’ve finished writing?
It’s worth remembering, however, that so long as science fiction has existed, it has found itself in a world dominated by constant technological and scientific flux. That feeling, for many writers of speculative fiction, of the carpet constantly slipping from underneath their feet is, in fact, nothing new, and it was as present on the day the first issue of Astounding, printed on cheap pulp paper, rolled off the presses way back in the 1920s as it is now.
Remember that science fiction is both an epiphenomenon and a response to the accelerating rate of technological advancement. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment had already taken steps towards radically revising our understanding of how the universe works. Her most famous novel was partly inspired by experiments in which dead tissue appeared to be reanimated - to be galvanised - into unholy life by the application of an electric current. It’s rightly known as the first science fiction novel because it’s a response to both the threat and the promise of such experiments.
Let’s jump forward, now, to most of a century after the writing of that novel. We’re in the early decades of the 20th Century. If you’d asked the people reading the early sf magazines of the time such as Astounding what kind of world they lived in, they might well have said it was one with strongly science-fictional elements. It may have been a world lacking either jetpacks or working rocket ships, but within a short span of time it had seen the arrival of heavier-than-air flying machines, telephone communications systems spanning the globe, enormous ironclad killing machines roaming the world’s battlefields, and cinema screens that carried entertainment and propaganda in equal measure into the minds of millions. The skylines of cities in America and all around the globe were already being transformed into skyscraper-dominated canyons.
Most of those early SF fans were born about the same time that both radio and the first flying machines had come screaming into most people’s awareness with all the thudding impact, one must imagine, of a Martian war machine crashing into the English countryside. Had those early fans, then, worried that reality might be outpacing science fiction? If they did, history proved them wrong, and the genre only grew from strength to strength with the passing of the years.
But here’s a funny thing. Even such initially remarkable-seeming technologies eventually fade into the background. One day they’re just ‘there’ - an invisible part of the everyday, humdrum world we share. When I sit on an international flight, I’m not thinking about how the jumbo jet represents a fantastical vision for the people of a century ago. I’m thinking about the inflight menu, and whether I want to finish the novel I’m reading.
That’s at least partly because giant flying machines have always been present in my life, but the same can’t be said of the internet. I was alive long before it became an intrinsic part of my daily life, and yet I cannot remember what the hell I did to pass the time before it arrived. I know that when I was a student, or when I was unemployed, and in my teens before that, I must have done something to pass the time. I definitely read books, and taught myself to play guitar, or hung out with friends (when I could find them at any rate - how the hell did I do that without a mobile phone?). Now an internet connection seems as intrinsic and necessary part of my life as electric lighting and running water. Did something so science fictional prove a threat to the continued survival of a genre that had largely, if not entirely, failed to predict its arrival?
Well, of course it didn’t. What happened instead was that our shared definition of what we mean by ‘futuristic’ or ‘science fictional’ got up and shifted its goal posts to accommodate the new reality, same as it ever has. It’s not harder to write sf in a fast-changing world. In some ways, it’s actually easier. New scientific developments, new theories and new or nascent technologies help generate newer, fresher ideas that lead to new storytelling opportunities. Science fiction is not endangered by change; it is a necessary part of that change, our public and vocal response to technology and what it means for the way we live our lives. Fiction is, after all, at heart about people. And that means science fiction is by definition about the ways in which people’s lives are changed by science and our expanded understanding of how the universe works, regardless of whether or not the science or technology within those stories are invented.
A case in point: I believe that Google Glasses - or rather, the more streamlined and less visible technologies that will soon supersede them - will, along with 3D printing, bring about a major societal ground shift in the next couple of decades. The story telling opportunities within such technologies are boundless. What could be more exciting than trying to figure out what the world will look like once such technologies become commonplace? Yes, there are some who might choose to regard such changes with trepidation, but I prefer to look forward with anticipation. Even the core image of sf, that of men in space suits exploring other worlds, is gaining new life with the constant flood of exoplanet discoveries. How could we, as human beings, not imagine what it would be like to go out there and see those worlds with our own eyes? Imagination, after all, is not limited by the speed of light.
Here’s one thing I can tell you for certain. One of these days, when you and I are old and grey, we will look around our kitchens at our desktop 3D printer, while a traffic report floats magically before our eyes as if suspended in the air, and realise we can’t remember what it was like before these things came into our lives. And when that day comes, there will undoubtedly be new inventions and discoveries in the world we can’t yet imagine, but will nonetheless change the world as fundamentally and completely as the internet has. And, I guarantee you, we will be writing stories about them.
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Gary Gibson’s Shoal trilogy consists of Stealing Light, Nova War and Empire of Light . Alongside this are his stand-alones, Angel Stations and Against Gravity and finally Marauder, set in the same universe as his Shoal books, but much further into the future.