Deep Thought: The Age of Science Fiction

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Deep Thought: The Age of Science Fiction

A science fiction mural on a wall in Texas.

For decades, science fiction writers – most of whom were hard-working pulp writers who used many pseudonyms and wrote everything from noir to Western to romance – imagined futures for humanity. In these varying futures, a vast array of unpleasant outcomes resulted from bad decision-making on the part of human beings.

These pulp writers were, in the main, nice folks, if a little unconventional in their lifestyles and choice of profession. They meant well. Many of them hoped that by reading their imaginary nightmare scenarios, humans would learn to avoid some of the pitfalls of short-term thinking. In other words, they figured people would wise up.

Boy, were they wrong.

I knew we were nearing the End of History before Fukuyama said it. I knew it because I'd come back from a decade-long sojourn in Europe to find the US resembling something written by Philip K Dick, complete with newsclowns and Yancemen. It's only gotten worse since the 1990s.

I heard Isaac Asimov speak once. He was at our campus, and I was on the speaker committee but didn't get to go to the luncheon afterwards because all the other nerds wanted to go, too. We'd happened to snag him on the way from here to there by train: he lived in New York City, which is relatively close to Pittsburgh, but he refused to fly. He had that in common with Ray Bradbury. I think it took NASA to get Bradbury into a plane. I mention all this in order to underscore the point that the prophets of science fiction weren't trying to tell us that they wanted to live in the worlds they depicted: they wanted us to make them go away. (Although Asimov admitted that due to his personal fear of open spaces (he wrote in an enclosed office with the blinds drawn) he personally found 'The Caves of Steel' a very cozy prospect.)

Asimov had been around for quite a while and remembered when atom bombs were science fiction. He told the story about the time the FBI came into the office where he was editor for a science fiction magazine. They demanded that his magazine stop publishing stories about atomic power.

The magazine publishers knew about the Manhattan Project, of course, even if they didn't know its name or the details. They knew the government was working on an atomic bomb. They even knew exactly where they were working on it. How did they know this, you ask? Because they had subscriber lists. Science fiction was a niche interest in the 1940s, and all of a sudden, some hick town in Tennessee has 10,000 subscriptions to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Conclusions were drawn.

'We can't stop writing about atomic power,' Asimov protested to the FBI. They glowered.

'Why the heck not?'

'Because then everybody will know you've got a bomb. It won't be science fiction any more.'

Unsurprisingly, this logic, while actually irrefutable, failed to convince the Feds. So they stopped writing atomic bomb stories, and everybody in the field was in the know, I suppose. At least, that's what the man said. I tend to take writers with a grain of salt. And I won't claim to be the biggest admirer of the author of The Sensuous Dirty Old Man. Just telling you what I heard him say.

What most of these science fiction writers did was to keep an ear to the ground when it came to science and technology. They extrapolated new discoveries into stories based on their understanding of human nature. They figured out what people were most likely to do with new technology, and what problems they would manufacture. Bradbury, an incurable optimist with a romanticised view of the 'good old days', would project the ideal 1950s suburb onto the Martian landscape. Philip K Dick, more realistically, would turn those suburbs into collections of 'hovels' and position his drug-addled colonists in a dystopia where they dreamed of an ideal past that never was. That's why I prefer Dick to Bradbury any stardate of the week.

The days of science fiction are over. These stories have become our daily reality. Don't believe me? This appeared on Twitter today courtesy of anti-trust activist Ron Knox:

Amazon today announced it would pay $1.7 billion to acquire iRobot, the company behind the Roomba robotic vacuum. It may be the most dangerous, threatening acquisition in the company's history.

The most advanced versions of Roomba collect information about your house as they clean. It knows where you keep your furniture, the size of each room and so on. It's a vacuum and a mapping device.

Someone replied, 'They'll also know how much your cat weighs.' Whereupon someone else pointed out that the company would then try to sell you diet cat food. This is funny because it is true.

It's much less fun to figure these things out in real time than it was reading about such problems as hypotheticals. We really should have listened to the science fiction writers.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

15.08.22 Front Page

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