Can science fiction still inspire the future?
Just after World War II, science fiction helped define the new era of physics and technology that emerged from the ashes of global civilization. Hard science fiction helped describe the potential of space, with real technolgy such as communication satellites developing out of fictional stories. Other stories may not have been scientifically accurate, but helped people emotionally process the implications of all the new technology surrounding them.
As technology developed more and more science fiction concepts into real products, hard science ficion started to fall aside. Science fantasy still offered the same emotional release, and became more prevalent as the range of underlying fears grew from older themes such as technological obsolesence to include modern themes such as nuclear apocalypse, digital privacy, and climate change.
cience fantasy serves an important way for people to process their deep emotional responses to technology, just as fairy tales did for the unknown in previous generations. Inspiring the future, though, takes both an emotional resonance and technical accuracy. One reason there have been fewer hard science fiction stories in recent years is that the stories based on physics and chemistry have less emotional resonance as the devices that were once imaginary have become real. In the mid 1940's a “two-way wrist radio” in the Dick Tracy comic strip was imaginitive and futuristic, especially since it was introduced to the strip about a year before the first transistor. Today we use technology with millions of transistors every day, including devices with more features than Dick Tracy could have imagined. The emotional resonance of defeating crime is still relevant, even though the technology has become commonplace, so it is easy to see why science fantasy has become more prevalent than hard science fiction.
Modern technology is one of incremental improvement, not the rapid large advances of the last century. Smart device apps come out every day, but they cannot provide the technological change that the transistor created, and the transistor itself did not provide the same level of quality-of-life improvements that indoor plumbing provided just a few decades before. Technological advancement shifting to incremental from revolutionary also drives science fantasy. Expectations of the same sort of rapid large changes seen in the past century are inevitably going to be disappointed, creating an emotional resonance with fantastic stories about possible future worlds.
In a world where exciting large advances in technology have given way to incremental changes, is there still room for science fiction to inspire the future? The answer is yes, though with different sciences than last century. Physics and chemistry have given us their large changes. There will be many new discoveries and developments in both fields, but they will not change quality-of-life the way that chlorinated and fluoridated water, pumped to every home, already has. For science fiction to inspire the future requires turning to the sciences that are not as well developed today, such as social sciences, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.
Imagination is a double-edged sword. There are times when our imagination drives us forward, but there are also times when it holds us back. There are many times when we imagine a future that is an extension of our past and present, missing the more complex and subtle reality as the future develops. This is where science fantasy falls short. Many times science fantasy retells olds stories with a technological setting, missing the opportunity to tell a new story. The new story is where science fiction must venture, capturing the hard science as we understand it and considering what it really might mean to future humans. Echoing our fears of the future does nothing to help us live there. Science fiction today has the opportunity to lead human understanding of how we live in a technological world, just as in the last century it lead the understanding of the technologies.
Jules Verne wrote in 1863 of future streets lit by underground wires, and vehicles carrying passengers. In 1863 neither the incandescent lamps nor a functional internal combustion engine existed. He wrote about air independent power for submarines in 1870, thirty years before the USS Holland became the first US commissioned submarine, and more than eighty years before SSN-571 was named Nautilus after the submarine in his story. Verne also made errors in prediction, such as the use of a gun to launch a capsule to the moon. All of the physical technologies Verne worte about have now come to pass, or have been tested and replaced with more workable ideas. The stories we need are not about flying cars or submarines, but about how the human mind will adapt to a future it never evolved to meet, and how we as humans will shape our own evolutionary path.
There are exciting stories to tell, stories that will inspire the future. Just as Verne was not afraid to describe a future that was foreign to his contemporaries, so we must explore where science takes us, wherever they may lead.