David Pax


The blog contains some of my thoughts on things like writing, science and how that all works together to affect society.

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.

Kris Butler
Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science fiction is ready for change. At one time science fiction included fiction being written by scientists, but in the later part of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century there is little hard science fiction in the mass market. There are many possible reasons for that, but whatever the causes, there is a need for science fiction to address twenty-first century technological challenges.

There has never been a clear line between true science fiction and science fantasy. Many examples exist of the edges of the genre, but there is a broad middle ground. Arthur C. Clarke is well known as a scientist who wrote science fiction, and where his science blends with speculation it remains grounded in what is known to be possible. This is the way that advanced technologies find their way from the pages of fiction to the hard reality of practical application. Other stories such as George Lucas' Star Wars have never been anything but science fantasy, where classical tales are retold in a setting of wondrous worlds filled with advanced gadgets.

Personally, I enjoy many of the stories told by both Clarke and Lucas. The difference is that Clarke has directly impacted development of current technology, and it is this aspect that is generally missing from current science fiction and fantasy. Science fantasy can tell enjoyable stories, but without a solid grounding in the physical world it will not lead to technological development. And at this time there is a need for stories that help guide technological development.

We are surrounded by devices that have been created or inspired by earlier science fiction. Our computers, tablets, phones, communication systems, vehicles, and entertainment are some of the aspects of our lives that were influenced by hard science fiction. It's hard to imagine real items inspired by most current science fiction stories, though. The worlds we so often see are dressed up in a veneer of advanced technology, but lack a scientific basis. There is nothing wrong with stories that are told strictly as entertainment, unless we expect those tales to impact the way our technology develops.

Writing hard science fiction requires some level of scientific knowledge. Without a background in science it's impossible to create a nuanced story that will affect future technology. It's easy to imagine interesting gadgets, but inspiring new innovations requires understanding how those gadgets might be made to work. At least a basic understanding of energy, for example, is needed to create fictional devices that might one day become real. A hand held communication device with a range of hundreds of miles is not impossible with sensitive enough amplifiers, but a hand held laser capable of slicing entirely through a building in a second is. There is simply too much energy needed, and it would generate too much heat to hold in a hand. There are other issues with the way lasers are portrayed in current science fiction as well, such as the combat effectiveness of a weapon that literally draws a line to the source of the beam. A laser as a point defense emplacement is possible, and could be an effective defense against drones, but a hand held laser would not make an effective weapon.

There is always the question of whether it is important that science fiction inspire new technology. Stories have their own value as fiction, regardless of whether they lead to practical devices or not. Hard science fiction stories offer us a way to discuss technology, the problems it might solve and the issues it might create. All fiction offers us the opportunity to explore our worlds and learn new perspectives, hard science fiction simply offers a venue for conversations about how we interact with technology. As technology continues to develop it becomes more and more important for science fiction to address the cultural implications of new technologies.

Science fiction in the middle of the twentieth century had a focus on mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and the potential new creations that could be developed from those sciences. One measure of time is years Before Physics and After Physics, based on the levels of background radiation before and after the detonations of atomic bombs. Unleashing atomic forces completely changed our world, both in physical ways and social ones. At the same time the level of background radiation was being changed by atomic bombs, semiconductors began to enable new technologies and binary mathematics were moving from the abstract into the real. Humans were reaching into space for the first time, stepping onto our moon just a few decades after practical large rockets were first developed. It was natural for science fiction to imagine where these technologies might go, what they might develop into. The focus on tangible, physical, objects and processes was also natural.

In the early twenty-first century we have grown used to the presence of advanced physical objects, and much of what science fiction imagined in the twentieth century has become routine. Some of these imaginings became practical, such as geosynchronous communication satellites. Others, such as the artificial brains, have been obsoleted by developments in the fields of technologies they imagined. Most of the recent stories about Artificial Intelligence have not been as interesting as the actual developments in the field of AI, or the understanding of the human brain learned through the study of neuroscience. There is no need to imagine things that can be easily purchased at the nearest mall, so the current prevalence of science fantasy over hard science fiction is understandable. To excite readers with ideas of new physical items we have to venture into fantasy, leave the world of the possible behind and imagine things that are not bounded by the physical world. That serves the purpose of entertainment, but does not create science fiction that leads to new technological development.

For science fiction to retake a position of leading technological development it needs to turn to the areas of rapid advancement today. Stories about rockets and atomic power and the potential of computers will not lead to new innovations the way they once did. Stories about advances in engineering, materials, neuroscience, biology, and the social sciences will lead to innovation in the real world. To have relevance these stories must be written with some understanding of the underlying science, so must either be written by scientists or engineers who are already experienced in a subject, or writers willing to study the science. There is an interesting potential for collaboration between scientists and writers as well.

My stories explore these new frontiers of human experience. They present situations where humans interact with technology, and how we will integrate it into our lives. Science fiction is ready for change.

Kris Butler