I remember several years ago, probably in 2008, driving through a construction zone on a highway, and getting off at a ramp and reading the sign: “Pardon the Inconvenience. Ramp Reconstruction and Improvement Project to Be Completed in Spring of 2010.” I recall greatly that vertiginous feeling that came not just from another realization of how old I was (or the fact that I drove this route often enough that I was facing years of minor irritation), but at how “2010” once seemed like the far end of science fiction, a distant and gleaming year where everything was different. It was supposed to herald interstellar travel, not a slightly wider off-ramp.
Of course, that’s a common complaint. People always like to say, “It’s 2014, where’s my flying car?” This will only get worse next year, on the year that Marty McFly landed when he went 30 years into the future. There’ll be a spate of articles about what was right and what was wrong. Even now, we’re being bombarded with the invention of a hovercraft – here’s one that doesn’t really move and only costs $10,000! (It’s still really cool, though). This misses something, however. Even ignoring just how dangerous flying cars would be – we don’t really want to give texting drivers a third axis with which to collide with us – it misses that our smartphones and mobile technology are far cooler than predicted by all but the most outlandish science fiction writers.
Sci-fi and Smartphones: Dystopian vs. Pretty Cool
One thing that most Sci-Fi writers (with some notable exceptions, discussed below) have in common is distinct pessimism. Things in the future are pretty much always bad, or at least disturbing. This makes sense, of course, if only for narrative convenience. Utopian stories can be fun, but they get pretty boring in the absence of conflict. Stories of a dark future tend to read much better.
This darkness can come from a permanent underclass left behind by technological marvels, a dark and hungry Malthusian overcrowding, a world run by machines, or some combination. But it often just depends on our reliance on machines and screens to the exclusion of other life. Maybe the most famous example of this is the Ray Bradbury classic Fahrenheit 451. It is often remembered as simply being anti-book, but it is more than that. Bradbury wasn’t as concerned with censorship as he was concerned with our gentle acquiescence to it, smoothed over by an addiction to glowing screens. This article does a great job of running down parallels, highlighted by this quote:
“Nobody listens anymore. I can’t talk to the walls because they’re yelling at me, I can’t talk to my wife; she listens to the walls. I just want someone to hear what I have to say.”
Huge screens, omnipresent earbuds, constantly paying attention to nothing: it seems pretty familiar. Now, as loathe as I am to disagree with the great man – and he was a truly great man and wonderful writer; any chapter in A Martian Chronicles puts anything I’ve ever written to shame – but I don’t think he took into account how our smartphones could make education and interaction more ubiquitous. Yes, there are always going to be people talking inanely into their phones or walking into traffic because they are more concerned with their music, but those people would be yammering at something else or finding another reason not to pay attention, whether they had a smartphone or not. It’s human nature.
Human nature is also about curiosity, though, and smartphones and tablets are maybe the greatest tools ever at indulging that curiosity. I am still a physical book reader, but recognize that I can’t pick up a book on Beethoven and touch the page and hear one of his majestic symphonies. Yes, I can play it, but I might not have all the records. What does, though, is my smartphone. And I can say, “play the Seventh,” and it will.
Bradbury vs. Star Trek
That’s what Bradbury didn’t take into account. That yes, we enjoy being stupefied every once in a while, maybe even often. And there is a case for us being lulled out of paying attention to disease, war, and economic inequality by big screens and fun things. That’s almost certainly true. But he failed to see that the ability to transmit information can eventually prove stronger than those that wish to prevent it being transmitted.
Who didn’t, though, was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. He fully believed that technology could bring out the best in human nature, and that we would use it for good, to find new planets and be a peaceful, unified species. The amount of stuff he predicted – holodeck, health applications, communication devices – seems incredibly prescient for a show that also once had Tribbles.
I think that goes to show something important. I am incredibly pessimistic about a lot of things, including nuclear war. But humans can surprise you with their curiosity and creativity. As I write this, the European Space Association is still glowing from having just landed a probe on a comet. When writing science fiction, it might be good to err away from the terrible and on the side of incredible.