The future, but not all at once
Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 9:00PM

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

So begins William Gibson's Neuromancer. It's the best opening line in all of literature, and if you say otherwise, I will fight you. With Imagist parsimony, it perfectly conjures a polluted, fallen world in which everything is mediated by technology and nothing is quite real; but it also throws into sharp relief a problem that is pervasive to science fiction. Gibson's novel is the first of a trilogy that features an array of technologies that, in 2013, are still science-fiction: implanted brain-to-computer virtual reality interfaces; affordable commercial space-flight; private orbital habitations; weakly godlike artificial intelligence; and, for the 0.0001%, technologically mediated quasi-immortality. Some of it is clearly on its way, some of it is decades off, or more, and some of it will eventually fall into the limbo reserved for the technically feasible but, in practice, unmarketable. (I mean seriously, who wants a piece of technology that can’t be upgraded without a general anæsthetic?) And yet, in the first line of the book, the first technology referred to is analogue broadcast television, which, by 2013, you can't even get any more. Hell, broadcasting in general is still lumbering along, but everyone can see it's got one foot in the tarpit. Before the technologies Gibson depicts become feasible, if not real, there will be a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the book with an endnote that explains to readers born before 2008 what television tuned to a dead channel looked like.

For the benefit of younger readers, this is what it looks like. Image licensed CC-BY-NC-SA smokeghost 2012.

At least, I hope they do that, rather than update the line to;

The sky above the port was the colour of that bit at the beginning of HBO shows that makes VLC glitch out because it can't be compressed.

This isn't really science fiction's fault. The trouble with research is that it tends to focus on stuff we don't yet know how to do; which makes it rather difficult to predict what we're basically on the right track with. There are some areas where, if we keep feeding the research machine EPSRC grants and turning the crank, commercialisable products will come out the other end. There are others where it’s going to take us another couple of decades to just figure out that we've been asking entirely the wrong questions in the first place. Yes, Most Of The History Of Artificial Intelligence, I’m looking at you.

Unfortunately, we seldom have foreknowledge of which is which.

Of course, this can actually be an asset from the point of view of the science fiction writer. Even if we could predict the future, the story with the most accurate predictions is not necessarily the best book. In the meanwhile, having plenty of free parameters to fiddle with gives us lots of options as to what stories we want to tell. Much far-future science-fiction assumes a world in which we have figured out both how to get fermions and bosons to slip past the relativistic limit, so that not only can we pop over to have dinner with our friends on Tau Ceti, we can call ahead to tell them to set another place at the table. On the other hand, we can tell quite different kinds of story if we’ve only figured out faster-than-light travel for big chunks of stuff we can strap exotic engines to, in which case the only way of keeping Facebook’s servers on Earth and Gliese 581g in sync is to strap some exotic engines onto a great big SSD, and send it back and forth, creating a galaxy that is in some sense a reversion to the communications world of the 18th Century, in which the fastest way to get a letter across the world was to put it on the fastest ship. On the other hand, we could come up with a whizzy faster-than-light particle with which data can be sent across interstellar distances fast enough for Skype, and with which digital representations of our minds, bodies, and the things we need to live, can be transmitted to fabricators, cloning tanks and the like on worlds we wish to colonise. Actually getting the first wave of equipment to other star-systems, however, is going to involve some poor shmucks going the long way round, living, pairing off, raising kids and dying in deep space, all in the hope that their great great great great great grandchildren will get to staff the first Genius Bar on Alpha Centauri.

Of course, whatever choices we make in concocting science fiction worlds, the key to getting readers to buy it is consistency - just as it is with writing fantasy, or for that matter, realist fiction. This is all well understood. What is perhaps less appreciated is that the creative possibilities inherent in science fiction lie not only in what technologies you allow your imagined futures, but also in what technologies you deny them.



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