Monday, June 12, 2017

"People Can't Handle The Future": The Truth About Science Fiction

This is a reaction to a question in a cyberpunk writing group, which devolved/evolved into something of a rant on my part.  But ultimately, I think it does offer some insight into at least how some science fiction and fiction generally is written.  Here's the original question:
"I'd like to address the timing of technology and its impact in our fictional worlds. Specifically what I'm referring to is the sequence in which certain technologies are used in fictional worlds. For example, in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy, interactive holograms (he likely uses a different term) aren't uncommon. I specifically remember the English boy Kumiko could summon with the device she carried with her. The boy was a hologram that she could interact with, not physically but verbally.
The point of this post is that unless there has already been breakthrough technological advances in artificial intelligence in the world, this type of technology would be impossible. Therefore, authors are forced to think through what other technologies have been invented and to what extent. Another example, if you include sophisticated nanotechnology in your writings, that opens up a monumental can of worms. Nanotechnology will change everything. So an author is forced to think through what his or her world would be like if nanotechnology has been around 15 years or 50 years. How would that reshape the world? It's mind-bending to conceive it.

I could go on and on and on about this, but I'm curious how much thinking and planning all of you put into your work when deciding how technologies are presented. I mean, if you have interactive holograms, you have sophisticated AI. If you have high-grade AI, what else might be present? Or, what wouldn't be present? How will that change things?"

Gibson himself had no idea how the technology he was describing actually worked. I think I remember him once saying that he imagined that computers, 'Had some sort of Star-Trek crystals inside, not these clunky, mechanical structures.' Also, in Neuromancer, 2062, Case is peddling, "3 megabytes of hot RAM", when a.) that much RAM was already worthless within a few years. b.) Nobody pays money for hot 'RAM' as RAM isn't for data storage of valuable info, but 'random access' during operation.

Gibson basically just walked into an arcade, saw kids totally engrossed in these video game things, trying to reach through a screen, and then imagined that there was a real space behind that screen. Voila, cyberspace.

If anything his genius was in his insights into human beings, and their relationships to each other, their artifacts, and their bodies. I honestly cannot think of a better writer, sci-fi or otherwise. Neuromancer was a masterwork, a biting satire and cautionary tale of Reagan/Thatcher-era economics in a world dominated by 'markets' where 'greed is good' and technology amplifies greed and criminality, with no thought of the human 'meat'.
But the truth is, most of his "science" is a lot of techno-hocus pocus that he found in a magazine or heard in a tech conference, and thought sounded cool, and evocative, so he threw it in some technopoetry.  But what sounds cool and evocative, and insightful and beautiful is not the same as what is technically correct, scientifically accurate, and the way the world really is, or the way the future really will be.  I say this being the most massive William Gibson fan.

And the truth is, if you really, really think things through, and try to draw the most realistic, or at least most technically accurate picture of the future... It will be kind of insanely off-the-wall and people will think you're crazy, or it will be totally boring. Like, who would have predicted in 1985, even 2005, that billions of people around the world would spend huge amounts of time chasing virtual fantasy animals on the street (Pokemon Go) or watching *other people* play video games, and make stupid jokes? That the guy with more views than the biggest Hollywood star, the President or the Pope, would be some Swedish Youtuber screaming and making fart jokes while gaming? No one would buy that book in 1985, in 2005, and probably not even now. But that is cyberspace. Not a bunch of James Bond / Oceans 13 console cowboys hacking the planet in trenchcoats with razorgirls, but people watching each other play video games and act like idiots.

The truth is, people can't handle the future. People don't actually want the future, because it is too weird, too boring, and it tells them something about themself that they don't want to hear. IMHO, District 9 was the best science fiction movie in decades. But it's been mostly forgotten, because it threw in people's faces an ugly reality that an alien contact would probably not be about peace or war, but about the way that we generally treat different races/countries. As objects to be exploited for profit, then abused and discarded when convenient. And D9 didn't have Dwayne Johnson or Scarlet Johanssen or something, and people just couldn't handle that.

Anyway, tangent aside, the point is: don't worry too much about the under-the-hood of your future tech, unless it will actually be interesting to your audience.

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