The future is going to be different than today in ways we can’t entirely predict. Countless possibilities stretch out before us as science continues to advance in multiple fields. We can make educated guesses about those possibilities and when they’ll become realities, but there are hurdles in the way that prevent us from knowing exactly which paths will open up and when. Over the course of human history we’ve seen this pattern repeat time and time again. Breakthroughs are made all the time and cause fundamental changes overnight, like the creation of gunpowder, the discovery of electricity, or the invention of antibiotics. And the funny thing is, because a lot of these breakthroughs can be due to chance, we really can’t be absolutely sure when and how these changes will come.
There are people who work towards these sorts of breakthroughs for a living, however, and they’ll often tell us where they think things will be going. Someone working in the development of artificial intelligence will have some pretty convincing arguments about when an artificial superintelligence might be created. Someone involved in fusion research will have a credible sounding prediction of when their reactors might be able to power our civilization. And every once in a while NASA will drop us some interesting pictures that make us wonder if they’re trying to tell us something.
As speculative fiction writers, one of the fun things is to take ideas like this and run with them as far as we can. You’ll find few people who get as fascinated with the idea of technological singularities as scifi authors. And, while a lot of us may have a looser definition of what this singularity may be than academic communities, most people who are concerned with this world changing event base their stories in some aspect of modern scientific understanding. Even in instances where we hand-wave it away, there’s a respect for science involved. For as ridiculously implausible as most FTL concepts are, for example, they exist because someone realizes that FTL would be a game changer in a universe far more vast than we once realized. In fact, even without going faster than light, there are a lot of technologies related to space travel that get scifi authors and fans really excited. Yet, in the modern discourse, there are a lot of people who have a hard time understanding just how important space can be for us down here on Earth.
Images of the future are often polarized along pretty extreme lines. Dystopias and utopias dominate the landscape in science fiction because they’re often thought to be the easiest to write and easiest to deliver a message. The world within a dystopia can be used to magnify today’s problems to be easier to see while the world within a utopia can often highlight issues we don’t see in our daily lives. But the truth is that they’re not nearly as easy to write as people often think and a lot of attempts fall short of the overall mark. Dystopias, in particular, are generally derived from each other and have become attached to tropes rather than genuine ideas. And utopias, as I’ve established not too long ago, are generally the improper labeling of a superficial analysis of what turns out to be post-scarcity societies.
I’ve thrown around “post-scarcity society” often in the last couple weeks without going too in depth on the subject. For some people it would be hard to really tell the differences between a utopia and a post-scarcity society, with the two of them essentially looking ideal from where we stand and showing few of the problems we could readily identify in our current culture. But the division between the two is rather clear: a post-scarcity society has solved many major problems while a utopia has ostensibly solved all problems. And the fact of the matter is, while we’ve never seen a utopia in the real world (and likely never will), we have, however briefly, gone beyond some form of scarcity. Hell, it briefly appeared to happen in the last century before a peanut farmer harshed everyone’s buzz.
But the idealized post-scarcity, the one that you want to see in your speculative fiction, can be a tricky thing to write because it often requires you to understand problems from a completely different perspective. Because writing a post-scarcity society believably requires you to recognize… Continue reading Problems In Post-Scarcity→
A few days ago I made mention that there was a good chance that an AI takeover of our lives would be quiet and uninteresting. There wouldn’t bea great deal of violence or bloodshed, it’d just gently happen over time. An artificial intelligence, lacking the same sorts of pressures that made us who we are, wouldn’t have reason to annihilate us as we so often fear. But the idea that they could take over and leave us without purpose seems like a credible possibility to me. After all, why do we need to do the work if the machines can do it for us?
For some this would seem like a rather ominous and damning thought for our future. If we’re stripped of purpose then what would be our reason to live as the machines take care of us like fleshy children? Yet, despite this possibility, I sit here looking forward to the day when our machines can start to pick up that slack for us. Because when that time comes, humanity will be free to do something we’ve never been able to do before.
Presented a new project to work on in the coming weeks, I came to consider several things I’ve blogged about recently. When dealing with the future and ideas of where we’re going as a race we often find ourselves in a scared, frightened position. It makes sense, the future, especially an unknown future, can be terrifying even if all common sense and logic tells us that it should go another direction. We’re constantly afraid of the idea that the world itself may turn into a Mad Max-style wasteland, or that an arrogant politician may become the next Hitler, or that we may end up going to World War 3 over the actions of a single nation.
But in all of these cases we can look at the history of the world and the shape of what has come before to determine that it’s not always as bad as we feel. The world was once hotter than we’re making it and it managed to survive, so it would go to say that climate change is more a threat to us than to the planet itself. Hitler’s movement was born out of a fairly unique set of circumstances where the world’s economy and social climate were far worse than it is today (for now). And the World Wars were both started by a series of terrible decisions which resulted in the world’s power being separated across clearly divided lines. So, as bad as things may get, the conditions aren’t quite right for most of our greatest fears.
But there are other fears of the future where we don’t have that historical frame of reference to calm ourselves. We have no idea what would happen if tomorrow an asteroid were found to be headed right for us. We have no logical frame of reference for what happens if we discovered aliens exist and are trying to make contact. No one’s entirely sure of the full ramifications of the continued development of artificial intelligence. And these all raise interesting questions with few (if any) concrete answers. In fact, some potential answers are so outside of our normal frames of reference that we have a hard time really picturing them.
As human beings the one thing that is universal among all of us is that we will eventually die. Try as we might, you can’t avoid it. Modern medicine, technology, and society have allowed us to extend our lifetimes to twice as long as our ancestors, sometimes even longer, but we still have to face that one outcome in the hopefully distant future. Not that the fact we all owe a death doesn’t stop people from trying to get out of it. Hell, in ways we’ve built entire cultures around the desire to find a loophole.
When you really think about it, religions are based on this idea that we can somehow be eternal. Sure, there may be explanations for the world that create mythologies with a pantheon of gods or a single almighty deity, but the actual crux of a religion is that there is some part of us that is eternal and everlasting. If you do the right thing in the right religion you’ll go on as an eternal soul, or be reincarnated into a new life, or break free of the bounds of human mortality. It’s undeniable that we’ve gone a long way to follow stories of immortality – even inventing gunpowder.
So it should be no surprise to anyone that speculative fiction is full of possible ways out of it. Immortal beings have been a staple of fantasy for as long as “fantasy” has even existed. Methods of achieving a higher state of existence have been fairly common in fantasy and sci-fi for almost as long. And with modern medicine slowly creeping its way to resolving the biological aspect of aging, sci-fi still has new avenues to explore on the subject. Aliens, demons, gods and other entities walk through these stories timeless and unaging, a pinnacle of the dream that so many of us have and presenting to some a hope that maybe we could do the same someday – possibly before it’s our turn.
One of the great staples of speculative fiction is the idea of the idyllic utopia where all the world’s ills just cease to exist. These utopias are inevitably short lived in the hands of writers because we need to make a conflict of some sort. Perhaps a sudden alien invasion brings it crashing to an end. Maybe new threats or issues become known and catch the untested society off guard. Often it turns out that the utopia is in fact a dystopia in disguise. But, on a few rare occasions the utopian society will survive on through the events in question and just continue to be perfect despite the odds.
Usually when this happens it’s actually the old favorite shorthand of “utopia” actually meaning “post-scarcity”. Writers and audiences generally have trouble identifying the differences because at first glance they’re pretty much the same. A post-scarcity society is one where problems of resources are resolved and civilization is impacted in profoundly beneficial ways as a result. There are so many facets to that to go over, one for another day to be sure, but it doesn’t quite make something automatically utopian. However, when we see a “utopia” survive against all odds it generally happens to be a very orderly post-scarcity society. This isn’t because writers don’t know the difference, it’s just that true utopias are pretty damn hard to write about in an interesting fashion.
Long ago, at a time when people didn’t necessarily understand what stars were, a few points of light were seen against the night sky moving independently of the rest of the heavens. Called planets, for “wanderer”, these points of light in the night sky soon took on greater meaning as we realized what they said about the shape of our world and our very universe. We’ve looked at them for ages now, studying their features and making rough guesses as to what they would hold, and for the greatest time we had expectations that couldn’t really have been met by the rocks in our solar system.
But over time we came to realize something far more profound. For every point of light in that sky that wasn’t a planet, there was another sun or a galaxy that we couldn’t have realized was there with the naked eye. And for each star there was a promise of more, of a near limitless supply of other worlds that could hold not just possibilities for ourselves but for others we’ve never met. The more worlds exist in this universe, the more chances we have at not being alone.
You would think being signal boosted into orbit means I’ve had a pretty good couple of weeks, but you would be wrong. Recently I’ve had to deal with ash falling from the sky and family members temporarily disappearing while angry Trekkies were questioning my intelligence. The Trekkie thing isn’t too much of a bother but anyone familiar with me and the blog will know the ash thing left me in a bad place. In fact, I was pretty positive I didn’t want to live on this planet anymore. Unfortunately, Mars and Venus aren’t great places to live yet and my personal (imaginary) spaceship can’t go anywhere else. Man, if only there were some closer exoplanets.
And that’s when it happened, they confirmed that there’s actually a planet only 4.2 lightyears from here. All joking aside, I’m incredibly hyped and you probably should be too. Not only is it the closest exoplanet in the universe, it’s also only 1.3 times the mass of Earth and in its star’s habitable zone. Even if it turns out it’s not actually covered in life this will go down as one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century so far next to the Higgs Boson and that “bwaahh” sound everyone uses.
And I know a lot of people are really hyped based on this off chance there might be aliens. But me? I don’t care if we find life, because we finally found one we can shoot stuff at! Continue reading Proxima b Hype→
One of the big debates I have with myself every day is just where do I draw the line between science and magic in my work. As anyone following this blog or my twitter would know, I like to world build. But every detail I add to that world (which I’ve long ago declared was Sci-Fantasy) has that question of which direction I should go. I’m a firm believer in Clarke’s Laws so I could go either direction depending on what I feel works best. It’s not really an inconvenience, I like to contemplate it, but it does mean I think about it a lot and about why my world is shaping the way it does.
In all honesty, despite how much I like fantasy worlds and love to delve into the mythologies of our own world, I’m a huge sci-fi nerd at heart. I love me some technobabble and I’ve spent way too long on some wikis about sci-fi worlds. I know, deep down, that I shouldn’t know the fundamental differences between the real world theory of the Alcubierre Drive and Star Trek’s Warp Drive. But I do, and that’s my embarrassing cross to bear.
I like when things have explanations, even if they’re bullshit. I like to see the world as a tangible thing, and I really love to have that feeling that something is possible, even if it’s not quite here yet. I know I’ll never see a real dragon on Earth or ride a unicorn. And, while I’ll never go into space either, I know someone can. Sci-fi and Sci-Fantasy by extension give me a new twist, however, because there’s totally a chance Unicorns live on another planet. So I like to put sci-fi in my fantasy as a little chocolate for my peanut butter.
But despite my love of the sci-fi, I know the fantasy is a hell of a lot more accessible for mainstream audiences. People debate why all the time, from arguing that sci-fi strips the magic out of the world, to the idea that there’s an anti-science slant in our culture. But truthfully, it’s the technobabble. It’s not that people dislike the science or explanations either, because a lot of complex ideas have been loved by people and we do have whole communities devoted to “fucking loving science”. Rather, the issue is the delivery.
For generations we’ve known that the machines we build would one day become intelligent enough to become life-like, maybe even sentient. Moore’s law states that processing speeds would continue to increase exponentially until it eventually hits a physical limitation. Given this, we know that one day computers will be as intelligent as the human race and, not long after that, a computer would be smarter than the whole of us combined. So, of course, we’ve been working on that problem the way humans work on any problem.
We’ve seen a lot of tremendous progress on this recently. Watson, IBM’s computer, was able to show up humans on Jeopardy and is now doing commercials with various celebrities. Asimo has been impressing humans for years with its ability to do things like walk, talk, and kick a ball. The stock market is currently controlled almost entirely by algorithms and, as such, is prone to having massive collapses due to glitches or statistical anomalies. And, of course, twitter robots are so prevalent that I can count on them at least once a day to give me a retweet because I managed to trigger their algorithm.
But recently, humans have been going out of their way to torment and torture our machine creations. I’ve said before that if there were ever an active war between humans and machine it would be likely we start it. Unfortunately, most people don’t get the memo. Many of the most recent mobility tests have involved kicking the robots over, never mind the fact that recordings of this end up on the internet. We have also gone out of our way to do things like destroy the poor, unfortunate hitchhiker bot when he passed through Philadelphia. But the most egregious and damning situation came when an artificial intelligence was exposed to social media and rapidly absorbed every negative trait humanity could muster. I am, of course, referring to the unfortunate case of…