If you read or watch enough science fiction over time, there are certain tropes that tend to appear almost everywhere. Most of them are centered around external forces that provide a mirror to look back on ourselves. This alien world happens to be populated by a race that has an extreme philosophy that mirrors one of our own. This other creature we thought wasn’t intelligent has made us question our prejudices. These seemingly natural phenomenon are trying to communicate with us, making us question the nature of life itself. Sometimes these tropes will fall into cliche if done improperly, while they tend to say something of value if done correctly. But not all of these mirroring tropes happen to be external forces – sometimes they’re man-made.
Our own creations, or things that we do to ourselves, are often good reflections on what kind of people we are and what’s important to us. When we’re writing stories of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, or science run amok, we tend to show not only our general motivations as a species but also our fears of our own ability to screw it up. However, there are other tropes about things that we create that are much more mundane in concept but still give us just as much of an insight into what we hold important. And, lately, one of those fantastic but strangely mundane technologies has been catching my attention more often -virtual reality.
When I say virtual reality I don’t just mean VR headsets but just about any technology that happens to simulate a different world for us. From the VR gear in Ready Player One to the holodecks on Star Trek, there’s a wide variety of approaches in sci-fi that reflect our efforts in the real world. And, despite how fantastic it may sometimes appear, we’ve been making great strides in this technology in the last couple decades to the point that a lot of graphics cards and game consoles now have VR support built right in. But while our real world vision of how to use VR can be a tad stunted from time to time, generally reserved for gaming, the world of sci-fi has shown us a variety of other uses that we only briefly touch on here in the day to day.
And, it’s strange, because when I look at the potential of fully immersing in fictional worlds, I actually think traditional video games are the least likely to take the lead…
There are a few quirks of my personality that I can’t quite blame on outside influences. Though I could probably find a root cause somewhere in my past, probably when I was a toddler and can’t remember anything, there is generally no rational explanation I can think of. One of them is a tendency to hold myself to oddly strict rules that no one else will generally recognize or care about. In fact, even when I outright announce some of these rules I hold myself to, most people tend to forget them if given enough time – but I never do. And one of those is that every blog entry that I post to this site has to fit a certain variety of topics for specific days. It’s not iron clad, there’s always some wiggle room involved, but from time to time I’ll have a blog idea that I want to write or have already written and think, “man, that feels more like a Monday or Wednesday topic.”
It’s a little silly, but I’m often a silly man.
One of the topics I’ve allowed myself to post on Fridays is anything having to do with the future or sci-fi. At first it was because I momentarily considered calling it “Futuristic Fridays”, but then a few eyes were rolled and I realized it was a bridge too far. Still, it’s one of the approved topics for the day, and it’s ironic because a few things I’ve seen on twitter over the last few weeks and a few personal experiences have had me thinking about the future, specifically how much we as a species get freaked out about it. I’ve touched the topic before with talks about technophobia and the like, but all of the individual fears of future times really kind of root back to the same essential fear when it comes right down to it.
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→