Predicting the unpredictable

The young HG Wells

Yesterday I was delighted to be able to attend the brand new ANDROMEDA ONE literary science fiction, fantasy and horror convention at the Custard Factory in Birmingham, England.

Oddly enough, it turns out that the day of the convention was also the 147th birthday of one Herbert George Wells, Esq. (pictured, above).  Did you notice that, conference organisers and attendees?

It was a very enjoyable event, with a wide range of great interviews and discussion panels from authors, publishers and fans as well as workshops, books and book launches.  My congratulations to the organisers – “I’ll be back!”

One of the most thought-provoking panels I was able to attend was entitled ‘Does my rocket look big in this?  Technology and prediction in SF’, a discussion which was ably moderated by Stan Nicholls and debated by Janet Edwards, Ian Whates, Adam Christopher, Lynn M. Cochrane, Chris Amies and Dave Corby, with occasional voices off from the audience (mine included).

There was considerable and excited debate about whether the science fiction writer’s role is to predict the future, future technology and the future of societies, whether on this Earth or elsewhere in the universe.  And indeed how unpredictable the future actually is, with technology, it seems, sometimes outpacing writers’ imaginations today.

There was of course the old chestnut about whether the technology ought to be accurate (‘hard’ SF), at the heart of the story, or just a narrative tool which ought not to be too rigid as long as it doesn’t degenerate into magic. Certainly, there’s room for both.

Whether it’s the author’s role to predict is debatable of course, and depends on the story (which is all-important) but inevitably that comes into play as we are, generally, talking about the future (or a future) in mainstream science fiction.  The accuracy of the prediction, as you might expect, depends to some extent on the writer’s own scientific knowledge, their willingness to research, and how consistently they adhere to the scientific principles that back up their story or at least the background of the world(s) in which it is set.  Some predictions may, ultimately, turn out to be impossible.  Some may be possible but we may never live to see them, and may not be able to predict their outcomes.

This all set my own little grey cells fizzing.

Those of us sitting in our comfy chairs with our flat-screen voice and gesture-controlled TVs, smartphones, ebook readers (and writers), tablet computers and robot vacuum cleaners may look back smugly on our Golden Age predecessors banging away on their mechanical typewriters about relays (which could never have built a robot brain) and rockets (which cannot get you from Earth to Mars in a couple of days), and faster-than-light travel (which most theorists say is impossible, though it’s never quite that simple).  But we would be wrong to look down on them.

We know so much that they could never have predicted, yet we have not achieved the half of what they envisioned in matters such as space travel, a branch of technology whose growth has been unpredictably stunted by the stupidity and short-termism of politicians and their preference for “we’re better than you are” posturing and global mass-murder instead of peaceful international co-operation in space.

Even the amazing real-world Apollo Moon landing programme of the 1960s-70s was done all in the wrong order thanks to political priorities; both science fiction writers and scientists had predicted that rockets would be designed for the purpose of building a space way station, and only then would a much larger moonship have been launched, from orbit, to enable bigger, more sophisticated craft to land on the Moon and set up long-stay bases and eventually colonies.  Thanks to politicians, the cart was put before the horse and despite the heroic achievement, which is not to be denied, in essence all we did was cock our collective leg on the Moon and come back.

Decades later, we have our space station, in the form of a science lab, but (thanks again to politicians) no more reusable spacecraft and no way to get men/women to the Moon.  Now, there is a generation in schools to which that greatest adventure looks like Golden Age science fiction, a future fading rapidly into the past.  Are little remote-controlled cameras scootering about the surface of Mars, despite their remarkable achievements, a real replacement for the mighty dream of manned spaceflight? I don’t think so. And who could have predicted humanity’s climbdown from that one small step?

In other areas of predicted scientific and technological development we are a long way from being able to walk into parallel universes (which theorists now say are real), travel in time (but what is time?) and beaming ourselves up using matter transmission (which would require masses of computer power we can only yet dream of).

But in yet other ways we have begun to reach beyond what past predictions of technology offered.  Portable computers in every pocket. Digital cameras with mass storage beyond that used by Mr Spock.  The ancestors of real robots (and one day Asimo may have the brains to match R. Daneel Olivaw). Powered exo-skeletons for peace and war.  Anti-personnel Heat Rays. Personal flying wings with miniature jet engines.  Jet packs.  Flying cars. Lasers in the classroom and the lecture theatre, in our music players (and almost obsolete there!), and now capable of bringing down aircraft or sinking ships.  Electric railways.   And electric cars – almost a commonplace, with only cost and convenience yet keeping them out of the hands of the majority of ordinary people; and that too will come to pass.

The Internet, which is in most houses in developed countries and accessible by portable computers around the globe, was predicted in E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909) and may yet achieve spontaneous intellectual combustion and self-awareness, but perhaps not in an interplanetary form as predicted in Fredric Brown’s ‘Answer’ (published 1954) – because the laws of physics may prevent it.  Or will they?  I used to know a man, the late Fred Archenhold, one of whose family friends was Albert Einstein, who regularly came round to tea, to play music and to chat at their house in Berlin before WW2, and to whom Einstein once said “I never said you cannot travel faster than light.  Just that you can never REACH the speed of light.”  Make of that what you will.

We are even now on the verge of achieving universal power via the clean, pollution free process of nuclear fusion.  Just a few decades should have us there.  Yet here we are arguing about global warming, the burning of coal and the mass-building of windmills to hold it back.  Are we in the 18th century or the 21st?

Finally, returning to the serendipitous timing of the Andromeda One convention on the birthday of Mr Wells (many happy returns, H.G.!), we can safely say that he was one of the greatest ever predictors of the technological future, though his stories mainly had a social and political intent.

He predicted the Heat Ray (in The War of the Worlds (1898) wielded by the Martians, today wielded by us in the form of lasers and the US Army’s Active Denial System).  Genetic engineering (strictly speaking, vivisection, in The Island of Doctor Moreau, 1896), where we now routinely alter plants and animals, and even ourselves (stem cells, gene therapy, bionics) – only politics is keeping what we now call transhumanism in check.  Automatic doors (in Wells’ 1890s story The Sleeper Awakes, but popularised in Star Trek in the 1960s, when real sliding doors arrived).  Invisibility – something which scientists and engineers are working on with early success today, but predicted in The Invisible Man (1897).  The Atomic Bomb – The World Set Free, published in 1914,  describes a world devastated by ‘atomic bombs’! Thankfully the consequences of that particular invention have so far been largely averted.  Tanks – predicted in his 1903 The Land Ironclads.  Mobile phones – similar devices were predicted in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) and similar facilities to modern email and voice mail in Men Like Gods (1923).

Perhaps even Mr Wells’ description of the deeply divided, artificially evolved society of the Eloi and the Morlocks in The Time Machine is only the ultimate expression of the social divisions that are now once more becoming abundantly clear in the dividing lines between the excessively rich (the 1% in modern parlance) and the 99% (the rest of us).  I think he would have appreciated the irony of how his prediction, based on the social divisions of his time, is still coming to pass despite the so-called progress we have made since then.

Whatever we may seek to predict as writers, and however we may consider the future of technology and its effects on society, it sometimes seems that the only thing holding us back from the future is us.  And when we ourselves change, how then will our predictions fare?

– Stuart Williams

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