The Technology Conundrum

My wife and I were discussing preparations for our baby a few days ago when she asked an interesting question: “What kind of technology do you think will be a part of our everyday lives, that we don’t have now, by the time our son is in High School?” Later, she mused that looking into the past the same distance, the Internet was nowhere near being playing so large a role in our daily lives, yet.  It’s exactly this question that science fiction writers, especially those writers of near-future fiction, are constantly contemplating.

The history of science fiction is replete with brilliant, even prophetic extrapolations of future technology, as well as a graveyard of misses, miscues, and fanciful, infeasible ideas.  On the one hand, author Jules Verne famously predicted the naval power of submarines in his 1869 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea long before true submarine warfare was feasible.  It was a spectacular realization of the future potential for what was then an infant technology.  On the other hand, one of my favorite commercials, from a few years back was an AllState commercial in which their rich-voiced spokesman grumbles about the fact that we don’t yet have flying cars – a promise made by a lot of old science fiction stories.

Reading current technology trends and forecasting future developments has always been a major part of the science fiction genre.  Typical science fiction fans enjoy glimpsing the possibilities of the future.  The key to guessing at future technological developments, and having it seem realistic to science fiction readers, is to be a very astute reader of current research and development.  Science fiction writers need to stay abreast of developments in science and new discoveries, and to keep track of where new developments are being made.  Having a good read and where current research is heading can provide many clues to what will be available in the future.  This understanding was so critical that during the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” many sci-fi writers were also scientists in their day-jobs.   

One frequent criticism of traditional science fiction is that the technology often overshadows plot and characters in those stories.  In fact, in some of the long-running science fiction magazines, like Analog Science Fiction & Fact, have traditionally only published “Hard Science Fiction“, a sub-genre in which the science must be accurately portrayed.  Some definitions that I’ve read of this sub-genre stipulate that the story be written in such a way that the science or technology elements are so integrated into the story that their removal would cause the story to fall apart.  Genre rules like this heightened the idea that science and technology were more important than character or plot.  However, as the genre has developed, this old idea is certainly no longer true, if it ever was.  Effective science fiction stories today, even hard sci fi, need to have strong, believable characters to succeed, just as much as contemporary fiction.

While the writer’s craft is just as important in science fiction writing as in any genre, one of the joys of the sci fi has always been the exploration of the world around us, and the wonder and awe at both the possible and the seemingly impossible.  The child-like wonder of new discoveries is one thing that makes science fiction worth writing, and keeps readers coming back for more.  Playing with technologies that have not yet been developed and guessing what the future holds continues to make science fiction a perennial favorite.

Whether you write Science Fiction, read it, or write or read something else entirely, I hope this little jaunt down the tropes of hard sci fi brought a little smile.  Happy writing.