SF, The Future Shock Absorber
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial ISBN/ITEM#: EL200612
Date: Dec 1, 2006 / Show Official Info /
Consider. Recent experiments in quantum teleportation needed no explanation about what the fuss was about, just an obligatory reference to Scotty at the console. Nanotech, while a bit less well known, has also been previsaged in book and media long enough so that the general public is hardly baffled when a new micromachine appears on the scene. For the most part, when science comes up with a new idea, the popular press has a vast lexicon of SF terms to explain it with...though media references are a surer bet than the more arcane lit we know and love. Stuck in its ivory tower ghetto, it's a secondary source for even the most geeky tech pundits.
Technology which genuinely hadn't been dreamed of in the 1950s didn't make it into the mass consciousness to be reframed on the big and little screens, so there are technologies that came as a surprise to folks. Chaos Theory had the science world abuzz long before Jurassic Park made it a household word, and space elevators seemed pretty novel to folks who hadn't read Clarke's Fountains of Paradise...but the basic elements were there to tap into for reference. I admit that I'm not about to go next door and ask my neighbors if they can explain geosynchronous satellites to me, but I'm pretty sure I could get the physics of the idea across thanks to some enduring images. I bet the picture of Superman crushing carbon to make a diamond back in the old black and white days would help explain the super-strong carbon cable needed to withstand the strain.
Even better though, is the level of expectation that the general public has set for it by these imaginings. One of Arthur Clarke's laws states that any time an elder scientist states that something is impossible, he's undoubtedly wrong, and we've seen stuff show up in SF that got scoffed at until it suddenly appeared in the news. True, we don't have Faster Than Light drives or personal robots, but when an AI driven VW Toureg navigated an obstacle strewn desert course to take last year's DARPA Challenge the public agreed that it was cool...but they'd always known it would happen. Having seen it all before in the movies. We'd seen it long before the films, of course, so the wait for readers of SF has been all the more painful. We're now seeing distance maintaining cruise controls on production cars, and even a few that can perform their own parking maneuvers. One wonders if the Turing test should be rephrased to query whether you can tell a car is being driven by a human or an AI? Though I'm sure that once they get the hang of it, AI's will do a far better job...as has been pointed out in numerous stories.
That's the downside to all this previewing things to come. By the time they actually get here they're already passé. It's only by mining the retro-future for its sense of wonder that publicists manage to drum up any excitement at all. Unfortunately for them, the sense of wonder died out during the SF New Wave in the 60s and 70s, to be replaced by a sense of dread, or worse boredom...so that's a vein that will only take so much mining before it plays out. We're already working the cyberpunk vein pretty hard, but I've seen the movie, and it doesn't end well.
Our problem is that we've seen too many dreams crash and burn trying to escape the forces of energy economics and cultural ADD. The challenge to our creators of tomorrow is to dream up some futures we can get excited about again, so that we can get more generations hooked on creating them. It's a job too important to let ourselves fall off into comfortable realms of fantasy, which, though they may illuminate the human condition, fail to offer paths out of civilization's dilemmas.