6:01 PM EDT, April 15, 2014
In the West Town loft that Jessica Charlesworth shares with husband, Tim Parsons, along the back wall, on a row of metal filing cabinets, a kaleidoscope of Post-it notes waved in a soft draft, each a kind of dispatch from the future. I leaned in to decipher the scribbles: "Plans to build solar farms on the moon," I read aloud.
I read the next note: "4-D printing." And the note beside that note: "Invisibility research in China."
I looked at her, confused.
She was still nodding. "That last one," she said in her London lilt, "that's happening. Actually, they all are."
She should know.
Charlesworth and Parsons, both of whom teach design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, are leading figures in the hot field of speculative design, which means that they not only dream of the future, but they also consider and study the ramifications of design on the future. As she puts it, they study "emerging possibilities." They build prototypes, look at how technologies can be used and misused, picture plausibilities, probabilities.
"What I try to install in students is that you have no idea the potential of a technology by just looking at whatever it is now," Charlesworth said. "What happens when ideas leave the lab is — well, we look at possibilities. For instance, what happens if someone, say, grows cells in their home for the purpose of eating cells for food?"
"Eating?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Sure. A future possibility."
"So then how far out do you ask students to consider the future? One hundred, two hundred years?"
"About 10 to 15 years is average," she said. "There's plenty there."
She uses classic science fiction to spur imaginations, she explained. Students read Orwell and Bradbury, they watch Kubrick. But she's just as likely, she said, to focus on the factual research of contemporary engineers.
And that means what for science fiction? I asked. Can distant futures compete with almost-nows?
"Actually," she said, "the science fiction I like is more about almost-now, with small variables made to the look of the world to let us know it's the future: Things changed, but the world is fundamentally the world."
Which is a nice working definition of science fiction in 2014: Today, with bits of tomorrow.
Indeed, I saw "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" later that night, and it featured driverless cars, militarized hovercraft/helicopter hybrids, "satellites that can read a terrorist's DNA before he steps out of a spider hole." It's set in the present, and nothing on-screen seems improbable. Before the movie started, there was a trailer for "Transcendence," which opens Friday. In it, Johnny Depp plays an artificial-intelligence expert who seemingly skirts death by fusing his consciousness with a computer. It sounded eerily like Ray Kurzweil, the tireless real-world promoter of an inevitable human-computer "singularity," and … director of engineering at Google.
It's never too soon to plan for your future.
Helpfully, in theaters, at bookstores, on TV, that future is now. And a genre that once dreamed big, that envisioned new worlds and dimensions, that used the future itself as a metaphor for the problems of the present, has turned inward. Mars was once a destination; now, we can't see beyond the ramifications of our cellphones.
"Did you see 'Her'?" Charlesworth asked. "That's a vision of everyday life. Not shining metal spaceship surfaces of old sci-fi so much as lots of wooden furniture. Quite, quite convincing."
When novelist Richard Powers was growing up on the North Shore of Chicago, he would comb the drugstores and libraries of Lincolnwood and Evanston, seeking out science fiction novels. "I was just as enamored of nonfiction science, which read like detective stories at their core," he remembered. But the benchmark fiction reads then are the benchmarks now: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein. They wrote about space travel, aliens, time warps, far-off planets. They looked centuries ahead. As recently as a generation ago, that was science fiction in the popular imagination — a distant future.
Fabulist futures never went away, of course: The ongoing ubiquity of "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" is thundering evidence, and Chicago's Andy and Lana Wachowski, whose "Matrix" films picture a dystopian future ruled by machines, return to the theme this summer with the universe-spanning "Jupiter Ascending."
But the truth is, Powers said, "the acceleration of innovation and change today has produced a great instability in what science fiction always loved to do, which is look at what's coming far down the pike. The golden age of sci-fi was about testing the social values of the present day in the future, or considering the hypothetical ethical changes that some far-off technological breakthrough might result in. And now, those pressures seem here. All we have to do is explore the cascades of futures already set in motion."
Powers, though never quite a sci-fi writer himself, has written about artificial intelligence and virtual reality; his 2006 National Book Award winner, "The Echo Maker," concerns advances in neurology. But in his latest, "Orfeo," about an amateur genetic engineer, the protagonist seems startled by the immediacy of the future:
"He fingered the miracle again. All of recorded music — a millennium of it — nestled in his hand …"
That miracle? An iPod.
A fine example of what writer Ursula K. Le Guin meant when she said: "Science fiction is not predictive. It is descriptive." It provides shape, it speculates on how human nature might regard change. But even she wrote about planet colonization and men who control the world with dreams. An iPod is so everyday tangible that we rarely stop to consider that it is a kind of dream of the future, right now. Said Neil Burger, who directed both 2011's "Limitless" (in contemporary America, Bradley Cooper discovers a way to use most of his brain power) and "Divergent" (the recent hit adaptation of Veronica Roth's adventure series, set in a lightly sci-fied future Chicago): "The space-opera sci-fi we know can be mind-blowing, but when it's more grounded in reality, when it speaks to our actual concerns, the audience is not left behind."
So, in the real world, space travel and flying cars appear to be off the table. And yet the advances we've made and the less-than-far-fetched ideas we have don't completely make sense to us. Just in the past month I have seen two takes on hologram-augmented workspaces: In "Winter Soldier," it goes off without a hitch; in HBO's "Silicon Valley," the technology is so new that its billionaire developer gives up trying to get it to work and settles for a phone call with a lousy connection.
Screenwriter Jack Paglen, who wrote "Transcendence," told me that setting the film in contemporary times (as opposed to a dystopian future ruled by Johnny-Depp-controlled computers) was more practical than alarmist.
"People are working on the singularity right now," he said. "The idea of a human mind transferred into a digital being seems like science fiction, but it is based on contemporary research. Which could get away from us. Remember, we're using technology now that we are really still struggling to completely understand. I mean, I don't completely get how the Internet works and what it does. I just take in on faith that it's there."
For most of the 20th century, science fiction was typically a river flowing one way: fiction informed fact. The creator of the liquid-fueled rocket admitted to becoming obsessed with the possibilities of spaceflight after reading H.G. Wells. Winston Churchill's sci-fi-inspired dream of a sound-based, anti-aircraft "death ray" led to the development of radar. The immersive reach of the Internet was uncannily predicted in William Gibson's 1984 novel "Neuromancer."
Skip ahead a century and, to get a sense of how thoroughly our fixation on the present has overtaken our dreams of distant futures, read the best-selling "Influx" from Daniel Suarez, a very hot, Tom Clancy-like writer of lightly-sci-fied thrillers. "Influx" tells the story of a government agency that is suppressing a litany of world-changing advancements (immortality, the cure for cancer) out of fear that we can't handle so much progress.
Maybe he's right.
Talk with Sophia Brueckner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab and you'll feel that the feedback loop between our dreams of the future and our reality seems unnervingly tight. Brueckner, an artist and former engineer at an ubiquitous Silicon Valley company (the name of which she asked that I not disclose), teaches a course with research assistant Dan Novy (formerly a science consultant to Hollywood films) that looks at the connection between science fiction and invention. Their students build functional prototypes inspired by books and movies. One student's project: "Using the common theme in science fiction of people who download their consciousness to computers, he's exploring what it would mean to download actual muscle memory into an object, like a robotic arm."
She added: "If science fiction is now more about the present than the future, that's because a lot of the things in science fiction, it's possible to build real interpretations now. There are public maker spaces now (often stocked with cutting-edge 3-D printing capabilities), and Kickstarter for funding your prototype."
What might that mean for the daily production of a superhero-centric series like "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." on ABC? Near constant reliance on "exploiting contemporary science and not fantasy," said Jeph Loeb, head of television for Marvel Entertainment (and a celebrated comic book writer for both Marvel and DC Comics). Though many creations of Marvel — Iron Man, for instance — were once daydreams, advances in the five decades since means the tech being used in Marvel's TV series and movies is often adapted from "wherever cutting-edge science is happening," Loeb said.
He gave me an example from "S.H.I.E.L.D.": "So a train disappears. Where does it go? The first explanation we had was about a cloaking device. We also discussed it going into a kind of (dimensional) portal. But never want something to seem too much like magic. That's the testing grid for this stuff. So we settled on the idea of freezing someone in time so they are unaware something moved. Which came from a scientific place, military development of 'black sleep' drugs that put you in a sort of sleep state, yet not unconscious."
Sounds vaguely plausible.
That seems to be the new benchmark in science fiction: Rather than dream of possibilities too expensive or abstract to picture, the genre, and perhaps the audience, wants its flying cars now. It suggests that dreams too big could be in danger of becoming, more or less, fantasy.
Eli Horowitz, former managing editor of the McSweeney's literary journal, is co-writer of "The Silent History," an upcoming novel spanning 33 years, from 2011 to 2044. In that time, a generation of children are born unable to speak, write or understand language. He set the book's start in 2011 to "suggest that the evolution that is happening has already started all around us. So, you gradually sprinkle in real objects with invented objects.
"But even 25 years out, my way of solving what that would look like was this: 1989 was 25 years ago, and how different or similar are we? I have Facebook now, but my life, it doesn't seem all that different to me."
Sounds like Spike Jonze's "Her," I said.
A sci-fi benchmark, he said, a film about a man's relationship with his phone's operating system that uses technology incidentally. More important are the characters and its world, which is lonely, frictionless, recognizable, like an Apple store.
"It's the emotional tenor of the future," he said. "It's how the future will feel."
A short postscript.
The other day I visited a showroom in River North. The company was Oblong Industries. It was founded in 2006 by John Underkoffler, the Media Lab alum who consulted for Marvel on "Iron Man" and created the memorable gesture-controlled wall screens that Tom Cruise used in "Minority Report." That "Minority Report" screen system? Oblong now sells it. The company opened its Chicago showroom in January, and already it's talking to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange about installing its screens. Customers have included Boeing, IBM and the U.S. Department of Defense.
So I tried it.
The room was lined with screens. Oblong's conference table in Chicago lined up perfectly with Oblong's conference table in Los Angeles, creating a kind of seamless cross-country boardroom. You could bounce images around the room and between screens. Instead of wearing gloves and waving your hands, as in the movie, you wave wands. Gloves are an option, the Oblong representative said, but, in an office, most people don't want to wear the gloves a co-worker wore. It was just like science fiction, only real.
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