Why sci-fi is obsessed with the near future

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Speculative designers

Speculative designer Jessica Charlesworth passes a display of sticky notes of various ideas, topics, and headlines used for brainstorming. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / March 30, 2014)

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."

Great …

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.

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