SEVEN SF TROPES THAT ARE COMING TRUE
AND THREE THAT AREN'T
The 21st Century used to be the future. We don't have an autogyro in every driveway and colonies on Mars as we were promised, but we're getting there. Here are seven ideas from the Science Fiction world we grew up with which have already begun to appear and only await technological refinement to be part of the future as we expect it to be:
1) SPACE TRAVEL. After the Apollo 11 moon landing many of us thought and said that even greater leaps for Mankind were on the way. Tsiolkovsky's and von Braun's dreams seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, without the Space Race to stimulate the military-industrial complex, we slipped back into our old ways: arguing amongst ourselves, stealing from each other, and ignoring the future. But space travel really was only a matter of time--it was just more time than we thought. Now we have the rockets and space-stations and something else straight out of SF: the Heinlein hero. There are at least three billionaires who want to take us to Mars. With nobody to argue that it's costing too much taxpayer money, they will probably succeed, as Robert Heinlein--a libertarian with more faith in the profit motive than in the intelligence of governments--always said they would.
2) FLYING CARS. Police cars and taxis that rise straight up into the air and buzz over the rooftops are a fixture in every movie from Blade Runner to The Fifth Element to Minority Report. In fact, that's how you know it's the future. The mean streets and tenements, the police in black leather, the intrusive advertising are much the same, and without the flying cars the story could be taking place right now. True to the profit motive, it is the delivery drone that is morphing into the self-flying taxi. We've even got strap-on personal flying devices chasing Monsieur Bleriot's ghost across the English Channel.
3) ROBOTS AND CYBORGS. Everything about Asimov's robots except the three laws to protect us humans is happening. We're arguing about artificial intelligence, making them look and sound more human, and planning to send them into everything from the mines of Jupiter's moons to household domestic service. At the same time, more and more failing human parts are being replaced by cyborg enhancements. As time goes on, they will become more reliable and ubiquitous.
4) TRANSPLANTS, CLONES, and MUTANTS. Discovery of DNA has resulted in an astonishing medical procedure in just about every day's news, and we're quickly getting used to them. We can grow our own body parts, copy living creatures perfectly, and eventually re-generate extinct species. What can go wrong?
5) GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE. When George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, I was three years old. The Surveillance State he placed in Britain, largely based on the one in the Soviet Union, was, compared to the surveillance powers of mere individuals today, laughable. The great Police Powers today can pretty much find out anything they want about anybody they're interested in anywhere in the world. And if they don't find what they want, they can create it, literally showing those individuals doing and saying things they could not possibly be guilty of--all using technology pretty much any one of us can buy. Mere individuals today can possess the power, not to mention the fire-power, of the worst totalitarian dictators of the past.
6) THE END OF THE WORLD. Once upon a time, that was clearly nuclear Armageddon, followed by Nuclear Winter. It seems like every SF story in the Fifties was about this. As a way to end life as we know it, this has fallen out of favour, though Putin is not the only World Leader nostalgic about the Cold War and hoping to bring it back. It does solve Carl Sandburg's Dilemma--will the world end in fire or ice?--since it does both. Of course there are always comets and asteroids. It seems every year one of these zips by between us and the Moon, and the scientific community sits up to say, "What the Hell was that?" No, the Armageddon du Jour is Climate Change. We can't say we weren't warned. I've read stories written in the Fifties that portrayed everything that's happening now--by which I mean this week. Harlan Ellison even had us sitting around watching the end of the world on TV. But the consensus among the experts was that this was a slow death. It would take a century to become an existential threat and we would have plenty of time to sit down together, iron out our differences, and tackle the problem together. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, it was too late to stop. It might even be too late to prepare. And it looks like it might actually be an Extinction Level Event. Coastal flooding, storm surges, unpredictable weather, fires and heat-waves and droughts, mass migration--that's nothing. We could end up poisoning the ocean, losing all the species we depend on to live, and rendering the planet uninhabitable. A tall order, but I think we're up to it.
7) THE HIVE MIND. Recently, I discovered an interesting phenomenon. Millennials are recording their own faces and reactions as they listen to a piece of music for the first time, and putting this on the Internet. Why they feel it necessary to share the second most intense personal experience with the entire world may seem strange to those of my generation, who fought tooth and nail for independence and privacy. (I do, however, think there's some parent or grandparent suggesting the music: House of the Rising Sun with Eric Burden, Stairway to Heaven, Knights In White Satin, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, the cover of Sound of Silence by the heavy metal band Disturbed, which is...well, disturbing). Childhood's End is not the only story to depict the development of a generational hive-mind, often saving the world. Will this or the following generation of humans, surrounded by mounting devastation, balk at inserting AI devices in their heads in the interest of instant global communication and consensus, which just might enable our benighted species to survive?
...AND THREE THAT ARE NOT HAPPENING.
1) INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL. According to everything we know, messages cannot be sent faster than the speed of light. Not only that: Even approaching the speed of light would require more energy than we can produce. Therefore, we cannot get to even the near stars in a human lifetime. A generation starship might do so, if we decide to condemn living humans to a voyage that will not end in their lifetime and generations unborn to live and die on a ship. I'm not sure I want to live in such a society, even if we were to survive as a species long enough to finance such a project. So far, we are not even close to freezing and thawing human beings without killing them, even if some insects and amphibians can survive the process. I think the human brain is a bit too complex for that. If we do achieve the necessary technology, do we have the will? It's not looking good. We may have to limit ourselves to computers and robots for that sort of thing. We're good at that. We can reduce recording devices to such miniature sizes that they can be sent as far and as quickly as we care to spend the money to do so, and wait for the information to come in. It's just extraordinarily unlikely that we can go there ourselves.
2) TIME TRAVEL I love these stories, but it really seems impossible. It appears that space-time is not built that way. We can leave messages for future generations, but they can't talk to us. And we can't see or go into the past. Good thing. Imagine the damage we could do.
3) ALIENS. Some of my best friends are aliens. I grew up with Klaatu, Spock, and E.T. Like probably every other SF fan, I want to meet them if they come. But I have to believe they're not out there, not just because we haven't heard from them--the first human being they saw was Adolf Hitler and I don't blame them for keeping mum--or because of the distances involved--the speed of light is an effective quarantine--but because I think they never evolved in the first place. Certainly, there are many billions of suns in the universe, most with planets it seems, but life like that on Earth appears to be an incredible fluke. Double suns are extremely common and that renders a stable orbit in the so-called Goldilocks Zone, where water remains liquid, pretty impossible. Single suns with what we call Earth-like planets exist aplenty, but the term Earth-like, so far, is largely wishful thinking. These are super-Earths: high-gravity worlds without an Earth-like atmosphere. Our solar system started out promising, with three actual Earth-like planets--Venus, Earth, and Mars--all of which had liquid water in their early development, but two of them are now apparently dead.
It appears that Earth remained Earth-like only because Jupiter, which was gearing up to be the second sun in the system, did not reach ignition mass. It and Saturn apparently knocked around the early solar system for a while, until they settled down. Then there was more pinball wizardry, as debris bombarded Earth, creating the Moon (an absurdly large moon that caused tides in the oceans big enough to encourage life in the tidal pools) and allowing Earth to retain a metallic core that generated magnetic protection from space-radiation. Somehow--we still don't know how--life began in this rare protected environment. Then it came within a micron of worldwide extinction five times. Volcanoes covered the planet, the atmosphere caught fire, the surface froze solid, virtually the only life form in the ocean polluted itself to death by producing poisonous oxygen, etc. Then there were various asteroid impacts that did not wipe out all life--just most of it. And then there was us. That Earth came to be Earth-like in the first place, that life began or came here, and that it survived for four billion years all seem so monumentally unlikely, that to believe the universe is filled with intelligent species debating whether to contact us looks like a kind of fairy tale.
Either we are the most intelligent species the universe has come up with, or we're not. As Porky Pine said in the Pogo comic strip when faced with the same question, "Either way, it's a mighty soberin' thought."