How fiction helps us invent the future
High-tech thrillers join sci-fi in imagining the technologies of tomorrow
For decades, fiction authors have built worlds for their books that, over time, become reality. H.G. Wells imagined inspired inventions from the laser to email. Jules Verne envisioned modern submarines, TV newscasts and lunar modules. Isaac Asimov predicted robotics and mobile computing. “Star Trek” conjured the holodeck and universal translators. I still get chills thinking of the simulated reality in Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt.”
As the tech advances, engineers and technologists begin to build what seemed like science fiction fantasy only a few years or decades before. Today, teams at Amazon AWS and elsewhere are working on a sort of universal translator. And what is a holodeck but an advanced form of virtual reality?
Not all such fantasies pan out — we still don’t have Wells’ time machine or invisible man — but a funny thing is happening as the future rushes toward us ever faster: Many of the mind-bending changes that new technologies imprint on society are no longer centuries or decades away. They’re right around the corner.
That means near-future fiction is no longer the province of just sci-fi authors. Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb, has a lengthy Eve Dallas series of police procedurals set in the 2050s. Daniel Suarez has given us “Change Agent” and “Daemon.” Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is more science thriller than sci-fi. Matthew Mather gives us “CyberStorm” and “Polar Vortex” without tipping into straight-out sci-fi — it’s the realism that makes it all so scary. Even Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” hews to a credible futuristic landscape circa 2045.
Over at Forbes.com, technology columnist Giovanni Rodriguez has a smart new piece titled, How A Great Techno-Thriller Might Help Us Reshape The Future. In it, he holds up my new high-tech thriller, Catch and Kill, as an example of this new breed of suspense novel that warns of the dark side of emerging technology.
Excerpt from the Forbes piece:
I will give no spoilers (enjoy the book — it is good). But I will say this: the story can help us think about reshaping the future in at least three ways, beginning with the simple sci-fi/techno-thriller storytelling device of liberating the reader temporally. When I connected with J.D. a few weeks ago, we spoke about a new cottage industry in consulting where business leaders are asked to imagine the future using sci-fi tropes. It might seem silly, but I have spoken with one consulting firm that does this and I believe there’s some merit in the approach. It frees executives to stop focusing on what is good and bad in the present so they can ponder what could be good and bad for their children.
Another benefit: it forces executives to ask whether the good or bad future is already here (to paraphrase sci-fi legend William Gibson). When J.D. told me about the plot and the setting in the Carribean, I immediately thought about the flock of rich crypto-merchants that flew to Puerto Rico after the hurricane in 2017 to establish what looked like a new colony in Old San Juan. Not as weird or creepy as what J.D. depicts in Catch and Kill, but at least part of his imagined future is already here.
But another great thing about fiction is that it is generally designed to make the protagonist relatable, regardless of race, gender, or age. In the hands of a great writer like J.D., this principle presents great opportunities. The hero in “Catch And Kill is a woman (Kaden Baker), and this makes sense given the dramatic arc of the story (rescuing the girls).
J.D. has told me that a number of readers have told him how Catch and Kill feels cinematic. I agree. It can easily be commissioned as a film. But I believe a greater opportunity is to commission a single-player game with Kaden as the hero. That could inspire action. We are entering a world where media is more immersive than novels and cinema. The medium is the message, and the media is changing. And change in the future will come from our progeny.
Both books in the Shadow Conspiracy series — Biohack and “Catch and Kill” — are more thriller than sci-fi, but even modern thrillers have increasingly begun to weave the disruptive effects of life-altering technologies into their storylines. For me, biotech was the underlying engine that drove “Biohack.” Augmented and virtual reality propel chunks of “Catch and Kill.” In Book 3, I’ll be bringing back Amelia Earhart as a personal AI.
The genre doesn’t really matter — call it sci-fi or call it a thriller, what matters is the story. The near-future tech is cool, but at bottom, the risks posed to the main characters and the threat to our shared humanity is what I think is resonating with so many readers.
You can read the first three chapters of “Catch and Kill” on my site for free.
What do you think? Are tech and sci-fi authors still capturing the bleeding edge of technology and helping us invent the future?
This article originally appeared at jdlasica.com.