Science Fiction and its Surprises

One of my favorite things about reading science fiction is to see how the future has changed in ways that writers two, three, or four generations ago couldn’t imagine.

Isaac Asimov (born 1920), for example, in his famous Foundation series, imagined the human race flung out across the galaxy, colonizing so many worlds through space travel that the idea of humanity having its origin on one world was considered a slightly kooky theory — and yet in his first book of the series, relationships between men and women in this far distant future were pretty much the same as in the U.S. in the 1940s. Men were captains and leaders, women were wives and secretaries, and the banter between them taught me more about historical gender roles than watching Mad Men.

Guess he didn’t see the whole feminist movement coming.

By the later books in the series, gender roles shifted to reflect the then current reality — one of his main characters was a female mayor, and dialogues between men and women shifted from coy flirtation to discussions of ideas between equals. In the span of time his series was published, from 1942 to 1993, things had radically changed.

Another one that cracks me up is the copious use of tapes in computers. Older science fiction has lots of tape — data is kept on rolls of tapes, from entertainment to flight logs, spaceship computers are fed tape to ask questions, then give back answers on more tape. It’s all analog, even though, again, they’re exploring the galaxy.

The whole digital information storage thing caught people off-guard as well, I guess.

To be fair, sometimes it’s uncanny what science fiction has predicted — we have a lot of the Big Brother-esque mass surveillance and doublethink from George Orwell’s 1984 in the U.S. today, and once I was reading a Frank Herbert book and he described a device that was about the same size and performed the same functions as a smartphone.

In some ways I like the mistakes of science fiction better, though, because it shows me how quickly change can happen in ways that were totally unpredicted, if not unpredictable, in just one or two generations. Asimov saw gender roles drastically shift in his lifetime, even though in his youth they seemed so static that he thought they’d be the same millions of years from now. I grew up with cassette tapes, then thought CDs would be the final technology I would have to invest in, and now there’s thumb drives, hard drives, my phone and the cloud to store all my music on.

It gives me hope for the future. If gender roles can change so drastically in 20 years, or society’s acceptance of homosexuality, or the de-criminalization of marijuana, then perhaps other things can change as well. I’m rooting for a drastic change in how humans treat the natural world. New technology has been created that can clean up the plastic in the ocean, change plastic back into oil, and run cars on electricity. If we could change conventional agriculture into something else, that would be a huge step — maybe 20 years from now, half of our country’s population will be growing 70% of its food where their lawns used to be.

Something’s going to change. Things are changing. Some of the changes I like, some of them I fear. Science fiction has taught me that change is unpredictable — I was just reading a collection of short stories from 1986, and the last two supposed we had wiped out the human race with atomic war. They had no idea the Wall would be coming down in just a few years. I wonder what other changes I’ll see in my lifetime…

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.