Thursday, November 10, 2011

Future Tech in Fiction

I thought this week I'd talk about some incorrect technology predictions in fiction. My aim is more to highlight ways in which authors can be wrong rather than mock them. I mean, you can't expect to be right all the time, but I think it's interesting to note exactly how they were wrong and why (from a somewhat philosophical point of view).

So I've chosen three books, all old (60ish years) and all containing some piece of technology which didn't quite work out as foreseen.

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Second Foundation the final book in the original Foundation trilogy was first published in 1953 (although it was serialised in Astounding Magazine -- now known as Analog -- prior to that between 1948 and 1950). For those unfamiliar with the Foundation series, it is set in a post-galactic empire world as said galactic empire is crumbling. So a good thousand years or so in the future.

I remember quite clearly a passage where one of the characters, a teenage girl called Arkady, is writing an essay for school. These days, obviously, she would be typing it on a computer. In Second Foundation she was dictating to a typewriter that printed in nice calligraphy on pink (I think) scented paper. I don't think it was called a typewriter (but I don't have the book nearby to check) but it seems an apt label since I think when she mispronounced something she had to redo the page. Definitely no screen.

Asimov himself has said that he completely failed to predict a few major things, one of which was the miniaturisation of computers (up until the microchip was invented in the real world his future tech computers still had vacuum tubes). Does that make Asimov's work wrong or bad? No, it doesn't. A typewriter you can talk at is a possible evolution of writing hardware, just not the one we followed. It's not that we can't make a dictation-typewriter now, it's that we have better things, like editable text. (See, that story even pre-dated electric typewriters.)

Would Asimov's story been better if he had somehow foreseen laptops or smartphones and given his characters those instead of juiced up typewriters? I think not, for a couple of reasons:
  1. It was a fairly minor point in the story and stopping to explain a laptop to a 1950s audience would have taken several unnecessary pages and not added anything to the actual story (the point of the scene, from memory, is to build setting and to later show us how she grows throughout the story).
  2. Once you have something like a laptop, a lot of the other technology would need upgrading (no more vacuum tubes on spaceships either) which would lead to more needless explaining of concepts. It's not that there isn't a place for explaining future tech in stories -- it's what puts the "hard" in hard SF after all -- but I think you need to choose your battles in terms of what's most relevant to the story at hand.
This example reminds me of the quote by Henry Ford, who invented the car: "If I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse." But maybe sometimes we need a faster horse. I think that often what we really want the future to be like is more or less like now, but a bit better, faster and shinier. Unless you're dealing with dystopian SF, which Asimov assuredly was not.

Prelude to Space by Arthur C Clarke

This novel was written in 1947 but, according to Wiki, not published until 1951. It was set in the near future (relative to when it was written); the 1970s. It recounts the events leading up to the launch of the first manned mission to the moon in delightful detail. (If you're wondering, it's the British, launching from Woomera in Australia, who win this space race. Possibly unsurprising given Clarke's nationality.)

I am in no way faulting Clarke for getting the year wrong for the moon landing (and he wasn't that far off). I do think having the British achieve it was a bit optimistic on his part, but I don't have a problem with that either (and being set in Australia gets bonus points from me ;-p ). In fact I've included it here for pretty much just one flippant statement made by a character about the future of spaceflight.

At some point, one of the characters makes the remark that atomic rockets were necessary to get to the moon and that it would never have been possible with chemical rockets. The problem? Chemical rockets are exactly how we got to the moon, and just about everywhere else, at least in part. Some prototypes and a few probes have done more interesting things, but all manned missions used chemical rockets.

The problem isn't that the book had nuclear powered space flight, it was the sweeping generalisation that quickly dated it. OK, so the whole "we don't need to speculate about how we're going to get to the moon once we've been there and know how we got there" also contributed to that. Perhaps I should have said that the sweeping generalisation made me laugh when I read it.

My suggestion is not to make sweeping generalisations about future tech if you can avoid it, especially if you're writing something reasonably near-future. I think it might become less important in other sub-genres such as dystopian science fiction for example.

Step to the Stars by Lester del Rey

This one was published in 1954. Also, I don't recommend actually reading it because it is horribly racist and sexist.

(I think it's good that my formative SF-reading years were spent reading mostly Asimov, who isn't racist nor sexist*. I'm not sure what I would have made of the highly inflammatory and offensive preface to this book if I had read it at a more impressionable age. The preface, if you're curious, basically said that if We -- ie Americans, because no one else reads books in English, right? -- don't build a space station first, then They -- that is, the evil commies -- will kill Us all with space lasers. I'll admit I don't remember if space lasers were actually mentioned, but that was the gist. It might have been nukes, now that I come to think of it. Anyway...)

The premise is that in order to expand into space, the best approach is to build a space station and then launch ships to the moon and Mars and wherever from there. So the US government decides to build one in secret. Egads! There is no way that would have stayed secret as long as it did in the book. Sure, you might be able to put a few high-orbit military satellites up without your enemies noticing, but all the bits required for a space station? I think not. Not to mention that the actual space station would be reasonably noticeable (assuming you were looking for your enemies to do something, which given the context of the book, they would have been). But I am ranting about the wrong thing. (Also, gah! They recruited random engineers and mechanics to build the thing in space. What?! AND these people all kept quiet about the secret space station? OK, OK, moving on.)

I thought the descriptions of living in space were reasonable, particularly given that they were written before anyone had ever actually been in space. What I wanted to draw attention to was how del Rey portrayed rocket flight. The Loyal Citizens building the space station used small rocket-powered taxi ships (I hesitate to call them shuttles because of other connotations) to get around between the construction site and whatnot. (See how large this enterprise was? How could they think it would stay secret?) The way it was described, each little ship had just one largish rocket attached to it, so to break or turn, they had to point the rocket in another direction and fire. I believe gyroscopes were used to change orientation.

It's not so much that he got the physics wrong here (although rockets as we usually think of them would be much too powerful for these purposes, that is easily overcome), but the impracticality of the set up. Surely it would save time and training money to just put smaller rockets in for manoeuvring? This is what we do in the real world, more or less (the less being that the actual rockets used are nothing like the sort used to get off the ground because there's no gravity to overcome and no air-resistance either).

It's not just accurate science which is necessary -- del Rey was as accurate as he could be, from memory -- but practicality. Yes, you can use a gyroscope to flip your ship around and change direction, but think of how disorienting that would be for the pilot with all the spinning stars.

* I mean, Asimov's books aren't overfilled with female characters or anything, and they are in many ways a product of their times, but he had some competent women who were more than secretaries or love interests to the male characters. For example Susan Calvin in some of the robot stories, Arkady who was mentioned above, and several secondary characters whose names escape me. And he wasn't racist.

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