By Cory Doctorow
(Originally published in Locus Magazine, July 2007)
Science fiction is a literature of the present. Many’s the science fiction writer who uses the future as a warped mirror for reflecting back on the present day, angled to illustrate the hidden strangeness buried by our invisible assumptions: Orwell turned 1948 into Nineteen Eighty-Four. But even when the fictional future isn’t a parable about the present day, it is necessarily a creation of the present day, since it reflects the present day biases that infuse the author. Hence Asimov’s Foundation, a New Deal-esque project to think humanity out of its tribulations though social interventionism.
Bold SF writers eschew the future altogether, embracing a futuristic account of the present day. William Gibson’s forthcoming Spook Country is an act of “speculative presentism,” a book so futuristic it could only have been set in 2006, a book that exploits retrospective historical distance to let us glimpse just how alien and futuristic our present day is.
Science fiction writers aren’t the only people in the business of predicting the future. Futurists—consultants, technology columnists, analysts, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurial pitchmen—spill a lot of ink, phosphors, and caffeinated hot air in describing a vision for a future where we’ll get more and more of whatever it is they want to sell us or warn us away from. Tomorrow will feature faster, cheaper processors, more Internet users, ubiquitous RFID tags, radically democratic political processes dominated by bloggers, massively multiplayer games whose virtual economies dwarf the physical economy.
There’s a lovely neologism to describe these visions: “futurismic.” Futurismic media is that which depicts futurism, not the future. It is often self-serving—think of the antigrav Nikes in Back to the Future III—and it generally doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
SF films and TV are great fonts of futurismic imagery: R2D2 is a fully conscious AI, can hack the firewall of the Death Star, and is equipped with a range of holographic projectors and antipersonnel devices—but no one has installed a $15 sound card and some text-to-speech software on him, so he has to whistle like Harpo Marx. Or take the Starship Enterprise, with a transporter capable of constituting matter from digitally stored plans, and radios that can breach the speed of light.
The non-futurismic version of NCC-1701 would be the size of a softball (or whatever the minimum size for a warp drive, transporter, and subspace radio would be). It would zip around the galaxy at FTL speeds under remote control. When it reached an interesting planet, it would beam a stored copy of a landing party onto the surface, and when their mission was over, it would beam them back into storage, annihilating their physical selves until they reached the next stopping point. If a member of the landing party were eaten by a green-skinned interspatial hippie or a giant toga-wearing galactic tyrant, that member would be recovered from backup by the transporter beam. Hell, the entire landing party could consist of multiple copies of the most effective crewmember onboard: no redshirts, just a half-dozen instances of Kirk operating in clonal harmony.
Futurism has a psychological explanation, as recounted in Harvard clinical psych prof Daniel Gilbert’s 2006 book, Stumbling on Happiness. Our memories and our projections of the future are necessarily imperfect. Our memories consist of those observations our brains have bothered to keep records of, woven together with inference and whatever else is lying around handy when we try to remember something. Ask someone who’s eating a great lunch how breakfast was, and odds are she’ll tell you it was delicious. Ask the same question of someone eating rubbery airplane food, and he’ll tell you his breakfast was awful. We weave the past out of our imperfect memories and our observable present.
We make the future in much the same way: we use reasoning and evidence to predict what we can, and whenever we bump up against uncertainty, we fill the void with the present day. Hence the injunction on women soldiers in the future of Starship Troopers, or the bizarre, glassed-over “Progressland” city diorama at the end of the 1964 World’s Fair exhibit The Carousel of Progress, which Disney built for GE.
Lapsarianism—the idea of a paradise lost, a fall from grace that makes each year worse than the last—is the predominant future feeling for many people. It’s easy to see why: an imperfectly remembered golden childhood gives way to the worries of adulthood and physical senescence. Surely the world is getting worse: nothing tastes as good as it did when we were six, everything hurts all the time, and our matured gonads drive us into frenzies of bizarre, self-destructive behavior.
Lapsarianism dominates the Abrahamic faiths. I have an Orthodox Jewish friend whose tradition holds that each generation of rabbis is necessarily less perfect than the rabbis that came before, since each generation is more removed from the perfection of the Garden. Therefore, no rabbi is allowed to overturn any of his forebears’ wisdom, since they are all, by definition, smarter than him.
The natural endpoint of Lapsarianism is apocalypse. If things get worse, and worse, and worse, eventually they’ll just run out of worseness. Eventually, they’ll bottom out, a kind of rotten death of the universe when Lapsarian entropy hits the nadir and takes us all with it.
Running counter to Lapsarianism is progressivism: the Enlightenment ideal of a world of great people standing on the shoulders of giants. Each of us contributes to improving the world’s storehouse of knowledge (and thus its capacity for bringing joy to all of us), and our descendants and proteges take our work and improve on it. The very idea of “progress” runs counter to the idea of Lapsarianism and the fall: it is the idea that we, as a species, are falling in reverse, combing back the wild tangle of entropy into a neat, tidy braid.
Of course, progress must also have a boundary condition—if only because we eventually run out of imaginary ways the human condition can improve. And science fiction has a name for the upper bound of progress, a name for the progressive apocalypse:
We call it the Singularity.
Vernor Vinge’s Singularity takes place when our technology reaches a stage that allows us to “upload” our minds into software, run them at faster, hotter speeds than our neurological wetware substrate allows for, and create multiple, parallel instances of ourselves. After the Singularity, nothing is predictable because everything is possible. We will cease to be human and become (as the title of Rudy Rucker’s next novel would have it) Postsingular.
The Singularity is what happens when we have so much progress that we run out of progress. It’s the apocalypse that ends the human race in rapture and joy. Indeed, Ken MacLeod calls the Singularity “the rapture of the nerds,” an apt description for the mirror-world progressive version of the Lapsarian apocalypse.
At the end of the day, both progress and the fall from grace are illusions. The central thesis of Stumbling on Happiness is that human beings are remarkably bad at predicting what will make us happy. Our predictions are skewed by our imperfect memories and our capacity for filling the future with the present day.
The future is gnarlier than futurism. NCC-1701 probably wouldn’t send out transporter-equipped drones—instead, it would likely find itself on missions whose ethos, mores, and rationale are largely incomprehensible to us, and so obvious to its crew that they couldn’t hope to explain them.
Science fiction is the literature of the present, and the present is the only era that we can hope to understand, because it’s the only era that lets us check our observations and predictions against reality.
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