What should you look for in predictive SF?

Photo by Dark Matter

Brad Feld just mentioned that he’s reading and watching as much science fiction as he can, to open his mind to the potential future. I’m a sci fi addict, and the same thought was on my mind after seeing Rick Segal’s post on the machines being built to scan books. Rainbow’s End from a few years ago largely centered on the competition to scan as many paper libraries as possible, with Google and other companies in a race to grab all that juicy data as quickly as they could. They resort to putting the books through a giant tree-shredder, photographing the pieces as they fly through the air, and then using algorithms much like those used to reconstruct the Stasi files to piece the complete text back together. It makes a lot of engineering sense, but also makes the book-lover in me squirm.

Vernor Vinge is one of the best authors if you’re looking for plausible future technology. As a computer science professor, his extrapolation is grounded in a deep knowledge of the present. For instance, I love his passing mention of the nanobots in A Deepness in the Sky having a software stack with Unix buried deep at the bottom. I’d never thought it through before, but it makes total sense that we’ll always keep adding more layers, and over thousands of years you’ll need code archaeologists to understand the depths. He also has some sobering characters who were todays programming hotshots, but ended up like buggy-whip makers or steelworkers once the technology left them behind. A good reminder to keep up your 401k.

What should you look for in SF if you want an insight into the future? My top criteria is that everyone should have jobs. There’s a dividing line between the utopian fiction of ideas, and those where people have the same problems as we do today. Putting the technology in the hands of ordinary folks with jobs and families forces the author to tackle questions of practicality and usability. Philip K Dick and Vinge and William Gibson all focus on this everyday world, and you get to see technology that’s both useful and plausible. I love Iain M. Banks, but his characters mostly live in a nerd-rapture utopia where everything is free and people only work for fun. If there’s no constraints, you end up with cool but never-in-our-lifetime technology like the knife missiles.

Another tip is to look for short story collections. There’s a lot higher idea-to-words ratio in the short form, and it allows writers to focus on a sketch of a corner of the world, rather than getting lost in the details of how the whole system works. For a regular dose I recommend a subscription to Interzone, probably the best SF magazine around.

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