Science fiction isn't (as a rule) about predicting the future, and science fiction writers aren't trying to predict it.
"No sensible science-fiction writer tries to predict anything," says Frederick Pohl, whose work includes the classic The Space Merchants (written with Cyril M. Kornbluth), MAN PLUS, and most recently The Last Theorem, co-authored with the late. "Neither do the smartest futurologists. What those people do is try to imagine every important thing that may happen (so as to do in the present things which may encourage the good ones and forestall the bad) and that's what SF writers do in their daily toil."
But many science fiction stories are set in the future, which means they need to include the future of technology (or present reasons why things haven't changed). That is, they have to extrapolate from "what/where things have been and are" to "what/where might be."
CIO invited noted science fiction authors Larry Niven, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress and Charles Stross to share their thoughts on technology-related predictions, including lessons learned in the "business" of imagining what the future might be like. Here's what they had to say (via e-mail).
What have you learned about predicting technology's future?
From ramscoops and brain pleasure implants ("drouds") to Romulan-class warrior cats ("Kzinti) and Earth-orbit-sized habitats (the Ringworld), few science fiction writers have given us bigger visions than Larry Niven.
Niven has written or co-authored over 50 books, including the Ringworld series, and with co-author Jerry Pournelle, The Mote In God's Eye, The Gripping Hand and Oath of Fealty. Niven has won five Hugo Awards (awarded annually by science fiction fans) and a Nebula Award (awarded annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America). His most recent books include Juggler of Worlds (with co-author Edward M. Lerner) and the upcoming Escape From Hell (with Jerry Pournelle), a sequence to their Inferno.
Niven's science fiction includes a wide range of technology we don't (yet) have, from room-temperature supercomputers (Ringworld) to "stepping disks" (manhole-sized unenclosed teleportation units).
Here's what Niven has to say regarding techniques for predicting a valid future technology:
Look for the goals humankind will never give up. Instant travel, instant education, longevity. Then try to guess when it will appear and what it will look like. Pay close attention to parasite control. There is always someone who wants the money for something else.
You're obliged to predict not just the automobile but the traffic jam and the stranglehold on gas prices. Nobody invents anything unless there is at least the illusion of a profit.
The only science fiction movie that did this right, according to Niven (it wasn't clear whether he was referring to the last point, or all his bullet points), was the 1983 film Brainstorm, in which, according to Niven, "a valid technology was followed from its inception to its limits."
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