In my classes on writing fantasy and science fiction I spend some time, for the benefit of the science fiction authors, talking about technology. I’m certainly not the first person to point out that good science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, either in terms of available or emerging technology, or social or political trends. Good science fiction addresses issues (political or personal) that are of concern now.

Still, some science fiction authors were able to manage a couple of bold predictions that at least kinda came true, like Jules Verne sort of anticipating the nuclear submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or H.G. Wells more or less predicting the development of nuclear weapons in Things to Come.

But way more often . . . and I mean way more often, even the smartest, most well-read and well-intentioned SF scribes get it wrong. This tends only to be a problem when, like George Orwell or Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, you make the mistake of fixing a specific date to your story. But what most SF authors miss is less the technology than the concurrent social advance. Not only did 2001: A Space Odyssey miss the mark on Pan Am shuttle flights to the space station on your way to the moon city that of course would be fully functional in the year 2001 (but no one had a cell phone or laptop), they also presented a high level meeting attended exclusively by white men in suits. There was still a Soviet Union/Cold War going on, etc.

As we continue to experience an exponential acceleration of technological advance as we barrel willy nilly to the singularity (whatever that is), we do what humans do. We adapt.

Unfortunately, for a lot us that means adapting by pretending it isn’t happening. The media, for instance, doesn’t quite know how to report scientific advances, especially with the conservative movement actively fighting against it. It’s all just happening too fast, and most of us need a minute (or, more accurately, a generation or so) to really understand that everything we thought we knew about X has been temporarily replaced with Y for a week or so until someone posits Z.

What all this means is that not only are you going to be as unable to guess correctly at the technological (much less social) landscape of the world thirty-three years from now as Kubrick & Clarke were when attempting to look that far into the future from 1968, it’s actually going to be even harder now than it was then.

Advances are happening so fast now it’s almost impossible to keep up. Here are a few examples I’ve cited in classes and seminars, to which most of the assembled authors react first with skepticism.

Have you seen the ultra-ultra-ultra-slow motion video of light moving through a Coke bottle? Is this the future of medical scanning technology? Will it allow soldiers and police officers to spot bad guys hiding around corners? Keep those two questions in mind while you stare in slack-jawed awe at this TED Talk:

We all know that the sun is moving through space, orbiting the center of the galaxy, right? So what does that mean to what we perceive as the orderly circular orbits of the planets, including Earth?

Did you know that it’s possible to get an old inkjet printer to make replacement organs from stem cells? How many lives will this save in, say, twenty years?

In my classes and seminars, no one believes the spider goat is real. It can’t be real, right? Well, it is! And it lives in Utah, where most of the people are positive that evolution (and therefore genetics) is a lie told by the devil.

The one job you can never replace with a computer is construction worker, right? Well…

Nanotechnology couldn’t possibly work because no way can you even see an atom, much less move it around. Except that . . .

And everyone knows that one thing can’t be in two different places at the same time, and that’s true for things like us that exist in the macro-scale, but how about in the quantum world? Well, our friends at MIT have now got a single photon to sit in four different places at the same time. So . . . yeah.

Which of these technologies will be up and running, even commonplace in, say, 2047—that same thirty-three year time span from Apollo to what Kubrick & Clarke (and their NASA consultants) thought would become of the space program?

Once femtophotography says, “I can see around corners,” I imagine the military-industrial complex saying, “Yeah, we’ll pay for that.” Likewise the medical-industrial complex and the new non-invasive scanner, too. And that same for profit medical system will surely fund organs-on-demand technology. The military would like the spider-goat milk/silk for body armor. I’m not 100% sure what a new way of looking at orbital dynamics will do for any industrial complex, but what the hell . . . the video is cool and makes us all a little smarter. Moving atoms around to spell words that can only be read by the same device used to move the atoms around? Not much of a commercial application there, but the point is to use similar technology to create, say, an airplane fuselage made out of a single vat-grown sapphire that’s lighter and stronger than any material yet available. Or make little robots that swim through your body disassembling viruses and cancer cells. There’s a market for those two things.

And ultimately, that’s where Kubrick & Clarke went off the rails. They asked NASA engineers, “All things being equal, what will you guys have cooked up by 2001?”

But all things weren’t equal. Ultimately the successful Apollo missions revealed the moon to be a dead place full of a whole lot of stuff we already have on Earth. It’s a horrible place to live, lacking basic amenities like, y’know, air. Budget slashed . . . next project.

Why have personal computers spread so rapidly? I can do something with them. I’m doing something with one right now, in fact. And so are you. There’s a market for computers, cell phones/smartphones, more energy efficient airplanes, medical technologies that help us live longer and feel better, and the military spends a lot of money trying to get better and better at blowing people up from a position of relative safety, since wounded soldiers cost money.

Is that what it comes down to, then? Money?



—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to ARE YOU KEEPING UP?

  1. Chris Mason says:

    Hey Phil,

    > But what most SF authors miss is less the technology than the concurrent social advance.

    For me, this is one of the more interesting aspects of science fiction. It’s not often the focus of a story, but it can really add a lot of depth and enjoyment for me. I’m talking about things like the effect of spice-driven interstellar travel on galactic society in the Dune novels, of the Ansible on human relations in the Ender’s Game novels or even the (smaller and not strictly technological) effect of the Fair Witnesses in Stranger in a Strange Land.

    Take a stab at a technology prediction and build a plausible society around it and it won’t matter to me how accurate the prediction itself is.

  2. abuzzinid says:

    Glad to hear that. I feel the same way. The technology for me is part of the setting and creates some of the story issues and barriers.


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