Wednesday, July 12, 2006

on looking inward and looking outward

It’s strange and interesting to see how science fiction has change in the last thirty years. Having watched with incredulity over the last few years as NASA is incapable of putting anyone into orbit properly, let alone send them to any other planets it makes me think how strange the assumptions of old sci fi were.
Firstly that people genuinely thought it would merely take a hop, skip and a jump of technology and we could move from planet to planet, solar system to solar system. There were analogies for this, the advance in the first forty years of human flight from rickety wooden biplanes to stratosphere touching jet engines. It seemed only logical to assume it would keep going. Only it hasn’t, engineering hasn’t really moved that much in the last three decades- we’re still using petrol engines for god sake. Even if we were able to get those fabled warpjumphyperjet drives nobody now really thinks we’d find what once we’d hoped for. Fabulous alien jungle planets, amazonian women, all those fantasies of new frontiers are no more wrong or more unlikely than they ever were only people no longer expect them to be there.
Space is no longer the final frontier, firstly because we have got over the need for frontiers. America loved the idea of space because they had been raised on myths of westerns, or a wild frontier that could be tamed. It was only logical that once they ran out of that land they should turn their gaze upwards. They should see the next logical step was the colonisation of space, that mars was like the west, that it could be tamed and made into farms and homesteads for the inorexible spread of humanity.
Thankfully we have moved away from fantasies of colonisation and a desire to ruthlessly exploit our environment. The fact that we’ve practically ruined ours means we have faced the realisation that we are no longer children, we can’t just do as we please, can’t just take what we want without responsibility.
There is also the flaws that were always there that sc fi glossed over. You can see them more and more looking at the space program and the effects of long term space missions of people. The fact is we are prisoners of the environment we evolved to cope with, both physically and psychologically. Being in space screws up the human body, a lack of gravity means osteoporosis, the weakening of muscles and a host of other complaints. More importantly even if they are overcome there are the psychological damage space will cause, living in a tiny box in space has untold effects on people, being in space conceptually is utterly alien. The idea of raising people in space would mean a race of people who were not really human. Who knows what effect these things would have, bearing in mind how even the smallest changes can wreck havoc on the fine balance of the human mind?
Likewise settling other planets, it has been touched on in some sci fi stories, the idea that even if terraforming were successful you would again be raising a race of aliens, who would naturally evolve to he individual rhythms of their colonised planet. As no planet could ever be the mirror of earth those rhythms could be very unique.

But that is not so interesting, just the kind of party pooping stuff scientist have been saying for years. More interesting in terms of science fiction is the conceptual change from fifties style space exploration, be it pulp space heroes or well thought out Asimov style space operatics to what is most resonant today. Simply put people no longer give a toss about space, sure we’d like some aliens but there seems little chance of that happening. We no longer look outward, and the sci fi of today reflects the changes and the technology we find most influences our lives. In a word computers, in a broader way information management.
The only great advances we have achieved and that have changed the world in the last thirty years have been through electronics, in computing and communication. We now have the means to represent information digitally and spread it to everyone who wants it. We are more concerned with learning, be it educationally, through entertainment, through interaction and gaming. Humanity is now more interested in the contents of our heads than in what is above them. We are now able to create images and experiences beyond what our forefather could have imagined and it is improving all the time.
The talk now is of the future of information, of how we can make it enhance, and possibly supplant, human experience. Sci fi reflects this, while cyberpunk optimisms (in terms of technical advance) elude us the real excitement lies in creating new worlds, not discovering them. The matrix sums this up pretty well, where the real world is pretty rubbish, destroyed and despoiled, despite what all those irritating hippies in zion might claim the fantasy world of unnecessary arse kicking and fancy gun play is considerably more appealing. Likewise most cutting age sci fi concerns the worlds within, the world of the internet and what it may evolve into, a place entirely constructed either by man or by what man has made to do the job for them.
It is more resonant and exciting to people who spend most of their lives living in an electronic realm that the future will be AI’s and virtual worlds, of people writing themselves into software and living infinite lives without ever interacting with anything solid or real ever again. Regardless of my own party pooping thoughts on the subject that is the new space opera. No one gets hurt in the computer world, you can live again without responsibility, you can colonise what ever you want because you have made it yourself, you can kill and conquer and indulge bloodlusts without having to feel guilty. Its also safer, in a world where having sex could kill you and the very actions of trying to find a partner are seemingly more difficult doing it all online is much easier, and no doubt potentially more exciting, because your avatar can be as skinny or as muscular as you like.
Will the future go the way of cyberspaces and infinite mind realms to be explored? Or will it fall afoul of the same realities that scuppered the space opera? Modern sci fi may be more aware of realities, global warming and economic collapse but there is still that grain of optimism, that if we can get to that singularity, if we can write ourselves to software then everything will be ok.


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