A look into the future

By Kirstin Morrell

What does the future hold? We all fantasize about going there, but the only time travel possible for most of us is the slow passage forward, one day at a time. However, a select few–people lucky enough to be professional dreamers–leapfrog ahead, contemplating far tomorrows. Some of what these science fiction writers have predicted has come to pass while other prognostications have missed the mark by lightyears. Still, the fascination with the future persists.

Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson are two of Canada’s most engaging minds when it comes to thinking, writing, and speaking at length about the future. Both make their livings as science fiction writers, pondering the various possibilities of the future. Both have won top awards in their fields, the Hugo and Nebula for Sawyer and the John W. Campbell and Philip K. Dick for Wilson. Additionally, Both have published novels used in University of Calgary courses.

‘”The global emergency in Spin is not something I ever expect to come to pass, but it does stand in for a lot of potential slow disasters we are in for. Part of the book deals with how reluctant we are to deal with slow emergencies, or what one writer called the long emergency–the ecological disasters, the water shortages, and the fuel shortages we’re in for this century. People are reluctant to confront these things, as they don’t happen quickly enough. One day follows the next as it did before, and the process is invisible to us,” he adds.

Sawyer’s fascination with the future began when he was eight years old and his father brought him to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. He realized that, in the year 2001, he would be younger than his father was then, and living in a world of technological wonder that was presented in the movie.

“It was also driven home for me in 1979, when my grandfather died,” says Sawyer. “He had made it to a ripe old age, 87. The day before he died, I went to visit him in the old folks’ home. I think he knew he was going to die, because he enumerated all of the things he had seen in his 87 years, which included powered flight and radio, computers and laser beams, people on the moon, DNA, and X-ray machines. At the end of the conversation he said, ‘and you’re going to see so much more.’”

It was that promise that captivated him. The future is accelerating and the amount of change his grandfather or his father saw was small compared to what he was going to see.

Sadly, so much of that promise never came to be.

“I think you could tell by 1972 that we weren’t going to get Kubrick and Clarke’s future, because that’s when the Americans abandoned the Apollo space program,” says Sawyer. “Tons of science fiction writers predicted that in about 1970 we would put a man on the moon. Nobody predicted that, three years later, the world would be so bored with it that we would stop flying to the moon.”

And yet, given enough time, big changes do accumulate. Most university students convocating this year have seen the progression from cars running on leaded gasoline to hybrid electric vehicles. They have seen computers go from clunky, monochrome machines too expensive to have in the home, to wondrous full-colour devices you can hold in the palm of your hand. Most importantly, society has seen the explosion of technological, social, and cultural change. However, not every promised wonder has appeared.

People go hungry in this very city, just as they still do in Africa. For all the technological marvels, no one could save a handful of men trapped in a submarine on the ocean floor. Cities still endure brownouts, and there are Canadian towns that cannot provide their residents with clean drinking water.

In this lifetime, the term “Biafran” has moved from a word signifying some of the greatest human need and suffering to a word without meaning, and “Contra” has become the name of a video game. “Alien” has transformed from someone who slipped across the border to someone who slipped across the empty reaches of space.

The flying car and the four-day workweek seem equally implausible.

With all the peaks and valleys of human experience in the last few decades, people still desire to know what the future will hold.

Sawyer’s latest book, Mindscan, is very much about the promise of technology and the social changes and battles for rights that so often follow. It’s a story about the ability to cheat death by copying human consciousness into immortal android bodies.

“It’s funny listening to people saying ‘I don’t understand science, but I’m deeply concerned with the social issues of the day,’” says Sawyer.

“When, in fact, the social issues of the day are always scientific in origin; science fiction explores these social impacts all the time.

“The biggest single ethical debate in the United States right now is the abortion issue. It’s only in the last 50 years that it’s been possible, through advances in science and technology, for a woman to present herself to a doctor and say these three things: ‘I’m pregnant, I don’t want to be, and I don’t want you to hurt me in the process of ceasing my pregnancy.’ Those sorts of dilemmas are the core subject matter of science fiction.”

Wilson couldn’t agree more.

“For me I think it comes down to a real sense of human contingency. This is a literature that deals with the inarguable fact that things have not always been the way that they are now, that things will not always be the way they are now. Everything that looks stable and reliable to us is in the long term is mutable and subject to change.”

Wilson explains that this stems from a long tradition in literature.

“I think this goes back to the earliest days of the genre. That’s what H.G. Wells was doing in The Time Machine. He was trying to imaginatively inhabit an extremely mutable world that had been envisioned by 19th century geology and evolutionary theory.

‘”To give you an example, I think someone looking at life in North America now, someone from the year, say, 1900, would imagine that we live in a kind of paradise, and that the 20th century must have consisted of uninterrupted progress towards prosperity. But of course it isn’t true. In a sense we do live in a kind of paradise, but it’s hardly been an uninterrupted progression. We’ve suffered through wars, enormous technological problems, we’ve lived through the holocaust. In many ways, it’s been a desperate and terrible century. But there has been progress, too. So I think the best we can hope for is a mixed bag. Optimism is an invaluable tool in making a better future possible,” he adds.

With thinkers like Sawyer and Wilson urging science forward, the question is no longer will scientific miracles like space flight become routine, but when will they become so accepted that only the further pushing of the scientific envelope will satisfy our hunger for more.

Until then, thinkers like these provide a roadmap for our never-ending journey into tomorrow.