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Sci-Fi writers and technology's future

Daniel Dern | Dec. 17, 2008
CIO invited noted science fiction authors Larry Niven, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress and Charles Stross to share their thoughts on technology-related predictions.

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."

"This goes right back to the Space Race, and the movie 2001," (directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke) says Robert J. Sawyer.

Sawyer has written over 20 science fiction books, including his Neanderthal trilogy, Factoring Humanity, and Mindscan, plus numerous stories. His most recent novel is Rollback, and he has a trilogy in progress (the first volume due April 2009) in which the Web wakes up. Sawyer is one of only seven writers in history-and the only Canadian-to win all three of the world's top Science Fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

"No one predicted in 1969, when the first man walked on the moon, that the last man would walk on the moon just three years later," Sawyer points out. "When Arthur C. Clarke depicted all those wonders- artificial intelligence, suspended animation, floating hotels, cities on the moon, manned interplanetary travel-in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, those seemed like reasonable predictions for the dawn of this century, but none of them came to pass."

"The trap we science and space buffs always fall into is thinking that everybody will want the things that we want," Sawyer explains. "They don't; they have their own agendas, and ultimately, as in everything, it's the economy, stupid. Just because you personally want something doesn't mean there's a market for it. Just because we technically could do something doesn't mean that's how others want to see their tax dollars spent."

"Future tech can only be predicted short-term-say, 10 or 15 years ahead," states Nancy Kress.

Kress is the author of 25 books, including 16 science fiction or fantasy novels, two thrillers, four story collections and three books on writing. Her most recent books are Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories and the present-day bio-thriller Dogs. Forthcoming is Steal Across the Sky, "an SF novel of galactic crime, genetic engineering and alien atonement." Kress has won every major award in science fiction, including four Nebulas given by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Yes, Clarke got communication satellites right, Kress says "-but he missed computers in, say, the classic Childhood's End. When writers extrapolate from existing trends, that leaves out the wild card, which is where the most interesting tech often comes from-Alexander Fleming noticing a contaminant on lab bacteria, Steve Jobs tinkering in his garage."


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