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Monday, February 21, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Most of you know I got a Kindle ereader a few months ago. Since then, I've been building a big collection of public domain ebooks, as well as locating ebook versions of books I already own in hard copy. As with music and MP3s -- owning the CD gives you the right to have electronic copies of the music on the CD -- I believe owning a physical copy of book should give me the right to have an electronic copy, too. I expect the publishing companies would see the issue differently, but I'm also not aware of any legal decisions contrary to my position. (Then again, I am not a lawyer and could hardly be said to be anything close to up-to-date on copyright law.) Despite the indication that this column is about ebooks and the law, it's actually about writing.

One thing I've found interesting about reading older science fiction books is just how wrong some of the writers were at predicting even the near future. Nowhere is this more obvious than when the characters in older science fiction novels start doing heavy mathematics. In First Lensman, chronologically the second Lensman novel but also the last of the six novels to be published, E. E. "Doc" Smith has his characters reach for a slip stick -- slide rule, to those of you too young to have heard the term -- and start calculating away. First Lensman was published in 1950, shortly before computers grabbed the public's attention as "big brain thinking machines," amazing the world with their ability to multiply two huge numbers together in a fraction of a second. But Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, an old favorite of mine from my high school days, also features the main character reaching for a slide rule to check calculations.

In First Lensman, humans have faster than light travel and have colonized hundreds of worlds. In Heinlein's novel, there are colonies on the moon and the main character wins a spacesuit in a contest. Both writers had no trouble envisioning mankind spreading out from earth and colonizing other heavenly bodies, but neither one could make the much smaller leap to the idea that computers would become every-day accessories long before mankind had off-world colonies.

Am I being fair to Smith, Heinlein, and the legion of other science fiction authors who made the same "mistake" when predicting the future? No, I'm not. The idea that bigger meant better was still strongly in force at least through the 1960s, so they can readily be excused for not being able to predict the wave of miniaturization that now rules the technological world. But, much as I understand this, I have a harder time taking these stories seriously as a result.

These days, a lot of science fiction is all about miniaturization. Nano tech is all the rage, with doctors curing patients by injecting nanobots programmed to perform intricate surgery, nanobots make us all walking computers with immediate online access to the accumulated knowledge of mankind, and I've even read a story featuring nano attack vessels used in hostage situations. Will science fiction readers of the future look back on these stories and smile, thinking how badly today's writers misjudged the future of technology? They probably will.

But I suspect they'll also look back and wonder at the writers' inability to predict changes in society. I recall watching the Star Trek episode which introduced the world to Kahn and having one of those moments. When introducing the female officer who would fall for Kahn, we were treated to a little discussion between Kirk, Bones, and Scotty about what a good officer she was but that, someday, she'd meet the right man and Star Fleet would lose a good officer to marriage. I was watching a rerun of the episode with a bunch of friends and we all got a big laugh out of that. We were all fans of the show and got together in my dorm room to watch it before heading down to dinner. This was no more than 10 years since the episode was originally broadcast, yet the world had changed enough to make that line sound as if it came from Victorian times.

I suspect social change is going be even harder to predict that technological change. From the late 1960s and through the 1970s, I read lots of novels dealing with the near future and the great sociological changes to come. Of particular interest was the idea that society would embrace sexual "freedom" to the point that certain adults would be selected to introduce teenagers to the world of sexuality, teaching them about pleasure and prevention. In the stories, these adults were always honored for taking on this sacred duty. Most of the novels had settings in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Yes, sex pervades a lot of society, but we still haven't quite reached the point where society as a whole actively promotes such ideas. (Things like this probably helped support the idea of science fiction fans as geeks who couldn't get a girl, though.)

Can you really spend a lot of time worrying about how future generations of fans will view your stories while you're writing them? Of course not. You'd probably never finish a story if you did. The best you can do is make your best guesses and start writing.

Perhaps this is one reason steampunk is becoming so popular among new writers. You can't get the technology wrong because we're already past the steam age. You can't get the society wrong because it's already set, as well. In this respect, steampunk may be even better than fantasy as you don't even have to make yourself ignore the squalor of medieval culture.
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