Can You Still Write Science Fiction Set In The Future?

The future is over! It's no longer possible to write about the future, because the Singularity will definitely happen in twenty years. We'll have artificial intelligence, and the meaning of humanity will be transformed. Is this idea hindering science fiction?

We went to a Worldcon panel called "The Singularity: Are We Getting Any Closer?" featuring Farthing author Jo Walton and Julian Comstock/Spin author Robert Charles Wilson. They talked a lot about the pitfalls and plausibility of the Singularity, the idea that a drastic change in technology will result in a world we can barely visualize, full of sentient machines and vastly improved longevity, among other things.

Many people seem to think the Singularity is inevitable, noted Walton, but the panel was aimed at questioning whether we're any closer to it now than when Vernor Vinge pioneered it in his 1986 novel Marooned In Realtime.

For her part, Walton argues the Singularity is an interesting concept for science-fiction storytelling, but "it isn't going to happen. It's a completely mistaken concept [and] we've made no real progress towards it." The idea is based on a false extrapolation, similar to saying that since we could go 30 MPH 100 years ago, and 400 MPH 50 years ago, now we should be traveling at the speed of light.

And because people believe the Singularity is inevitable, some argue that you can't write about the future at all — since we can't imagine life after the Singularity, it's almost impossible to write about. Walton worries that this idea is the "turd in the punchbowl" of future-set science fiction.

Adds Walton: "To be fair, Vinge has written some excellent fiction within that constraint [of assuming the Singularity happens in 20 years], in the same way people write sonnets — but a sonnet is not the only poem you would want to write."

Wilson pointed out that if the Singularity really is coming, then it's inevitable — so there's no need for people to be cheerleaders for it. He compared it to "telepathy or dianetics," science-fictional ideas which some people adopted "with religious fervor." A core question in science fiction is "where is our technology going, and what can we do with it," noted Wilson. "The Singularity is just one answer."

Panelist Christopher Carson pointed out that the science fiction section in bookstores lately consists of nothing but "transhuman science fiction or urban fantasy." People tend to see the Singularity coming partly because devices are becoming more complicated — but that's often an example of "feature creep," like the fact that your cellphone now has a host of functions you don't understand and didn't ask for. That's not really a sign of progress, because those extra functions were designed by some marketing person somewhere, he pointed out.

The Singularity is notoriously hard to define, but people often say that you could bring Socrates forward in time and take him to Worldcon, and he would understand what it was about, more or less. But you couldn't take a goldfish to Worldcon and have it understand what was going on. A present-day human, visiting a post-Singularity world, would be more like that goldfish than Socrates.

But Walton says this is a loaded example, because Socrates is an extraordinary example. A "random Greek person" from Socrates' era might have a much harder time understanding Worldcon.

"The question I sometimes ask myself is, How would the Singularity work in Darfur?" says Wilson.

And there was lots of talk about the potential downsides of getting the Internet in your head, complete with phishing, spam, malware and bad memes. Says Walton, the first 100,000 people who get the Internet in their heads, without any terrible, life-ending mishaps, will have a really hard time upgrading later on. "Imagine an outdated computer in your head."