Sometimes The Future Seems Closer To Fantasy Than Science Fiction

We've all heard Clarke's aphorism that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But sometimes, it seems like we're already living it, as our tech acts more like sorcery. Full Fathom Five author Max Gladstone explores our fantastical relationship with gadgets.

I live in a low fidelity version of the magic castle from Beauty and the Beast. Not so much living space, true, fewer buttresses and crenellations, but with a wiggle of my fingers I can summon music, change the temperature, bring or banish light, and call food to appear at my door. I even have indoor plumbing, which I doubt they did in Magic France. On this subject, Madame de Villeneuve is silent.

And the sorcery is portable. Right now I'm writing on a magic mirror while the bus driver does 70 down I-93. Plugs in my ears create anti-sound to cancel the surrounding buswash while at the same time piping me the finest in 90s weavy tenor-voiced Brit rock. My bus has wifi, so if I want I can connect myself psychically to every lie that's ever been told in our solar system, and add a few of my own. I've turned off this function for purposes of focus, but if I need to check my facts—exactly which decade for said weavy tenor-voiced Brit rock, anyway?—never fear, there's another magic mirror in my pocket that I haven't subjected to intentional psychic lobotomy.

Welcome to the fantasyland of the 21st century.

And I do mean fantasyland. We talk about living "in the future," and joke about where our flying cars might be, but most of us understand the underpinnings of our reality, the mechanisms behind our technology and convenience, as little as Lord of the Rings hobbits understand how one might make a Ring of Power, or what it is Gandalf does anyway when he's not building fireworks.

Take this Apple-model magic mirror. I have never opened the back of the device; it's not designed to be opened by someone without special (proprietary) tools. As far as my own senses testify, this thing works because little demons inside make it work. Some people have the tools to open the mirror and perform upkeep, sure.

But there is not a single person in the world who could tell me, completely, how this device does what it does—who understands its operation well enough that starting from raw materials and given access to all needed equipment she could build and program a new one from first principles. Processor architects, materials scientists, engineers, manufacturing and supply chain experts, and of course the Guangdong factory workers who glued this iPad together: I have a pyramid's worth of research, development, and labor in my lap.

All of which work is hidden from me as user, from us as consumers. Our society spends tremendous effort to make its technology and infrastructure seem effortless—which in turn renders experts on everything from shipping to welding to chip design as invisible as the servants in the Beast's palace. Or, to use the fairy tale's Disney version: these people are literally subsumed into their product. My iPad is an artifact made to hide the fact that it was ever made. It's a design without a navel. A Nespresso machine captures the expertise of world-class baristas and Swiss engineers and coffee growers and purchasers, and allows someone who wants a perfect shot of espresso and has a little money to spend to forget these people exist. The quality of their work has been used to eclipse the fact that this work was ever done. The work is hidden; literally, it's occult.

Old school science fiction assumed the Future would know a lot more about itself than it's turned out to: that inventors would regularly throw together new rocket ships in their back yards, that moderately tech-inclined citizens could field-strip and reassemble hyperdrives when they broke. But the future has turned out to be so complicated that, to survive, we have to grow comfortable with the unknown. Why did my laptop fritz? The support tech probably doesn't know, but she knows rebooting is the first thing to try.

John Keats originally formulated his concept of negative capability ("that state of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason") to describe the poet's psyche; learning how to work under conditions of uncertainty, using systems we do not completely understand, has become a 21stcentury survival skill. For evidence, consider the last time you were drafted into providing tech support, or required that same support from a more technically-inclined friend.

"You click on that box to close the window." "Which box?" "The one in the upper left." "Why does that close the window?" "Because that's where we put close buttons." "How does clicking the button close the window?" The answer to which question is almost meaningless: closing a window in Windows uses different code than doing the same on a Macintosh, but the action looks so similar we describe it with the same phrase, much as we call both bird and bat wings "wings" even though they evolved differently.

We live in a world where we've worked to make our consumer tech as unknowable as magic, and we seek out stories about similar strange lands, from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. We're drawn to tales in which characters can't look under the hood. If there's an element of escapism in these stories, it's of escaping from the way we're told the world operates to the way it seems to in everyday life, from a world in which we say all answers can be known yet build and sell things to feel like magic, to a world where if the tin says magic, that's what you'll find inside.

But fantasies do more than mimic our weird magical world—they model possible responses to it, and the work, physical, intellectual, and moral, those responses take. In The Lord of the Rings, our heroes oppose a dark lord on a dark throne, supported by Rings of Power and ancient magics that make sentient beings forget themselves—and they triumph by reasserting their own identities.

Gandalf calls King Theoden forth; Galadriel refuses the Ring's temptation and "remains Galadriel." Aragorn saves Minas Tirith by becoming the True King; Sam saves Frodo by repeatedly resisting the Ring. To stop Voldemort from using the Elder Wand for evil, Harry and his friends need to learn what the Elder Wand is—and the principles based on which it operates. To defeat the shadow apprentice wizard Ged summons inA Wizard of Earthsea, he has to learn that shadow's name. Roger Zelazny'sLord of Lightcontains another example: a far-future rebel's quest to recover an identity stolen from him by "gods"—who are actually humans in possession of advanced technology they've used to create an apparently magical world. Sound familiar?

Rather than simply acting out roles in a mystery play prison, fantasies encourage us to investigate the play, learn its shape, and how to survive in spite of its traps—through self-knowledge, friendship, love, and common cause. By seeking to understand their world, fantasy heroes and heroines gain enough knowledge to resist the powers that try to warp them. And if they make it that far, they go back and break their friends out too.

Because no matter how cool the Beast's castle may be, everyone within is happy to escape its curse.

MAX GLADSTONE went to Yale, where he wrote a short story that became a finalist in the Writers of the Future competition. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.Full Fathom Five is his third novel.