Retro-Futuristic

I've just been reading Isaac Asimov's short story, The Last Question. It's a lovely story, and deservedly one of the great classics from one of the Old Masters of the Golden Age of science fiction. If you've never read it, go take a look now and then come back.

Now look, I'm not going to be breaking any ground when I say that Asimov was truly visionary. This story was published in 1956. For a man who was writing over 50 years ago, he astonishingly sees a lot of the same things we're still writing and dreaming about today. In this story, you can see the fertile ground that sprouted transhumanism, singularitarianism, and a prophetic take on the way that humankind seems to be growing more and more inextricably linked with our technology. He writes about a future in which people ask computers for answers to everyday questions -- Google, anybody?

But what struck me, on reading this story again for the first time in lo these many years, were the subtle ways that he was wrong. The most notable, of course, is that reality's timescale has thus far collapsed to fit into the barest fraction of what he imagined. A hundred years or so into Asimov's future, a computer is the length of a family-sized spaceship, and it prints its answers on little slips of cellufilm. He sees an analog to a mobile data device: "It was only two inches cubed and nothing in itself, but it was connected through hyperspace with the great Galactic AC that served all mankind." But Asimov predicts this wonder technology a staggering twenty thousand years into the future! I've got a device lying on my coffee table right now that's not much bigger than that (and a lot more ergonomic). It's connected via what may as well be hyperspace to the great crackling data networks that claim to have answers to my every question.

And of course Asimov sees an optimistic future for spaceflight. It's difficult to be so enthused about man's future in space anymore. We went to the moon a mere 13 years after this story was written. In the 40 years since then, little to no progress has been made. In fact, nobody has gone back to the moon since 1972. Space exploration has veered heavily toward using cheap unmanned probes in favor of developing modes for human beings to travel in space. Still, he pulls a bit of deus ex machina to in the beginning, by positing a cheap and permanent solution to the question of supplying energy to do it. He was aware of the problems mankind would face.

Modern SF often envisions similar futures to the most distant ones in The Last Question -- but sees them happening mere hundreds or thousands of years in the future. This is a function of our fundamentally altered expectations about what the future will look like and how fast it'll get here. And why shouldn't we have a dramatically different expectation of the future, compared to the futures of 50 years ago? That future got here so very quickly (though as William Gibson would remind us, "The future is here -- just poorly distributed.") There are serious thinkers and scientists who suggest we'll see the end of senescence and achieve immortality in our own lifetime, a far cry from Asimov's twenty thousand years even if you assume they're wrong by an order of magnitude.

...and as I'm writing this, Bryan over at Infocult has posted an interesting piece that touches on some similar topics -- how our present informs the future we write about, or whether we want to read or write about the future at all. It's an old SF chestnut that the future we see reflects the deep sociological hopes and fears of the era that dreams it up. Of course the future of 1956 isn't the same as the future of 2008. But it's worthwhile for us to revisit these past dreams of what might come to pass to do a little soul-searching about how we as a society have changed.

The future isn't just a dream imagined by the present. The present creates the future. So if we peer into our looking-glass SF future and don't care for what we see there, then the answer is to look around today and see what we can change to make sure that isn't where we end up.


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