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Science fiction and prediction

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 1 December 2014


Like my piece on 'The Lost Squadron' a couple of weeks ago, this little essay contains a moral. I discovered science fiction when I was quite young, and read everything of Jules Verne that I could lay my hands on, then H. G. Wells, then Edgar Rice Burroughs, then C. S. Lewis. In my late teens and early twenties I found A. E. van Vogt, and still get a kick from re-reading some of his tales. He was memorably described as 'a pygmy tapping on the keys of a giant typewriter', and he pinched a lot of his plots from elsewhere - but he wrote page-turners.

Later on I encountered Isaac Asimov, both his I, Robot and his Foundation novels, and he too earned a few quid from my purchases. I never quite left the world of science fiction, and I've come back to it recently because (in part at least) I am downsizing my library. That means that when considering whether or not a book should go to Lifeline I scan it first to see whether or not I should re-read. And that got me to re-read Asimov's Foundation series.

Now all science fiction is set in the future (or occasionally in a distant past), and it is 'science' fiction because things in the stories have changed scientifically and technologically. Space has been conquered, or matter can be transmitted from point to point, or minds can be read, or time can be travelled, or motor cars without fuel can run on 'gravitic moment' (a possibility that made my father snort with derision). In the best science fiction, the focus is on the human condition: what does it mean to be human, in changed circumstances? The science is taken for granted, though the novelist will often give you a capsule explanation of what is involved.

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What is taken for granted in the Foundation series? The time is 20,000 years onwards. Humanity has colonised the Galaxy, there are millions of inhabited worlds and uncountable billions of humans. There is, or was, an Empire, and it has decayed. No need to tell you the plot(s), because that is not the point. Human beings learned the secrets of quick space travel a very long time ago, but in the early Foundation novels people receive messages through a device they have attached to their belt, and they can hear the message as it drops in to the container.

In Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, written and published in the 1980s, much of the technological advance involves a computer you connect with by laying hands on the device, which connects your mind to the computer, whereupon many things become possible. The spaceship in these stories is 'gravitic', which gives it all sorts of advantages in manoeuvring. Asimov is not forthcoming about how either of these advances actually works.

One of the important aims is to get inside the Galactic Library on the planet Trantor. 'Has the Library been modernized? Have you thrown out all the old tapes and computerizations?' one of the characters, a historian, dreams of asking the Librarian. All the Foundation novels are set in the context of psychohistory, a science involving the behaviour of very large numbers of human beings (based, quite possibly, on Charles Mackay's 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds). One of the characters argues that psychohistory has a flaw: it could not accommodate 'rapid technological advance'.

Asimov's last two novels are not well written, in my view. Characters lecture each other, rather than converse, and they don't much come to life. But he shows how planets change as humans arrive and leave, after 'terraforming' them. Wild dogs predominate in one, moss in another. Both are inimical to the arrivals. Asimov is responsible for some coinages - 'robotics' is probably the best known, though 'positronic' is another, and 'psychohistory' too, though it now applies academically to psychological approaches to the discipline of history.

The moral, obvious enough, is that even Asimov, arguably the best popular writer on science ever, incredibly prolific (he seems to have written around 500 books), and genuinely knowledgeable, did not predict the changes in human society brought about by advances in information and communications technology in his own lifetime, let alone what might be possible if you advance humankind two hundred centuries.

The capacity of people to record visually what is happening in front of them, to give just one example, is having effects now on our own society and in international relations that could not have been predicted even twenty years ago. My father, son of a miner in Broken Hill, entered school in bare feet when he started there in 1910. The buildings in the main street of the city look much as they would have done when he saw them as a boy.

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But the changes in our society since his boyhood are enormous, and they result from great productivity which in turn is the outcome of advances in technology and a much greater scientific understanding of the natural world. Those advances don't have to be linear. Asimov, van Vogt and other science fiction writers portray worlds in which scientific advance has stopped, and what is done is seen to be a form of religion - ritual without understanding.

I hope the advance continues, and it will for at least a generation, because we are simply committed to the 'research paradigm' - that is, if there is a problem of any kind, we approach it to see what is its cause, and how we can best deal with it. The outcomes are not always positive. Nuclear war remains a possibility for the planet, as do exterminations caused by viruses, anthrax, designed chemicals and other terrors. And research can also be applied to the wrong question, as in so much climate science.

Nonetheless, I remain positive about humanity's capacity to learn, to discover, and to apply knowledge well. In most of the world, conditions for the ordinary person are very much better than they were twenty years ago, let alone a century ago. I can't predict what the advances will be, but I'll bet that they occur, and that our successors will be able to say much the same about life in 2100.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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