Unprediction

Science fiction was a big part of my youth, from age ten until at least the end of my teens. Much of what I loved was already classical, from Jules Verne to Edgar Rice Burroughs to the golden age of SF in the 1930s-1950s. Lately, I've turned back to SF in a small way, but mostly been disappointed. Currently I'm reading New York 2140, a fairly highly praised book by Kim Stanley Robinson.

The hard SF of my youth was filled with astonishing predictions: nuclear power, space travel, robots, communication satellites, smartphones. There were some others that didn't work out: time travel, psychokinesis, and that staple of Popular Science, flying cars, but overall, guys like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein were amazingly prescient as well as entertaining.

The central conceit of New York, 2140 is that sea levels have risen 50 feet due to global warming, but that Manhattan underwater is still thriving, and many major buildings of today, suitably reinforced or slowly crumbling, are still occupied islands in a city of canals. The story, so far anyway, is a slow moving crime story, featuring a large cast of not especially interesting oddballs. The main character, though, is the city, and one probably needs to know the city much better than I do to appreciate it under water.

Rising seas, of course, is not an original prediction - it's all but a fait accompli, though the idea that cities would not just abandon the wreck and move inland seems a bit much. The technology of NY,2140 is more like 2018 + 5. Technological progress seems to have ground to an utter halt long before the seas came in.

Modern SF seems to have given up on prediction, overwhelmed by the technology that is already here.

The fundamental problem, I think, is that the most reasonable and terrifying predictions are already on the table, not from SF but from Silicon Valley and historians like Yuval Noah Harari. The Future Doesn't Need Us. Most, if not all, humans are or soon will be technologically obsolete. Writing about a time when humans are at best a zoo curiosity is depressing and boring, and speculation on a future without humans beyond our powers of imagination.

Another thing about the future, though, is that it isn't, or at least doesn't appear to be, inevitable. Can we, should we, choose to deny it and stop progress? I don't think Nietzsche would approve.

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