Saturday, November 14, 2009

Twenty Minutes Into the Future - in 10 Seconds

The tri-corder has arrived. For those who have no idea what I just said, the tri-corder was this little hand-held doohickey (yes, that's a technical term) the doctors in Star Trek could use to scan someone, anytime, anywhere, to figure out what was wrong with them. Think of it like a portable x-ray/MRI/"other medical things I can't even begin to identify" device. Pure science fiction.

Back in the 1960's, that is. Turns out, modern technology has caught up with Star Trek, more or less, and it's no longer a fantasy. The portable medical scanner is, in fact, a reality. It may not be the complete diagnostic tool the tri-corder was supposed to be, but it's darn close.

Then, too, consider the modern cell phone. Which does just about a million and one things besides make calls. It is, for all intents and purposes, a portable computer. I remember back when the best thing to do with a computer was to turn the cursor colors and make pretty patterns on the screen. (I was in grade school, and it was one of those Tandy machines.) Now, if I could afford one, I could have something in my pocket that does most of what I rely on my laptop for. Not perfectly, and frankly, I prefer my laptop, but it's the possibility that blows my mind.

It's the unexpected pace at which the "future" arrives that provides something of a perilous pitfall for those of us in the science fiction genre. You've got a limited number of options when it comes to "when" in the setting - either it's the near future, or it's the far off future. There's kind of a middle ground, something like Star Trek, for example, which is only a few hundred years away, but that kind of falls into the latter category with the space ships and the aliens.

I say "future" as a stand-in for futuristic. After all, my favorite bit of science fantasy takes place a long time ago. And my second favorite turned out to... well, let me stop there before I give away any spoilers. (Hint for those who want to know: Toasters)

Near future stuff is most often the domain of cyberpunk and a few other things like it. "Max Headroom," which gave the particular sub-genre the setting device I appropriated for this entry's title, was something which was clearly in the future without being all that far away. Like most such near future efforts, in some ways it came up a little short. In others... well, sometimes as a writer you get lucky.

Some things kind of fall in between. 2001 looks, on the surface, like a far off future. with spaceships and AI and the like. And considering it was some 40 years away, that seemed like a bit of distance. Now, of course, we've been and gone. Bladerunner is set in a scant 9 years from now, and while I want my flying car I seriously hope the rest of it doesn't come true. And it looks unlikely to.

As a writer who dabbles in science fiction, I tend to set things rather nebulously in the future when I do. I am well aware that whatever I write, even without narrowing down a date for it, will very likely either seem silly or hopelessly outdated just within my lifetime. For example, I wrote an internet-based bit of fiction - as in the internet figured into the central plot - back in the early 1990's. When I blew the dust off it here a year ago, I had to laugh at most of what I'd written then. The reality of the internet had turned out to be far different than the predictions and what all the sci-fi of the time was envisioning. I reworked it, and made it more in keeping with what we know now... and also toned it down a bit so I don't laugh at it in another ten years.

I think if you're serious about it - like William Gibson or Philip K Dick - that near future can actually be a bit more challenging, because you can't make those great leaps that writers like Heinlein and Herbert did. I'm not serious about it, at least not at their level, so I freely admit my own stuff is either a blatant pastiche or a carefully crafted homage, depending on how generous my reader is inclined to be. And you have to write it with the knowledge that no matter what you might predict, the future could catch up with you a lot sooner than you think.

All that said, now that the tri-corder is here, where's my phaser?

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