Science Fiction: Archaic Fables

When I was in school and college, I was a big fan of science fiction at that time.   Most of the stories I liked were written in the 1950s and 1960s, and I aspired to become a science fiction writer of a similar mode of story telling.   Even at that time, I treated the science aspects of the stories to be a backdrop of a story involving how life would be like in such a future.

I was equally comfortable with realistic expectations of future science as with highly unlikely science based on current understanding of science.   Yet, I distinguished fictional science from fantasy science.    A quick analogy of the difference is that I viewed the original Star Trek series as science fiction (though highly unlikely), and the original Star Wars as science fantasy.    I admit that both are more fantasy than science, but the line I draw between science fiction and science fantasy places Star Trek (the original series) at one side, and Star Wars (the original episode) at the other.

As mentioned above, I lost interest in science fiction at around the mid 1980s.   Perhaps a better description was the science fiction lost interest in me.   I still have fond memories of old science fiction and yet I have no current interest in reading them any more.   They were relevant in the 1970s in a way that they can never be now.

Somewhere near the end of my science fiction reading career, I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and I, Robot.   I recall enjoying the stories, but I also recall an unpleasant reaction afterwards: that reaction was that the stories would have been more interesting had I been the same age 20 years earlier.    With no change in content in the stories, the stories had lost something over time.    Specifically, I recall the following impression after reading Foundation Trilogy: the Foundation was like a patchwork of 1950s era suburbs separated by Interstate Highways.   I felt that the stories were written for an audience that live in that time, living in suburbs or having close ties to people who do.

By the time I was a young adult in 1980s, the suburban lifestyle did not appeal to me as a defining feature of life.   Suburban lifestyle may be a reality, but only because there was all this infrastructure already built up: houses, highways, shopping malls, etc.   Suburban planning from the start was intended to be affordable, but it became even more affordable later because it was left-over property from an earlier age.

Similarly, I would describe science fiction as a similar left-over from the golden age of suburban ideals.   It is still present and it still offers value.   The value is cheapened in the same way that used goods are cheapened.  The used goods are so plentiful that there is no chance of gaining value as antiques in future with the exception of the “first of kind” innovations, sort of like old comic books being cheap unless they are first prints of classic comic books in pristine condition.

By the mid 1980s, science fiction as a whole transformed into a relic of american past, joining with super-hero comic books into a collection of folk tales told for an earlier more rustic age.

This is the time when Star Wars sequels came out along with other big-budget science fiction and super hero fantasies.   The subsequent decades have been a golden age of profiting from these stories, with retelling and recreation much more compelling and entertaining than the originals.    Modern iterations continue to draw large audiences for science fiction (that is more science-fiction-y than before), super heros (more super than before), and fantasies (more fantastic than before).    The problem is that the same audience shows up for each one.   There is no difference between science fiction, fantasy periods with magic mixed with primitive weaponry, and super hero stories.   The difference between the releases are the unique opportunities for scenery, action, and drama.

Converting a super hero fantasy into a science fiction merely requires replacing magic with mysticism, swords with light sabers, horses with X-wing fighters.

In recent weeks, there are the simultaneous introduction of a prequel to Star Trek, a spoof of Star Trek, and a sequel to Blade Runner.   Each present novelties to the original stories, and appear to stand alone as stories.   Despite being new tales with novel innovations, the stories lack the impact that the original Star Trek series had in the late 1960s or Blade Runner had in the early 1980s.

In the case of the former, both series still has an open bridge with a diversity of races and species with specific and non-redundant skills.   The bridge is more advanced, and the diversity is more extreme in appearance and capabilities, but the basic trope remains of a bridge and a diverse crew.

I recall the impact this had in the mid-1960s.  The phasers, photon-torpedoes, teleporters, warp-drive, and faster-than-light communicators were technologies that are nearly equally unscientific now as they were then.   Yet, there is a difference.  The older iterations, though more poorly presented, were closer to the genre than the new iterations despite much more care to get the science right and to render the images closer to what the futuristic tech would operate.

Consider the 50 years of human history prior to the original series of Star Trek started in the mid-1960s.  Here, I’m talking about actual advances in technology, warfare, international politics, and internal society.   In each of these areas, the story told was grounded in a reasonable extrapolation of trends already apparent and a reasonable hope of continued advancement.

There will be multi-cultural teams when these were at most a rare occurrence at the time.

There will be space ships with specific missions, but furnished like luxury cruise ships or mobile cross-country campers.   Similarly, the crew would interact similar to neighbors in a harmonious suburban cul-de-sac when the are stationary, or similar to riders in a car pool.   The ship’s bridge required everyone to be at their assigned stations, with same members present during the same working hours, similar to factory shifts or professional offices at the time.   Everyone interacts face-to-face and accept each other’s differences with minimal and usually lighthearted conflicts.   External conflicts may be more extreme but often resembled the cold war at the time, or resembled conflicts between competing corporations: in both cases ending in some form of understanding that was represented progress from the initial encounter.

My point here is that all aspects of the story was a natural extrapolation of the life experience of people living at the time: both the current conditions and history within memory.   Among all the possible futures, the future presented by Star Trek (the original series) seemed plausibly inevitable, at least at the social level.   Perhaps future space craft would look different, directed energy weapons would behave differently, or high-speed travel would rely on some other discovery.

A solitary vessel of relatively modest dimensions can successfully explore the galaxy  safe enough to have a small crew with very little redundancy in skills.   It was plausible because we were experiencing these trends in or personal lives, at the local level.

My interest in science fiction faded in the early 1980s after the Star Wars movie and the Star Trek movie.   At the time, I could explain it by the need to spend more attention on my own career, and in general adapting to adulthood.   In hindsight, though, there was more than just out-growing the genre.   Something about these movies repulsed me: the stories conflicted with my notion of science fiction.   I couldn’t explain it at the time.

With the recent release of a new version of Blade Runner, a movie I don’t intend to see, it occurred to me why science fiction genre felt dead to me.   The last science fiction movie I took seriously was the original Blade Runner.   I acknowledge that the story had its flaws, especially at the level of basic story telling, but that never was a big deal for attracting me to science fiction.   The movie presented what the future could look like.   It had space travel, but the story was fully grounded on Earth.   The conditions on earth was fully concentrated in cities, and most of the economic activity concentrated in a very small number of mega corporations.   The people in the street would be content but in a way that lacked aspirations for individual advancements.   The main character himself was trapped in a life set by his past, he being a blade runner whether he liked it or not.

This was an appealing movie in the 1980s because it was a natural extrapolation of trends present at the time and within living memory of that time.   Technology was still advancing, but it was slowing down.   The space program contracted from its lunar missions with more focus on near earth orbits.   The space program still offered some hope for a manned space future because it was devoted to safer and more reusable shuttles (that had not yet proven to be a disappointment).   Computing technology was rapidly expanding but with most promises in databases and robotics and with an anticipation of some level of artificial intelligence.

The replicant technology described also fit with the current understanding in that the manufactured replicants first turned on as fully grown adults.   The cells, organs, skeleton was explicitly manufactured (complete with individual serial numbers) into complete units.   This seemed to be a reasonable way to build androids because this is how we built robots.

The world presented at time time of the movie’s initial release was a reasonable expectation of what it would be like 40 years later based on what occurred from the previous 40 years up to the then present.   It may not be an appealing future, but it felt familiar because it made sense it was possible.

The last 40 years has been very different from the 40 years before that.   The manned space program is basically dead.   There does not appear to be any reasonable expectation of human space flight to the Moon or Mars within even the next century, let alone travel to distant stars with habitable planets.   Any talk of technology that may help are mostly in computer simulations instead of actual working technology.

Meanwhile, the world has changed dramatically compared to world of 1980s.

For one thing, our understanding of molecular biology is completely different.  It is silly to conceive of assembling replicants from externally manufactured organs and pre-programmed with memories without emotions.    We are designing proteins to produce desired results in organisms, and designing DNA to produce those proteins, and inserting that DNA into zygotes to let the organism to grow naturally with only the need to provide a safe and nutrient-rich environment.   Experiences would be learned naturally from the process of growing up, perhaps in restrictively controlled development and education centers.

Technologically, there may be floating cars, but they would be based on the modern fan propulsion similar to quad copters.   More likely, vehicle will remain four-wheeled road vehicles, probably nearly silently driven by batteries.  Autonomously driven, these vehicles would arrive when needed and depart after reaching the destination in order to pick up some one else.   The cars would not park near by to wait indefinitely for an owner.

Most prevalent in modern technology is the indivisible combination of data communications, rich-media personal devices, large-data tech (gathering, storing, retrieving, and analyzing data), and personalized virtual worlds with on-demand at-home delivery of everything.

A future city could have very empty streets where everyone lives in small apartments seated in an easy chair while wearing virtual reality goggles with body movement sensors for inputs.

In particular, the nature of being on the job is different.   Increasingly, professional jobs are performed in telework settings with workers being physically isolate with little face-to-face interaction with coworkers, clients, and bosses.   Despite this, they will interact with each other continuously throughout the day and week.   There may still be a 40 hour work week, but those hours will not be contiguous and they will not be concurrent with the hours of everyone else in the team.   A possibility is a future that is physically lonely but virtually crowded.   On the other hand, the concept of a physically crowded but virtually lonely future seems much less likely.

International politics presents a very different danger of world-wide war in that the enemies will be more diverse and less organized and yet fully effective.   Recent developments make less likely the idea of well running teams of diverse teams where everyone comes from separate cultural identities.   Certainly, there will be many teams that are homogeneous in race and culture (and certainly species).   These teams may compete with diverse teams, but it seems likely that the homogeneous teams can be very competive.   The motto of “diversity is our strength” may end up being a childish fantasy.

A genre that fills the role science fiction played by Blade Runner in early 1980s, would extrapolate from the trends of the past 40 years.   In this period, many of the trends of the previous 40 years have stalled or declined.   New more important trends have replaced the older trends.   In light of the current conditions, introducing movies such as the latest science fiction iterations (Blade Runner 2049, Star Trek: Discovery, or The Orville) seems to miss the point of science fiction.   They may offer entertainment, but they are presenting futures based on abandoned concepts instead of alternative futures based on recent experiences and memories.

Addendum 10/10/2017: One possible approach to a fresh science fiction story that extrapolates from current experience would have a cast of socially isolated individuals who participate in loose collaborations.

These collaborations would form to address specific issues.  In those collaborations, the roles people play will vary dramatically depending on what is needed and who is able to do the work.   In other words, the role-assignment occurs after the fact instead of before the fact.

Using the Star Trek model of an independently piloted ship of modest size and crew, the various roles would not be known in advance.   The events would expose who offered contributions in terms of science, engineering, security, and defense.   Different events present challenges that will end up activating different people providing relevant contributions to those roles while some of the earlier contributors will offer nothing of consequence even if they attempt to be involved.   Some will simply not participate at all due to pursuing other distractions that are irrelevant to the current conditions.

The model of the bridge would be replaced with something that is like Internet communities with large number of participants but only a few making relevant contributions to specific topics.   The ship would have a much larger population, but they will rarely if ever congregate in a common space for meeting in person, especially for the purpose of contributing to a problem.   Each would be isolated and self determined in terms of chosen activities and expertise presented.

There would be a story with an ending that can not be predicted from the beginning because the key players for the story and the resulting final conclusion would emerge out of the dynamics of isolated independent individuals communicating with others only the conclusions of a much larger private experience.   The private experience of the contributor will remain secret naturally because there was no way to predict that that experience would be relevant at the time.   There is no pre-defined main characters.

Instead of a small set of singular characters that follow story arcs, there is only the collective character of the population as a whole.  The population as a whole has the story arc that will at the end identify the key individuals as a byproduct of the story.  The key characters are discovered in retrospect based on key contributions, and their roles defined in retrospect perhaps with new concepts that attempt to encapsulate what that person did and to distinguish that person from the others.

During the development of the story, no one would address another by official titles or honorifics.   Instead they will go by pseudonyms or even the undifferentiated anonymous.   The only way to determine the roles of the players would be to work backwards from the story’s end, and even then it may never be possible for anyone to know who that contributor is, other than the contributor himself.

Extrapolating from current experience, inter-stellar travel is never going to happen, but there may be something similar such as permanent space stations in various solar or planetary orbits.   The crews of those craft will operate much more like the current Internet social media instead of what is depicted in stories such as Star Trek, Orville, Star Wars.


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