On sci-fi and technology

Dr. Joline Zepcevski, a sci/tech history researcher, quoted by Jeremy Hsu on why much science fiction is as interesting for the technologies abandoned as those newly invented: "Technology is not pre-determined as 'better'—it becomes better when a society deems it to be better or more advanced. With respect to "The Hunger Games," there is no reason why a new society, rising from the ashes of an old society, would necessarily re-invent the same technologies." [Discovery Channel]

A decade ago, you could fly London to New York in a couple of hours. A year ago, America had a reusable spacecraft.


  1. A decade ago, you could fly London to New York in a couple of hours. A year ago, America had a reusable spacecraft.

    And a few decades before that, you could have caught a trip to the moon and back.

    1.  Not really, unless by “you” you mean one of the dozen white male Americans who actually got to go.

    1. We did get some fun consolation prizes. For all I know you dictated that comment to an incredibly powerful pocket-sized computer which relayed it to the internet from a jungle in Paraguay.

    1. And in another decade, the internet may be gone, replaced by a tightly regulated commercial content delivery system.

    2. Because the internet is an acceptable substitute for the New York Opera, the British Musuem, the Pergamon Museum, the Louvre, the Hermitage, Niagara Falls, Carnival in Rio, Victoria Falls, Walking across Sydney Harbor Bridge, etc? 

      1. It’s an acceptable substitute for people who can’t afford to go to those places, i.e. most of them.

  2. I think the Concorde took four hours. Still pretty damn fast.

    Sometimes the biggest mistakes science fiction makes is extrapolatng present tech  into the future. I recently reread Ringworld. At one point Niven has CRT displays breaking. What? They have Slaver stasis fields, docs in a box that can heal almost any injury, teleportation stations, and the tasp. Why the hell are they using CRT’s?

    1. William Gibson’s started saying the real mystery in Neuromancer is where all the cell phones went.

      1. There’s a difference between not foreseeing a reasonably new technology and their effects  and using current terminology w/out need. 

        1. Granted, although I’m not sure it’s without need. In classic science fiction, astronauts used slide rules to calculate trajectories en route. Knowing that would never happen, but not knowing that computers were around the corner, a science fiction writer would do… what? He turned the image screen on – but we can’t describe how it works. He got his trajectory calculations from a black box – but we can’t describe how it works. All descriptions of future technology would be like magic, and it would be fantasy instead of science fiction.

          1. Using slide rules falls into the same category, yes.  And early Perry Rhodans were full of stuff like that, even plotters drawing maps of solar systems and people having to code cards for the positronic brain – even though at the same time they had robots which accepted complex verbal commands or A.I. that spoke to and with humans. 

            In most cases, the detailed description of the tools are totally superfluous.  Roddenberry did give a good example once: The crew needs a space gun, yes, but the underlying  technology is of little interest.  It should be consistent within the series, but that’s about it. 

            It’s a gun. That’s why it’s in the story.

            Same for the display. The D-part is usually important, the CR-part makes it a period piece.

      2.  Neuromancer is also notorious for the protagonist making a deal for a whopping seven megabytes of RAM.

        1. Back when it came out, my VAX had a fairly large 4MB.  (And a few years earlier, it was a big deal when my university got a 4th megabyte for the mainframe.)

      1. Frankly I didn’t think “Surrogates” thought through the implications of the technology very well at all. For example, everyone still used their robotic surrogate bodies to commute to work. Why not just leave a body at the office and do away with the morning grind altogether?

  3. A society may choose not to widely adopt a technology (civilian supersonic flight), and may even ban it for a while (guns in feudal Japan). But technologies, once invented, rarely go extinct. It happens- we still don’t really know what “Greek fire” was, or how the antikythera mechanism was built. But it’s rare. We humans are still manufacturing chain mail, and wagon wheels, and all sorts of “obsolete” technologies.

    Rather, I suspect the relevant difference between us and Panem (besides government) is population. A North America with only a few million people couldn’t support large communities of researchers on every conceivably useful topic the way a world of 7 billion can. So, they have to be judicious about what technologies to pursue and what to ignore. Over time (and language drift, and decay of old data, and destruction of files through war or government suppression) information not in use would be lost.

  4. The US has a reusable spacecraft today, the X-37. A move from a vehicle that needs a human pilot to a fully automated one that flies itself would not generally be seen as a step backwards in technology.

  5. I love reading old science fiction not just to find what was predicted technologically. The characters are almost always a reflection of the author’s generation.

    While not technically sci-fi, the character of Captain James T. Kirk is a reflection of 1966 and 67 when turmoil was in the air and America was learning to fly in space. Kirk was a macho womanizer who put duty above all else. Women didn’t do mans work, though women were being portrayed as somewhat equal to men. As Star Trek moved into the 80’s, 90’s the characters evolved and we have Jean-Luc Picard who could hardly be classed as a macho womanizer.

    I think it is difficult for a writer to give characters a different cultural perspective than the time being lived. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, has a different cultural perspective from 2010 because Clarke had shifted a decade in the writing.

    In some ways I long for the golden age of sci-fi to return. There seems to be less optimism these days.

    1.  Riker in TNG is basically Kirk without quite so much flamboyance. And though Dr. Crusher is a woman, she doesn’t exactly play the same primary role that Bones did.

      I’ve been watching TNG all the way through and I find it interesting that though the characters talk as if society (and Starfleet) has advanced beyond gender discrimination and so on, the main characters are still relegated to traditional gender roles (at least after Lt. Yar, chief of security, dies in the first season to be replaced by ultra-masculine Worf).

      I suspect it would have been a tough sell to studio heads at the time to have more lead females, unfortunately, and to their credit they do try to emphasize the lack of discrimination as often as possible.

      1.  There is of course a difference between traditional gender roles and gender discrimination.

      2. I’ve observed before that Crusher, Troi, Kira, Dax, etc. are all wearing as much make-up as Michael Dorn. Apparently, even outlaw, cave-hiding terrorists could get free make-up by the case during the Cardassian occupation.

  6. I’m having a hard time thinking of any technologies that have been abandoned for something not as good. We still have supersonic aircraft and reusable spacecraft. Some not particularly successful examples of technology eventually end up shelved, of course – but only when their benefits are outweighed by their costs, thereby making them worse than the alternatives, not better.

  7. Science fiction books break when a writer writes a series of books and includes new technology which came along while the series was being written. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote GPS into his last Mars book even though the technology must have been available at the start of Red Mars.

    1.  I haven’t read those books. Did people start using GPS on Earth? Or did they decide to launch GPS satellites around Mars? Because in the latter case, it could actually make sense.

        1.  Then while of course in reality it was Robinson incorporating a new technology, in-story it makes sense as an infrastructure problem: when you’re colonizing Mars, launching several dozen APS satellites may not be a high priority.

          1. Actually I think any colonising effort would start by launching a fleet of multi purpose satellites. They would do weather, communications, search and rescue, and positioning.

            The satellites we have at Mars now could almost do that, with appropriate software loaded.

            GPS is just so useful. In Red Mars the colonists emplaced transponders to mark a road to the polar cap. With a positioning system the entire road could have just been data.

            But of course all those sub-plots about people getting lost in the outback would have been impossible.

  8. “A decade ago, you could fly London to New York in a couple of hours. A year ago, America had a reusable spacecraft.”

    at first glance that is a pretty depressing statement…..then I think about SpaceX, VirginGalactic and other companies that are rapidly approaching and the Light of the Future looks bright again.

    1. I have to agree here. In fact, the space shuttle is a great example of what this article is talking about.

      Depending on how you look at it, the X-plane program was pushed to the back while the space shuttle program was pushed up front because it delivered faster results to a public and government that wanted to see astronauts rocketing into space, which allowed NASA to keep the funding flowing.Had the x-plane program been allowed to pursue a more natural (and sadly more boring to the general public) course, we might be further along in orbital vehicles today, even though it would have taken many more years to get there. If anything, the space shuttle is a great example of what this article is talking about, technology being driven more by political and societal “needs.”

      I’m not saying the shuttle was a mistake, but its existence was indeed deeply rooted in scientific politics. 

  9. Shuttlecraft. You mean shuttlecraft, not spacecraft. It was even called the shuttle. Spacecraft travel space. Shuttle travels our atmosphere, to the edge of space. No one has made a reusable spacecraft. Anyway I know you were going for dramatic wording, but technically it is not a spacecraft but a shuttlecraft. When you can at least fly the thing to the moon then it will be a spacecraft. When you can fly it to the moon, turn around, land on earth, then do it all over again, we can call it a reusable spacecraft. I would say that would be the minimum definition.

  10. timekeeping is also a technology. If the Panem government simply decided that one year consists of 24 months, then the rebellion would have failed in 1865 and the 74th hunger games would be happening in our 2013.

    1.  It’s clear in-story that one year consists of one of each season. So that wouldn’t work.

  11. People can still cross the Atlantic at supersonic speed, but they usually wear an uniform while doing so.

    Also, reusable spacecraft is a nice euphemism for “we can get to low Eath orbit a 2nd time, when we throw away the tank, and do a total make-over on the rest of the ‘ship’.” 

    The shuttle didn’t do what it was supposed to do, except  perhaps fooling the public that we’re near casually riding up to space.

  12. I find it interesting that, so far, no one has mentioned the term “economics”, even though a few commenters have nibbled around the edges a bit (and more may do so by the time I finish writing this). The short answer to why the Concorde and the Space Shuttle are defunct is that they weren’t economically viable. It’s interesting to think about why they were built and operated in the first place, though. Is it really necessary for regular transatlantic passenger service to take only a couple of hours, given the huge time savings that even regular flights have over sea voyages or dirigibles? Or, for that matter, is it necessary to send several humans in orbit for a period of several days on a regular basis, when, with very few exceptions, most of their duties could be done much more cheaply and with virtually no risk to human life by unstaffed spacecraft? 

    I’d say that both the Concorde and the Space Shuttle are triumphs of the romantic aspects of science fiction over practical considerations. We had to have a spacecraft with an assortment of crew members on it because space opera, far and away the most popular subgenre of science fiction, told us that we would. We had to have supersonic transatlantic flights because a great deal of science fiction, both utopian and dystopian,  is based on the notion that a given trend will continue indefinitely, or at least until it breaks society in a major way (as with the dystopias Escape from New York (the criminal population keeps increasing) and Logan’s Run (the population becomes increasingly younger, even though the Baby Boom was already starting to taper off when the book was written). The Concorde never made money, even before one crashed, and the problems with the Shuttle were apparent even before the second disaster, which was caused by the incredibly brittle heat shield being chipped by a piece of foam from the fuel tank–a piece of foam–and a potential solution for future flights involved a space walk with a can of space spackle and the kind of foam brush that you can get at a hardware store. These are problems that the starship Enterprise never has, and if it did they would be taken care of by the sort of lower-deck grunts that never make it up to the bridge. If an X-37 (mentioned by DrPlotka above) has such an accident, it would probably rate no more than a brief mention on the news, unless parts of it landed on a school.

    But taking practical considerations such as the long-term costs of manned vs. unmanned spaceflight into consideration requires consideration of the economics of creating and sustaining these services, including the infrastructure necessary to support them, and economics is known as “the dismal science” for a reason. It’s not as if economics is completely absent from SF (although often it’s given barely a token nod, as in numerous postapocalyptic scenarios in which the Crapsack World employs various combinations of barter and/or slavery and often relies on something like bottlecaps for currency); the early books of Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, Damon Knight’s A for Anything, and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age deal pretty well with the economic aspects of various technologies. But, for the most part, I just don’t see SF getting into the economic implications of certain technologies that much; at best, they posit a sort of post-economic society, as in 24th-century Star Trek. The original series gave at least a few token nods to interstellar economics, as dilithium crystals were seen as a rare and strategic resource in at least a few episodes, and “The Trouble with Tribbles” showed both the agricultural development of a client planet and a commercial establishment and trading. But Gene Roddenberry, that irrepressible utopian, insisted that The Next Generation took place in a post-money, post-scarcity economy, and even went to the trouble to unthaw a 20th-century tycoon who may as well have been Mr. Moneybags from the Monopoly game in order to hammer his anvilicious point home. Deep Space Nine went to some pains to reverse that a bit, mostly in the Quark-centric episodes, and in First Contact Earth’s pioneer of warp drive, Zefram Cochrane, mentioned wanting to make a buck, but the only version of Star Trek that has any sort of fully-realized economy is Star Trek Online, because it’s pretty much impossible to have an MMORPG without one. 

    So, in the twenty-first century, we’re going to send up an unmanned shuttle to do our space trucking, and transatlantic travel isn’t much faster than it would have been in Mad Men days. But maybe it’s time to stop fretting about our lack of robot slaves and effortless transportation and dream of a world where New York City isn’t a filthier version of Venice in half a century. 

    1. Dune is so distant-future, with such a weird society and tightly organized economic system, that it doesn’t really register as having any connection to contemporary civilization at all. The way it’s packed with scrambled old-Earth names and religions and so on comes across as a kind of historical worldbuilding mystery designed to make the distance even greater.

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