Archive for August, 2013

Present-shock in science fiction

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

I am reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s newest novel 2312. Now, this book counts as serious social speculation about a potential future of humanity. It is supposed to be hard science fiction, about a future, in which, as far as I can tell, the technological progress had continued unabated for three hundred years. There is a rolling city on Mercury called Terminator which rolls on rails to keep out of the direct sunlight, there is the finished terraforming of Mars, the ongoing terraforming of Venus, etc.

But then:

  • The main characters are at this moment walking for 30 days about about 1000 km in the service tunnels of the circular track. The service stations seem to be about 90km away from each other. The builders provided supplies of food, lighting, air etc. They did not think about some kind of transportation: I think using bicycles would shorten that trip time.
  • The tunnel stations are unmarked: the walkers do not seem to know where they are, unless they go up to the surface and check.
  • The Mercurian rail on which the city moves is constructed at the parallel 45 making it 3200km long, instead of at the poles, where it would need a much shorter track. The truck is a single uninterrupted circle, there are not alternative routes.
  • A single point of failure can bring down the communication infrastructure. They seem to have wall mounted telephones in the tunnels, which go completely silent, because a short section of the 3000km rail had been bombarded.
  • The sun-walkers communicate via walkie-talkies, in what is apparently a common analog band. Mercury does not have cell phone coverage.
  • People sign up for dishwasher duties at restaurants. Apparently in 300 years we still won’t have manipulators which can put in and take out dishes from the dishwasher.

Now, this is not unusual in science fiction. We have, notoriously, Connie Willis, in whose novels, people in 2058 communicate by sending personal messengers to find each other. But even in highly tech-competent Charlie Stross’s latest novel, personal communication has such a high importance, that robots 7000 years in the future visit the travel agent in person (something I haven’t done in 20 years) and surgically change themselves to become a mermaid in order to have a brief sister-to-sister chat.

So my conclusion is that science fiction had not even been able to fully digest our current stage of the technology, let alone the one of the future. Never mind future-shock – we have a present-shock. 

Of course, some of the reason may be that technology somehow breaks the narrative tropes we so love. What kind of story would it make when Little Red Riding Hood calls 911 after meeting the wolf, Grandma has a elderly person’s panic button, the roads in the forest have security cameras, and Hansel and Gretel get home regularly thanks to Google Maps?