Why the Future Never Gets the SF Right

In the Lion's Mouth by Michael FlynnBy Michael Flynn

The problem with near-future science fiction is that the fiction is over-taken by events.  My novel Firestar, recently re-issued by Tor, concerns the near “future” of 1999-2010 and the hot scoop is that things didn’t work out that way.  Some of it, sure, including, alas, the predicted recession.  But Serbia is no longer the Bad Boy of the Balkans (nor are the Balkans the Place to Keep an Eye On) and we don’t have regularly-scheduled ballistic transport or single-stage to orbit or…  However, anyone who thinks the main basic function of SF is to commit journalism on the future will be perennially disappointed.

The problem with far-future science fiction, like the Spiral Arm series (In the Lion’s Mouth, Jan 2012) is different.  We can no more imagine the world of seven thousand years to come than Sumerian peasants could imagine Manhattan.  But we need to keep it intelligible.  What we imagine of the far future is no more likely to be accurate than Sumerian tales of crossing the sky in flaming chariots.  Rockets, maybe; but not flaming chariots.

Yet “the accelerating pace of change” is such a cliché that we might ask, “What if it isn’t?  After all, for most of human history, change has been minimal.  Our Sumerian peasant would find life among the today’s Marsh Arabs full of wonders—iron tools!—but not incomprehensible.

So to keep the Spiral Arm intelligible to modern “Sumerians,” I decided to put a banana in the tailpipe of the engine of progress.  There is precedent.

Science and technology need not go hand in hand.  China achieved a high technology without developing natural science.  And scattered individuals in ancient Hellas and medieval Islam pursued a personal interest in natural philosophy without applying it to “base mechanics.”  Only in the Latin West did a passion for technological innovation develop alongside an institutionalized interest in investigating Nature.

The Scientific Revolution combined them.  No more was Nature to be studied simply to grasp and appreciate its Beauty.  Its purpose would henceforth be to invent Useful Stuff and extend man’s Dominion over Nature.  Science, in short, changed from Art Appreciation to Engineering.

Nothing like this happened in China, thought Joseph Needham, because the Chinese lacked a concept of the universe as a created artifact, and therefore had no expectation of a rational order waiting to be discovered.  Other historians have linked the stillbirths of science to a persistent belief in the Great Year and “eternal returns.”  The ancients—Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, Hindus, et al.—extrapolated from the cycles of the sun, the seasons, the heavens to an endlessly repeating universe, destroyed and reborn whenever the planets returned to some “original” configuration.

But this belief proved fatal to science.  If an eternal and uncreated universe repeats itself endlessly, then whatever can happen has happened, again and again, and the natural laws we discover are only transient configurations of particles eternally in motion.  Wait a while.  They’ll change.

This is the outlook I superimposed on Spiral Arm society.  Scientific progress stopped long ago.  Techs apply “the Wisdom of the Ancients” by rote, recite the prayers (formulas) to be followed, but have lost all sense that these things are ordered by deeper principles.

Can it happen?  The endless universe has been making a comeback courtesy of Hegel and his disciples: Schelling, Engels, Nietzsche, et al.  Even scientists imagine multiverses and endlessly repeated Big Bangs.  And—OMG!!!—the Mayan Long Count is ending!!!!


From the Tor/Forge January newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.


More from our January newsletter:

12 thoughts on “Why the Future Never Gets the SF Right

  1. An interesting theory, Michael. And at the very least, a useful point of view to build a future society for three novels on.

    It also reminds me of the science in the “Slow Zone” of Vernor Vinge, where progress is also stagnant but that is also because of the rules of the universe rather than purely cultural ones.

  2. Reminds me of the client systems in Foundaton. They used science by rote and only the Foundation had any idea of the principles behind it.

    Why not? Perhaps the Spiral Arm Society had its own version of the Butlerian Jihad that didn’t destroy computers, but put an end to progress?

  3. Before I say anything, I think the idea of a high-tech society with no belief in science or progress is awesome, and will keep an eye out for your work. I just want to disagree with the particular view of history in your essay, for the sake of intellectual discussion.

    I’m surprised to see Engels in the list of philosophers for whom the “endless universe is making a comeback”; Engels was a materialist, a follower of scientific progress (and debunker of mysticism), and (obviously, given his politics) a believer in humanity’s ability to continue technological progress into the future.

    As a historical materialist, I think he would have disagreed with the outline you give of the history of technological development. I don’t think that it’s necessarily beliefs that hold back science in a larger sense. We need to remember that the Scientific Revolution came in an age of social revolution, where kings and queens (and the beliefs they fostered to justify themselves) were being swept aside and a more advanced economy based on markets, owners and labourers appeared.

    The ancients you list aren’t just distinguished by their beliefs in a cyclical universe, but by just how extremely impoverished their societies where. The Greeks and Romans built amazing feats of architecture and engineering – but they had little in the way of large-scale industrial production, which could maintain some level of technological progress based on science. They supported miniscule populations by modern standards, and their great feats were not those of organised, modern workforces, but of slaves whose replenishment was not a sure thing. It was a society where the idea of working for a boss was obscene. It couldn’t have supported a technological revolution on the scale we’ve experienced over the past few hundred years.

    Similarly, to Joseph Needham’s idea of linking scientific progress to the idea of a created universe; most of Christian history is the history of backwards, unscientific feudalism. I think Carl Sagan had a colourful way of putting it, I remember him saying something like “You would have an astronomer sort of like you might have a court jester.” It was a peasant-based economy, again, like the ancients, extremely impoverished. Simply not capable of great leaps of progress (or rather, not capable of translating that progress into ever-increasing technological change).

    It’s only after the markets and merchants (that had always been around) suddenly see the monarchies around them losing their economic power, and find themselves and their commercial interests becoming stronger and stronger (in places like Holland and Venice, then England and France), to the point of a wave of revolutions, that scientific and technological progress really starts to take off. Because it suddenly becomes both economically relevant, and economically supportable by society.

    Now, I think, we’ve passed the high point of capitalist advancement. Science is increasingly hamstrung by financial and commercial pressures; capitalist innovation is more and more about new kinds of smartphone and less and less about real, fundamental leaps in technology; investors are naturally unwilling to spend huge amounts of cash on high-risk, low-return scientific/technological adventures like space travel, alternative energies, etc – and governments no longer have the political will to fund such projects (to my generation, it seems like that was all really just to out-compete the USSR anyway!), and the economic crisis in Europe is even starting to drive people in some places (such as Greece) out of organised workplaces and big cities, and back toward the peasant countryside – to avoid starvation. Our capitalist world is actually running the tape backwards, in many senses.

    I feel like we’re on the verge of the kind of thing you describe for your book, just on a smaller planetary scale with lower tech: a society with lots of high-tech toys, and no real ability to progress in a meaningful way. Instead of citing religious dogma, researchers in universities hear the neo-liberal, bureaucratic-capitalist catechisms, and must bow and make obeisances to the priests in accounting. Global warming is just the icing on the dystopic cake.

    If we want to send people to Mars, barring some unforeseen development, I think we need to go to the next stage of society. Not to put too fine a point on it, but thats the stage envisioned by Engels – not as part of any cyclical thinking or mystical utopianism, but actually as an extremely materialist attitude, born of the Enlightenment.

  4. I would also point to economic structure/culture as a key influence on the aims/means of a civilization’s “science” and the shift in the appreciation/pragmatism continuum. Government support and institutionalization of science (sheltering inquiry from the church, etc.) seems to (explicitly or implicitly) have money at the root.

  5. cf. Engel’s Dialectics of Nature. Engel’s views on Newton (“an inductive ass”), Helmholtz (“pure childishness”), Thompson, Maxwell, and Carnot are worth a look. He was especially contemptuous of Clausius and the idea of entropy. The idea of a universe returning cyclically to the same configuration was pivotal to the conceptual framework of the material universe being an ever-active reality. “The whole of nature,” he wrote, “[is] shown as moving in eternal flux and cyclic course.” He was certain that science would one day learn how the heat lost to space would some day be re-concentrated and “rendered active.” He also wrote “The eternally repeated succession of worlds in infinite time is the only logical complement to the co-existence of innumerable worlds in infinite space.” And also:
    “It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves…” And however long it takes, it must eventually exterminate life without mercy; but since matter is eternal, it will all come about again. When Dühring thought that this might run up against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Engels was on him in a flash.

    Alas, materialism is no inoculation against mysticism.
    + + +

    The Scientific Revolution occurred in an age when kings were becoming monarchs and aggregating to themselves the powers that had previously been dispersed across a number of free-standing and self-governing corporations. The Church was one; the Universities were another. So were medical societies, companies of players, etc. The invention of the self-governing corporation was one of the great inventions of the middle ages. Only in the late 17th and 18th centuries do we find “divine right” monarchs and their lapdog “established” churches, leading forward to the absolute monarchs, the totalitarian states, and the bureaucratic states.

    Some useful books regarding the origins of science are:
    o Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages
    o David Lindberg, ed., Science in the Middle Ages
    o Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: China, Islam, and the West.

    As an historian, Carl Sagan made a credible planetary scientist. His alleged comment about astronomers and court jesters is ludicrous. And he misses what was truly different in the role of the astronomer, then and now.

    I notice also in the comments on the material wealth of ancient societies the same equation of “technological progress” with “science.” That is a modern thing. (Literally, it started with Descartes and Bacon.)

    + + +

  6. I notice one thing about the re-issue of Firestar that I like very much not. No eBook edition.
    Now THAT’s something the future definitely did not get right.

  7. Wait — You’re positioning yourself as the Axel Foley of Far-Flung Future SF?

    Well, okay. I sorta see the metaphorical resemblance.


    1. Like I said, the trick is to display a far future that is not utterly incomprehensible, not only to the reader, but to the poor beleaguered author as well. So, I figgered a) human nature as a constant and b) technology over-the-horizon but still graspable. There’s even an appendix in LION’S MOUTH for the curious. Then, as you allude, a banana in the tailpipe. Long dark ages and a religio-philosophical milieu that treats technology as a form of magic and/or traditional lore.

  8. Another possible limiter on scientific progress could be called the Principle of the Low-Hanging Fruit. It just plain gets harder and harder to make successive upgrades in your scientific paradigm.

    Galileo could grind his own lenses and, with the social equipment of a middle-class scholar, overthrow Ptolemy. A modern radio astronomer must live in an intricate bureaucracy to get time on a radio-telescope that it takes governmental amounts of money to build. Prospective telescopes for gravitational waves are so big, they have to have their components in different orbits around the Earth.

    Now, we command much greater resources than the folk of Galileo’s day, but if the cost of discovery rises faster than the resources, discovery will grind to a halt.

    Or the difficulty could be intellectual. String theory is an elegant idea, but it is notoriously difficult to work it back to something that could be observed. As time goes on, the distance between fundamental theory and observational check could become unbridgeably large. (Doesn’t mean the theorizing will stop, but it will either float there as eternal supposition or really turn into a mathematical mythology, believed in for other than empirical reasons.)

Comments are closed.