Computers a block long and other hazards of near-future science fiction

If you were paying attention while reading that prolog to Replica that I posted the other day, you’d have figured out that the novel is set in about 2023.  I wrote the novel in the late 1980s.  A lot has happened since then!

A science fiction novel set in the near future is going to get things wrong.  The classic example is the 1950s novels that extrapolated computers a block long — if you think computers are big and powerful now, wait until the year 2000!  The movie (and novel) 2001: A Space Odyssey got pretty much everything wrong about 2001, if I remember correctly.

If the novel (or film) is good enough, you’ll forgive its silly predictions.  2001 wasn’t about what real life would be like in 2001, any more than 1984 was a prediction about the actual world situation in 1984.  My hope is that Replica will be exciting enough that readers will just smile at the stuff I missed.
Here is the kind of thing that comes up: early in the novel, the lead character, Shana York, is pulled into a limousine against her will while out jogging.  The man in the limousine tells her his name, but she doesn’t recognize it, or him.  So he orders the driver to pull up beside the next payphone.  He then makes Shana get out, call into some database, and search for information about him, which is displayed on the payphone’s screen. (The phonecall costs a dollar.)
This is an attempt to imagine a world in which information is much more available than in the 1980s, and telecommunications technology is much more advanced.  Video screens on payphones!
Missed it by a mile.
Not just in the context of Replica, it’s interesting to think about the ways in which the world has turned out differently from what we imagined it would be in the 1980s. Ubiquitous cellphones (particularly smartphones) and the Internet are certainly at the top of the list.  Some people might have been thinking about a “clash of civilizations” with Islam, but most of us were still worried about the Soviet Union. I don’t think most of us expected that space travel would just sort of peter out. Replica is about artificial intelligence, which was hot back then, but AI hasn’t fulfilled its promise — certainly not in the way my novel envisaged it.  Instead of robots cooking our meals, we have Samuel L. Jackson’s telling Siri on his iPhone to cancel his golf game.  Instead of android bank tellers, we have ubiquitous ATM machines. 
Is life better or worse than we imagined it?  Well, ATMs are pretty useful.  And blogs are great!  How did we live without blogs in the 80s?

3 thoughts on “Computers a block long and other hazards of near-future science fiction

  1. Actually, there were blogs back in the 80’s and 90’s. They just weren’t called blogs. DEC had a software product called “VAXnotes” that was sort of a blog application. As far as SF goes Star Trek got it (mostly) right. eg. hand-held communicators, medical scanners. etc. just no transporter beam.


  2. Well, darn it, Jim– I mean, Joe! — do we really need those transporter beams, anyway? Jumbling up a fella’s atoms like that? I mean, I’m a doctor, not a scrambled egg! –LMcCoy


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