Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Don't Panic!

...he also had a device that looked rather like a largish calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million "pages" could be summoned at a moment's notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words DON'T PANIC printed in large friendly letters. The other reason was that this device was in fact the most remarkable of all books to ever come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
                                               Chapter 3, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams was a genius and a prophet, but that's true of any good visionary sci-fi writer. Call it a Kindle, Nook, iPad, Netbook, tablet, or Smart phone, today some form of portable electronic device that let's us access the internet. (which is very convenient, as Adams says in relation to a printed-version of the Guide, "an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in.") Adams is just carrying on a long tradition of giving us glimpses into the future.

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were famous and celebrated for this ability. Submarines that can travel thousands of miles under water without surfacing? Sounded far-fetched in Verne's time (the submarine as a viable war machine was it's infancy during the American Civil War), but only fifty years after Verne's death, nuclear powered submarines were  in operation, the first one appropriately named Nautilus.

More recently, tv and movies have led the way toward the future. Star Trek saw Kirk and Spock running around with flip-up communicators that allowed them to talk to the Enterprise from a planet's surface as clear as if both parties were in the same room. Now, people carry around cell phones that are not much bigger than a deck of playing cars, can reach around the world, and hold more computing power than all of NASA during the Apollo moon missions.

Star Wars hasn't been left out of the act either. TIE fighters were famous for mostly being Rebel target practice. However the TIE part (Twin Ion Engine) is now a viable engine technology for spacecraft, scooping up matter from the front end, and ejecting ions out the back end to propel the craft along. And, remember the tank of pink goo (Bacta) Luke floated in on Hoth while recovering from the Wampa attack? Now there is a gene therapy gel in testing that speeds up the natural healing functions of the body by as much as six times normal - no scuba mask needed.

Sci-fi writers are always looking forward, trying to imagine tomorrow, and the day after. Sure, there have been some miserable failures (I'm still waiting for my Jetson's car that folds up into a briefcase, personal jetpack, and my ticket on Pan Am's Lunar flights to the moon- thank you Stanley Kubrick & 2001: A space Odyssey) but there have been resounding successes. So, the next time you see some far-out concept in a book or movie, something seemingly impossible and outrageous, remember: DON'T PANIC! That just might be the future you see.

Thanks to @LeahPetersen for inspiring today's blog post. You can blame her for this drivel. :D


  1. Oh, you're welcome. :)

    You know I've thought about this a bit lately because my sci-fi is set about 350 years into the future. And while they certainly have tech we don't now, I have this niggling feeling that I'm not thinking big enough. That these things aren't SO advanced from what we have now. We might have them in 20 years, how much more would we have in 350?

  2. Well, there is the problem of stagnation. Sometimes a technological innovation will undergo a period of stagnation while waiting for component technologies to mature, or for a new break-thru to push the boundaries of what's possible. Sometimes what's possible isn't always practical or realistic for other reasons.

    Look at aviation. We went from a 120 foot long flight at not much faster than a running pace to the Concorde, a Mach 2 airliner, in a little over 70 years. However, Concorde ended up being too expensive and impractical, only carrying around 100 passengers at a time, while a 747 of the same period could carry 4 times as many passengers in a little over twice the flight time.

    That's something that we writers should always take into consideration when designing tech (or trying to) for our stories: is it practical for the characters daily lives?
    (Darn it, this comment is turning into another blog post idea- curse you again, Leah Petersen! :D)

  3. That a good point I hadn't thought of in detail. But unconsciously that's probably what drives some of my decisions with my tech. After all, if someone needs to look at a document when they're traveling, even waaayyy into the future they have to have some sort of portable device. Unless we're going the way of brain implants, or projecting holo images out of our asses.