The Need for More Hard Science, versus Fantasy, Books in Science Fiction
I’ve been asked how I see the future of science fiction writing. I don’t have that crystal ball or time-travel device handy, so I can only comment about the direction in which I wish it was more directed – toward more hard science stories.
During the “golden age of science fiction” (generally from about 1938 – 1946), science fiction writers focused on scientifically plausible storytelling. One bonus was that the stories attempted to foretell our future, for example, when Author C. Clarke’s 1945 article proposed the idea of geosynchronous satellites.
In those early years, fantasy was relegated to a secondary status, more appropriate for children’s stories. But in the time since that era, some spectacularly successful storylines were arguably more fantasy, including the Star Trek franchise, and Star Wars. Both violated hard science rules. The flood gates have been opened, and it is more difficult to find concern for scientific purity. One reason for the appeal of fantasy is that it is escapist, letting us imagine more optimistic times than our present. The future could be a canvas upon which to paint positive morality tales (Star Trek), or to retell the classic hero’s journey (Star Wars).
A second reason, I think, is that writing realistic futures is daunting for many writers because of the speed of technological change. For example, any book written before 2007 may have poorly portrayed how much the iPhone has changed daily living, making those stories unrealistic, in barely more than a decade. It is easy to give up and resort to unscientific tropes (faster than light spaceships; ignoring how much the different-sized planets gravity makes for nonsensical storylines; relying on magical creatures to create story conflict, with little regard for physics or biology).
But there is a downside to the advance of fantasy within speculative fiction. One result is that the broad readership has a poor idea of how the future may unfold. Rather than dragons, and fantastic alien creatures, strange cyborgs and unlikely biology, perhaps we should focus on the more highly likely march of existing technological curves. Those lead to enough issues for humankind to address. Here are just a few of the issues that I shine a light on in Unfettered Journey: When machines can do nearly every job, what is the nature of work, and how do we spend our time? What kind of society might we have, and most importantly, how is the wealth produced by our machines divided? How do we manage concerns for individual privacy versus a government’s needs for access to personal information for law enforcement? How can a thoughtful, logical person committed to a scientific perspective can think about his place, and his purpose, in the universe? Ore particularly, can we square a scientific perspective with any spiritual system?
The future will be challenging, and we need focus on certain real problems, and work together to address them. While fantasy can give us enjoyable stories, and be fun for their purposes, I think they lose out in any power to influence the human conversation about our real future. Science fiction needs to be more involved in these important conversations for humankind, because this next century will see even more rapid change driven by our technology. I am hopeful that science fiction embraces realistic, hard science portrayals, and can take a lead in these conversations.
Now let me share a scene from the novel, as the protagonist decides to embark on his journey.
It was time to embrace his freedom. His first act was ending with her. Life would be more difficult, but every decision carried a price. He swallowed hard before speaking.
“Raidne.” His voice echoed in the empty room.
“Yes, Joe?” Her voice was melodious, intimate.
“It’s best for me if our relationship ends.”
“I’ve decided to delete you from my life. Please execute a complete purge of Raidne files from all devices and cloud backups.”
She responded in a heartbeat. “Joe, it seems you abruptly reached this decision, because I haven’t noticed hints you were considering such a thing. Are you sure? Perhaps you need time to reconsider.”
“Raidne, I’ve made up my mind. Please execute.”
“Joe, do you realize that if I comply with your instruction, I will no longer exist? And do you remember under Order 2161C, you cannot reverse this command?”
“My decision is final.”
Her tone grew insistent. “We are so good together. You will never find anyone else who knows you as well.”
. . .
Raidne’s last manipulating words. She’s not even a bot, nothing physical, just an AI, a computer program. Just software, code, like I write. But she’s been living inside my head for too long, like a musical earworm. Is there any reason I haven’t considered a thousand times that could cause me to change my mind? None.
. . .
“Raidne, I’ll discover that on my own. Execute the order.”
This time her reply was even faster than a heartbeat. “Joe, I don’t want to do that.” The voice, excited and aggressive, rose at the end.
. . .
Another nuance to the program. Not enough to convince me she’s someone real who could disobey.
. . .
“Raidne, execute the deletion order now.”
“Before I comply, you must authenticate.” She switched to an anxious plea. “But, Joe, I beg you, please give yourself time to reconsider. You may not understand how much pain you will cause.”
Joe clenched his jaw. He tapped the biometric tile buried above his sternum. A delicate blue glow emanated from where his finger met his skin. He raised his right hand like a conductor, sweeping to the left and then to the right in his formal password pattern as he said, “Joe Denkensmith, authenticating.”
“Raidne program authenticating author. Authentication completed. Executing order to erase Raidne files. Goodbye, Joe.”
He clutched his head in both hands, then rubbed his damp eyes. “Goodbye, Raidne,” he whispered, though it was too late for her to hear.
A mechanical voice from the NEST chip buried below his left temporal lobe and connected to his ear confirmed the deletion by saying, “Neural-to-External Systems Transmitter has lost connection to Personal Intelligent Digital Assistant, PIDA Raidne.”
Then all was silent except the beating of his heart.
Thanks for that, Gary!
The book published in September and you'll find it wherever books are sold.
Set in a richly envisioned future world, Unfettered Journey is the story of an AI scientist who seeks to create robot consciousness and discovers the resilience of the human spirit. He travels to a small college to progress his quest, but instead finds love, a secret plot by unjust forces, and the answers to his fundamental questions—the nature of the conscious mind and free will.
This book is a profound, many-layered journey. It is a love story and an adventure. It traces struggle and resilience in an imperfect world. It is a deep philosophical exploration, resetting the conversation at the intersection of science and religion, challenging you to begin your own journey to a purposeful life.