Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Science fiction and prediction

Over at Meme Therapy, they have this Brain Parade going on, exploring this topic:
Science fiction isn't a predictive tool. Do you agree with that statement? And if so why do we fuss over plausibility in science fiction?

The question is illustrated with the picture above of a Star Trek communicator -- but there's no commentary about the communicator. It's become the iconic symbol of how SF sometimes gets it right, because some cell phones flip open.

But that's crap, and grasping at straws to prove we got one right. The lid on the communicator was an antenna; today's cell phones have internal antennae. Cellphones often reside in purses and pockets; surely the real inspiration for hinged cellphones are the other hinged things that already live in there: a wallet, a woman's compact, a business-card case.

(If cell phones were really supposed to mimic Star Trek communicators, they'd flip open with the same wrist movement that Captain Kirk always used -- but they don't.)

Science fiction isn't about prediction; it's about the here-and-now. That said, plausibility -- this could be, as opposed to this might be -- does add to science fiction's moral authority to make comments on the here and now.

Back during the 2000 US presidential elections, everywhere you went, people were talking about how the election was going to turn out. If you were at a party and someone said, "You know, if George W. Bush wins, I think his economic strategy is going to be ...," you might lean in and listen.

And if somebody else said, "Yeah, but if Al Gore wins, his foreign policy might be ...," you might also lend an ear.

But when some raving lunatic in the corner says, "Listen, Ralph Nader's going to take this race, and when he gets into the Oval Office, he's going to ...," you tune that guy right out, because what he had to say had no chance at all of becoming reality.

It's the same with the prediction in science fiction. If you want to talk about gender politics, or race relations, or the abortion issue, or world peace, or anything else of contemporary interest through a science-fictional lens, the infrastructure on which you set your morality play benefits from at least appearing to be plausible. But we don't say George Orwell was a lousy science-fiction writer because his version of 1984 turned out to be nothing like the way the real year 1984 was; instead, we rightly laud him for getting us thinking about a possible future, and making mid-course corrections to (mostly) end up avoiding that future from becoming a reality.


At August 01, 2006 10:29 AM , Blogger Rosie said...

I agree with most of what you say, except for one thing. My phone does flick up like Kirk's communicator with a flick of the wrist and even has an option to play an annoying little beep when you do it. The only reason that most cellphone manufacturers don't use this is because of what happens when you're drunk. i.e. you throw your mobile phone across the bar and it lands in someone's pint. But in a cool way.

At August 01, 2006 10:39 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

As you just said, most cellphone manufacturers don't do this. Yes, you can get cellphones that mimic a communicator; you can also get a remote control for your TV shaped like a phaser. Doesn't mean that Star Trek predicted either of these things.

If you want a Trek tech prediction that's actually interesting, it's the wireless earpiece receiver used often by Uhura and occasionally by Spock -- Bluetooth decades before reality. ;)

At August 01, 2006 11:45 AM , Blogger GP said...

Haha, I was just going to comment about my cell phone doing the flippy thing too, but rosie beat me to it.

There's an hour long special that's played on the Space channel titled something along the lines of "How Star Trek Changed the World", hosted by William Shatner. The invention of cell phones is just one part, but the show definitely doesn't take itself to seriously.

At August 01, 2006 3:24 PM , Blogger Drakkenfyre said...

But Rosie, GP, you guys are missing the point. Star Trek did not predict cell phones. Look at the progression of cellular phones from the car-mounted, to the "brick," finally to the various flip styles--which have now been supplanted by the sliding halves or the simple, no moving parts answer.

However, Star Trek did comment on religion, government and freedom, the state of race relations, the desire for vengeance, etc. in a way that no straight drama could have at that time.

So the point of this discussion isn't about whether a few out of hundreds of models of cell phones flip open; rather, it's a discussion of science fiction's importance to society and whether it is a predictive medium by design, not by chance.

At August 01, 2006 3:35 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Drakkenfyre: well said! :)

At August 01, 2006 4:08 PM , Blogger E.Jim Shannon said...

I think the key word should be "inspired" by science fiction and even that goes to far. I don't think developers of cell phone technology collectively sat down together and said, "hey lets make a Star trek type communicator." Remember the first commercially available cell phones were half the length of my keyboard and came with a shoulder strap. I predict within ten years cell phones will be just like what Karen’s son Tyler was using. If anything Rob, I think You got it right.

At August 01, 2006 7:37 PM , Anonymous don said...

Not to flog the cellular phone thing, but the original working plan was written up in 1965. That would be before Star Trek by my math. However it took until 1979 for technology to catch up and the first working prototype to be made. Motorola made the cell site and Oki made the phone. (It was premiered in Chicago). I actually saw the original unit in Oki's Georga facility when I went there for a training course back in the early 90's.

The flip-style phone had nothing to do with Star Trek either. It was made to protect the keypad and from accidentally making calls. It later covered the display to protect it too.

Rats, now I forgot the question . . .

At August 01, 2006 7:42 PM , Blogger J Erwine said...

Science fiction should never be considered predictive. We're not here to develop the next new technology...if we were, we'd all be a lot richer than we are.

We're here to tell stories and entertain more than anything else, and sometimes to caution people about what could happen. We just happen to use science in the telling, some more than others.

Just my two cents for what they're worth...

At August 01, 2006 8:20 PM , Blogger Jose said...

For what its worth I think the comparison between Star Trek's communicators and flip cover cellphones falls under the "even a broken clock is right twice a day" category. I've always thought it a bit of a reach to suggest that Star Trek predicted cellphones. They predicted that walkie talkies (an already exsisting technology) would be much smaller a few hundred years in the future. That's hardly an earth shattering prediction really.


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