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[GUEST POST] Edward M. Lerner on The Magic of Being Distinguishable from Magic

Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as a hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time, and his books run the gamut from near-future technothrillers, like Energized, to traditional SF, like his InterstellarNet series, to, with Larry Niven, the grand space-opera Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Ed’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, three collections, and many of the usual SF magazines. He also writes nonfiction, most notably his long-running “the science behind the fiction” article series in Analog. He blogs about science, fiction, and science fiction at SF and Nonsense.

The Magic of Being Distinguishable from Magic

by Edward M. Lerner

In The Near Future Is a Dangerous Place (for Writers, Too), when last I shared electrons with SF Signal, it was to discuss the perils of forecasting in near-term fiction. But while near-future fiction can be overtaken by events, far-future fiction can fall prey to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. For those of us who write hard SF and like to “paint” our stories on a large canvas — light-years wide and a century-plus long — the latter peril is very real.

Can I (or anyone) predict the future centuries out? I don’t think so! There are very real limits to anyone’s ability to predict tomorrow. There’s no telling what any of the seven-plus billion of us living today will — or won’t — do next. Who would have predicted Beanie Babies? Pet rocks? Honey Boo Boo? Now set aside the products, technologies, and cultural phenomena that seemingly come out of nowhere, and consider things that really do appear out of figurative left field — what economists call exogenous events. Weather disasters. Asteroid strikes. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Revolutionary movements. Terrorist attacks. First contact …

As far as we know, that last one hasn’t happened on Earth. But my fiction often explores first-contact scenarios, and I’m far from alone. As one of its features, I wanted my InterstellarNet series to hew closely, especially in its opening stories, to known science. In particular, that meant: no faster-than-light travel or communications.

Interstellar and no FTL? That combination forces even the hastiest interactions to take years (or, more realistically, decades). And that means that even a series begun in or near the present day (and back in 1999, I set the earliest InterstellarNet story in 2002) must find itself, after only a few adventures, in some challenging-to-describe, mid-term future. For all that, I like to believe my imagined future is both believable and distinguishable from magic.

I worked for many years as an engineer, manager, and marketer before I turned to writing full-time. That earlier experience turned out to be relevant. Sometimes just having lived through and observed enough was relevant.

Here’s what I’ve come to believe about characterizing a mid-term future:

  • Human nature is slow to change. Decades from now we’ll have new toys and technology, but we’ll still be … us.
  • The toys we’ll want and the tech we’ll use decades hence may sometimes surprise today’s reader — but the wants and needs satisfied by those toys and tech will not.
  • However surprising a future may at first seem, its developments, upon examination, should spring mostly from familiar roots. (Not everything. The first confirmed ET message will be as exogenous as inputs can get.)
  • We humans are wired to trust the tried-and-true; we alter our infrastructure, culture, and civilization incrementally. The Age of Sail is more than a century past; sailboats and regattas remain with us.
  • Through inertia or stubbornness or nostalgia, we discover — or invent — niches for logically obsolete technologies and practices. Events from out of left field (or out of interstellar space) will usually be: factored into our routines, recast into familiar terms, and added to — only very seldom entirely displacing — our earlier technologies and practices. (Radio did not replace reading, nor television replace radio, nor movies replace live theater. E-readers have not replaced print. And we continue to wait for the paperless office.)
  • Even technologies and cultural habits that seemed to have burst upon the scene generally required years to develop. Then they take years or decades to displace — as above, seldom to quite fully replace — earlier technologies.
  • For reasons that may be political or economic or sociological, technologies (or their uses) sometimes plateau — even backtrack — for decades. Case in point: manned spaceflight.
  • The historical pace of improvement in electronics (capabilities doubling and/or costs cut in half each year or two) is not typical. Whether we look at crop yields or automotive fuel economy or the efficiency of electrical power generation, over the long haul most technologies improve by, at best, a few percent per year. And just as trees don’t grow to reach the sky, progress in electronics, too, is slowing down, is bumping up against basic physical limits.
  • Even the most advanced technologies, singly and in combination, come to serve the most everyday purposes. Orbiting atomic clocks (the rate of their ticking adjusted one way to correct for Special Relativity effects and adjusted in the opposite direction to correct for General Relativity effects) — that is, GPS — guide us to the nearest Starbucks. Computers superior in every way to those used for the Apollo lunar missions — that is, smart phones — we use to swap selfies and play Angry Birds.

That’s rather abstract. Let’s look at how these concepts can be applied to a storyline. As a concrete example, I’ll use my InterstellarNet series, whose adventures now extend across nearly two centuries. How did I hope to make credible the yet-later future of each fresh installment? In a phrase: with scattered big changes tempered with (as above) incrementalism. Here’s a spoiler-free example that spans all that future history:

  • Alien biochip technology (traded for by radio waves — the series is called InterstellarNet for a reason) is licensed as an energy-efficient substitute for photonics, which (in the storyline) had already displaced most electronics. Adoption of biochips is resisted and takes years.
  • Biochips make practical the use of implanted neural interfaces (WiFi to the brain).
  • Neural interfaces improve with time, until AIs and meat minds can share thoughts — even if it’s only to bicker.
  • New and more powerful apps keep emerging to run on new and more powerful neural implants.
  • Top-of-the-line neural implants and server-grade biochips make it possible for an artificial intelligence to reside inside a skull, integrating human and AI minds.

Of course throughout this progression some people refuse to get an implant — and not only because, however routine the procedure, to get an implant entails brain surgery. The “Humanist” social movement finds neural interfacing unnatural and objectionable. They continue to rely upon speech recognition and even keyboards. Meanwhile, at the opposite extreme of adaptation to change, the civil-rights issue that erupts at mid-series deals with AI rights.

Other aspects of this evolving future are more subtly placed. With each story, the range of human settlement expands. Early stories show Earth-orbiting habitats and lunar colonies, while moons of Jupiter host only scientific research bases. In later stories, even moons of Uranus and Neptune have been settled. By InterstellarNet: Enigma (the third and most recent book in the series) the Kuiper Belt is being prospected and mined.

Is it perilous to portray capabilities and social trends decades and more into some future? You betcha! But the challenge seems slightly less daunting when we rely upon human nature.

Nonhuman natures are best left to the aliens we bring into our stories …

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] Edward M. Lerner on The Magic of Being Distinguishable from Magic

  1. And as of today, complementing the serialized version of INTERSTELLARNET: ENIGMA (the most epic chapter yet in the InterstellarNet future history), the full novel has been released as an ebook. Just sayin’ …

  2. My novel (Synthesis:Weave) sort-of covers most of the points you’ve made above, although I’ve actually got magic in a hard sci-fi setting (it’s done very logically). The contrast between how the future has moved on (for the most part) from the past is drawn when people from the book’s present encounter a colony that has travelled for centuries at light-speed and been left behind technologically.

    I have consciously made an effort to not attempt to predict technologies unless they’re pivotal to the plot. I’ve also left descriptions of familiar things suitably vague in an attempt to avoid ‘dating’.

    I’m not here to predict the future, just to give people an enjoyable read.

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