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The Speed of Sci-Fi

In the Star Trek novel Doctor’s Orders — which you really ought to read if you like Trek — there’s an offhanded remark made about how an additional 80 terabytes of data storage were added to the Enterprise computers in advance of their science mission to 1212 Muscae V.

I first read this novel in 1990, when it was released — I’d been reading adult-targeted SF (mostly Trek novels) since 1987*, but it wasn’t until I reread DO earlier this year (for about the 25th time) that I noticed there’s five percent of that in my living room alone.

The whole point of futuristic sci-fi is to look ahead, extrapolate what might happen, and write stories about it. Well, Diane Duane either extrapolated hard drive space based upon what she had in her personal computer*** and how much space it took to store various files or — more likely — did some research on computing and extended it to the future.

By the time I was selling computers, in 1995, 40GB was de rigeur (IIRC). This little factoid tells you just how far we came in the five years after the book was published.

If you really want to see how fast the speed of sci-fi moves, read some Robert Heinlein novels. It seems to me like, in each decade, Heinlein readjusted his expectations of where we would be in 30, 40, or 50 years. In Stranger in a Strange Land, which to the best of my knowledge takes place in the late 20th century but was written in 1961, Jubal Harshaw stores data on reels of tape. By the late 20th century, I was using disks, although we still sold tapes in the store. Contrast that to Friday, written 21 years later and occurring in the mid 21st century — data and other material can be stored in tiny cases of sorts, such as the one Friday has implanted behind her navel. Well, on my desk right now I have two sticks of data no bigger than my index finger, each of which hold 16 gigabytes — eight hundred times more storage than on my first computer’s hard drive, and it’s only been 20 years.

As a writer of science fiction, I often find it difficult to predict exactly what’s going to change, and when. In 2004, I had a Motorola v600 which was, at the time, a pretty awesome cellphone. Also in 2004, I started writing a novel in which everyone carried an ID card that you could “run” through a “comp”. The ID contained your credit information, your rank and position (if you were in the military), and various other data. The book takes place in the 2900s, and the technology is not human-based (for reasons I won’t get into), so I suppose I can get away with it for that reason, but by the time we hit… oh, I don’t know, 2025… the concept of needing a physical card will probably have gone the way of the dinosaur, in favor of keeping everything on your cell phone or implanted in a chip under your skin.

The point of that paragraph is this: by the time I had written the first 10,000 words of that (as yet unpublished — and incomplete) novel, the technology was already dated. Imagine how authors feel when they finish a book, get it edited, get it on the publication schedule… and then, two months before it’s released, something new is invented that makes the book obsolete.

That’s the speed of sci-fi.

Oh, there are more glaring examples — 45 years ago, we thought the Enterprise bridge was totally futuristic, but when the show Enterprise came out, somehow there was more technology on Archer’s bridge than on Kirk’s. Somehow, communicators and tricorders — and the engine room — looked way cooler in 2151 than 2266. I know, I know, we can make cooler-looking stuff now, so why don’t we, right? But even then, Archer and T’Pol didn’t have anything like an iPhone, and the closest thing Kirk got to an iPad was that electronic slate thingy Yeoman Rand brought him every episode.

And don’t even get me started on Babylon 5. If you thought the speed of sci-fi was fast, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the crazy throw pillows and patterns on that show. Londo has a pillow in the first season**** that looks like it was made from one of Bill Cosby’s more cubist sweaters.

I think this is why so many authors are writing sci-fi after some sort of watershed event — the earth being flooded or the oceans drying up, a nuclear holocaust or other extinction-level event — and why they’ve always done so. If there’s a fundamental shift in the world itself, technology doesn’t matter so much. Sure, in the 2100s, humanity had space technology (according to Sean McMullen’s amazing Souls in the Great Machine, which I’ll be reviewing soon), but after Greatwinter, all sorts of old-technology-that-is-new-again was developed because we didn’t have spaceships and laser guns and computers anymore. It provides a clean slate.

Compare that to Section 3A, a recent story of mine in which everyone has a lawyer. According to a lawyer friend of mine, that could be coming sooner than we think.

I’ll end this article by appropriating a page from Alasdair Stuart‘s playbook and slightly modify a well-known quote: sci-fi moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

* In 1987, my mom picked me up from summer camp and told me and my sister that my dad had seriously injured his foot, and we were going to see him at the hospital. On the way, we stopped at Bookstop** because, as my mom put it, we’d be at the hospital for a while and she didn’t want us to be bored. I went to the sci-fi section and found a whole shelf of *gasp* STAR TREK BOOKS!!! I made my mom buy me three, and that was it. I was hooked on genre literature.

** There was a computer store right next to Bookstop. It was a CompuAdd dealership. I got my first “personal” computer — that is, one I didn’t have to share — from that store.

*** In 1990, I had a 20MB hard drive, a processor slower than 25mHz — probably an 8086 or 80286 — a 5.25-inch hard drive, and a dot matrix printer that I could make print in color if I swapped out the ribbons by hand. Oh, and a 13-inch 256-color EGA monitor. We had a mouse and a joystick, but neither worked very well, so we mostly used the keyboard. My OS was MS-DOS 3.something, and I used XTree Gold as my file manager.

**** I just watched the first season last month, so that’s why it’s in my head. I don’t memorize the decor of every show I watch. Really.

The futuristic city image in this post comes from bestgamewallpapers.com. Click the image to view it on their site.

Comments (1)

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  1. Alex says:

    I miss XTreeGold 🙁 And Telix. BBS’ were so much cooler than the internet!

    I think you’re misjudging B5 a bit though. For one thing, human characters generally tended to be rather subdued – the B5 Human uniforms, in particular, look downright monastic compared to even the basic Star Trek uniform (let alone their “dress” regalia). It was mainly the alien species who enjoyed loud colours, flashy lights, and weird patterns. However, even were that not the case, you’re talking about fashion. Fashion is notoriously fickle. As far as science fiction is concerned, fashions never go out of date – they’re just waiting to be reused. So make sure you hang on to those Bill Cosby sweaters: who knows, by the time you’re 90 you might be the coolest grandpa on the block.