An 1899 illustration for H G Wells’ “When the Sleeper Wakes”. Image: Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty
Show Hide image

Can science fiction writers predict trends in technology’s future?

From Arthur C Clarke’s “Extra Terrestrial Relays” (now called satellites) to H G Wells’ “ironclads” (tanks), science fiction writers have form when it comes to pre-empting the future of technology.

The October 1945 edition of Wireless World magazine carried an article from a young Arthur C Clarke called “Extra Terrestrial Relays”. It was the concept of using satellites in geostationary orbit, 35,786km high, around the Earth, to beam radio signals from one continent to another. Remember Sputnik didn’t go into orbit until October 1957, and that only reached a height of 577km. So in 1945 the article was received as a grand idea, theoretically possible, but by the standards of post WWII rocketry, severely impractical.

Nonetheless, the first communication satellite to use this orbit (now named the Clarke Orbit) was Syncom 3, launched in August 1964 – 19 years after Clarke’s article. An article which was detailed enough to receive a patent had he sent it to the patent office instead of the magazine. Today, communication satellites are a multi-billion pound industry. Clarke drew together a number of sciences: orbital mechanics, radio design, rocketry, and extrapolated the combination perfectly. It’s one of the best examples of what people see as a science fiction writer’s job: predict the future.

If only it were that easy.

Humans gamble constantly, not just on games of chance, but on how the future will turn out in every aspect of society. We’re fascinated by it. Pollsters have created an entire industry fuelling the insatiable need for politicians to produce their next vote-winning policy. It’s no longer good enough for ministers to jump on a bandwagon as it’s passing, they demand to know what trends are developing below the media horizon before they burst into the 24 hour news cycle. Sample enough people and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of some resentment or aspiration coalescing below the surface of public expression. Congratulations, you’re a pundit.

Future trends are even more important to the money markets. There, chance is squeezed out of the equation as much as is humanly possible. Statistics rule. It’s not just banks that have departments of analysts, there are whole companies who employ nothing but analysts pouring over every detail released by companies in their annual reports and profit warnings.  What all of them want is a method that will get them one, or preferably ten, steps ahead of the opposition.

State intelligence agencies, NHS managers, transport authorities, insurance companies. All of them live by scrutinising evidence from different sources and putting it together to try and gain that glimpse which clairvoyants have been claiming for centuries.

With one interesting omission. In 1939, Robert Heinlein, published his first short story, called “Life-Line”. It was about a man, Professor Piner, who builds a machine that will determine how long a person will live, by sending a signal along the temporal line of that person and detecting the echo from the far end –sort of like a psychic radar. It was infallible, and even knowing the outcome there was no avoiding it. Who wants to know that?

But the rest of the future with its quirks, inventions, wars, and triumphs, that we are obsessed with.

As science fiction writers, we design our future fictional worlds by extrapolation. It doesn’t matter what kind of book we’re writing, satire, military, space opera, dystopia, the fundamentals of the society have to be in some way believable. To do this we take what we see around us today, and run with it.  The advantage I have over Heinlein and others of his era is that the twentieth century saw a huge acceleration in technological and social development. For us that change has become the norm, we understand and accept our lives are in a constant flux –certainly towards shinier consumer gadgets, and hopefully aiming at a better society. Pre-1940, because valves were the heart of all electrical devices, people assumed valves would remain at the heart. They didn’t have the looking-ahead reflex we seem to have acquired. Today when a new model phone comes out all we can think of is: if that’s what this does, what is the one after going to give us?

So with Clarke’s old article in mind, should us science fiction writers be sending our first drafts to the patent office rather than our editors? Our record in this field is somewhat patchy when it comes to specifics. One of Heinlein’s less fanciful ideas was a water bed, described in his 1942 novel, Beyond This Horizon. The modern waterbed was granted a patent (not to Heinlein) in 1971. H G Wells wrote about the land ironclads (tanks) in 1903.  And let’s not forget Orwell’s 1984, which put forward the whole concept, and consequences of the surveillance state in despicable detail.  

Closer to home for me, November 2013 saw Motorola apply for a patent entitled Coupling An Electronic Skin Tattoo To A Mobile Communication Device. Interesting, considering I was writing about OCtattoos (Organic Circuitry Tattoos) in my 2004 novel Pandora’s Star –which as the concept has now been in the public domain for ten years may well void the Motorola application if anyone ever bothers to challenge it in court.

The simple fact that these examples and a few other notables are practically in single figures sadly gives science fiction the same kind of hit rate as a professional clairvoyant. However, in constantly predicting and even advocating a wealth of futures, we might just have contributed to the expectation that change is constant and volatile.  Preparing people to accept that their future is largely unknowable, and having them deal with that, isn’t a bad legacy after all.

“The Abyss Beyond Dreams” by Peter F Hamilton is out now

Getty
Show Hide image

The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.