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

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Donald Trump wants to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency - can he?

"Epa, Epa, Eeeepaaaaa" – Grampa Simpson.

 

There have been countless jokes about US President Donald Trump’s aversion to academic work, with many comparing him to an infant. The Daily Show created a browser extension aptly named “Make Trump Tweets Eight Again” that converts the font of Potus’ tweets to crayon scrawlings. Indeed, it is absurd that – even without the childish font – one particular bill that was introduced within the first month of Trump taking office looked just as puerile. Proposed by Matt Gaetz, a Republican who had been in Congress for barely a month, “H.R. 861” was only one sentence long:

“The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018”.

If this seems like a stunt, that is because Gaetz is unlikely to actually achieve his stated aim. Drafting such a short bill without any co-sponsors – and leaving it to a novice Congressman to present – is hardly the best strategy to ensure a bill will pass. 

Still, Republicans' distrust for environmental protections is well-known - long-running cartoon show The Simpsons even did a send up of the Epa where the agency had its own private army. So what else makes H.R. 861 implausible?

Well, the 10-word-long statement neglects to address the fact that many federal environmental laws assume the existence of or defer to the Epa. In the event that the Epa was abolished, all of these laws – from the 1946 Atomic Energy Act to the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – would need to be amended. Preferably, a way of doing this would be included in the bill itself.

Additionally, for the bill to be accepted in the Senate there would have to be eight Democratic senators who agreed with its premise. This is an awkward demand when not even all Republicans back Trump. The man Trum appointed to the helm of the Epa, Scott Pruitt, is particularly divisive because of his long opposition to the agency. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said that she was hostile to the appointment of a man who was “so manifestly opposed to the mission of the agency” that he had sued the Epa 14 times. Polls from 2016 and 2017 suggests that most Americans would be also be opposed to the agency’s termination.

But if Trump is incapable of entirely eliminating the Epa, he has other ways of rendering it futile. In January, Potus banned the Epa and National Park Services from “providing updates on social media or to reporters”, and this Friday, Trump plans to “switch off” the government’s largest citizen-linked data site – the Epa’s Open Data Web Service. This is vital not just for storing and displaying information on climate change, but also as an accessible way of civilians viewing details of local environmental changes – such as chemical spills. Given the administration’s recent announcement of his intention to repeal existing safeguards, such as those to stabilise the climate and protect the environment, defunding this public data tool is possibly an attempt to decrease awareness of Trump’s forthcoming actions.

There was also a recent update to the webpage of the Epa's Office of Science and Technology, which saw all references to “science-based” work removed, in favour of an emphasis on “national economically and technologically achievable standards”. 

Trump’s reshuffle of the Epa's priorities puts the onus on economic activity at the expense of public health and environmental safety. Pruitt, who is also eager to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, spoke in an interview of his desire to “exit” the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. He was led to this conclusion because of his belief that the agreement means “contracting our economy to serve and really satisfy Europe, and China, and India”.

 

Rather than outright closure of the Epa, its influence and funding are being leached away. H.R. 861 might be a subtle version of one of Potus’ Twitter taunts – empty and outrageous – but it is by no means the only way to drastically alter the Epa’s landscape. With Pruitt as Epa Administrator, the organisation may become a caricature of itself – as in The Simpsons Movie. Let us hope that the #resistance movements started by “Rogue” Epa and National Parks social media accounts are able to stave off the vultures until there is “Hope” once more.

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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