Thursday, August 24, 2017

Trazzles and Tweedlers

While re-shelving our books in our newly redecorated basement "library," I came across WHICH WAY TO THE FUTURE? (2001), a collection of essays from ANALOG by the long-time editor of the magazine, Stanley Schmidt. While most of the stories in ANALOG don't excite me, because I don't really get into "hard science fiction" (a term Schmidt doesn't like; he maintains that rigorously science-based SF should be called simply "science fiction"), I've always loved the editorials. My favorite article in WHICH WAY TO THE FUTURE?, "Bold and Timid Prophets," contemplates how visions of the future (in both factual predictive writings and fiction) typically measure up to the actual development of culture and technology. Often a story set in the future imagines the technology as a perfected version of the cutting-edge inventions of the present day. For example, a nineteenth-century speculative novel might envision the twentieth century as powered by highly advanced steam engines. Making an imaginative leap into a world filled with devices that do things impossible in the current state of knowledge is much harder.

Schmidt illustrates this problem by starting the essay with an ordinary letter written in the late 1990s as it would appear to a reader in the 1860s. He substitutes a nonsense word for every term that didn't exist then (or combines familiar words in ways that would have made no sense in the mid-nineteenth century, such as "answering machine"). (I think he cheated a bit with "pilot." Boats had pilots for a very long time before airplanes began to need them.) "Plane" becomes "trazzle"; "computer" becomes "tweedler." "Fooba" substitutes for "e-mail" and "zilp" for "fax." Even where the nineteenth-century reader could recognize all the words, many of the sentences would appear to express impossibilities. How could parents know the sex of a baby in utero? How could a person travel a total of 20,000 miles in only one month? How could a human heart be transplanted? How could a transatlantic trip take "just a few hours"?

Doubtless the distant future will include inventions and achievements we can't currently imagine because they'll depend on discoveries and technologies unknown to us, just as the nineteenth century couldn't predict the practical applications of electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics. Even the boldest and best of classic SF writers get things amusingly wrong when writing about the not-so-distant future. "Where's my flying car?" illustrates one well-known unfulfilled prediction. Personally, I shudder at the thought of flying cars being anything other than toys for the rich. Autonomous ground cars, which now seem just over the horizon, sound much more desirable. What I really want, however, is my housecleaning robot, which Heinlein in THE DOOR INTO SUMMER expected by 1970. Also, in HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL, Heinlein envisioned a near future with a moon colony—and slide rules. The social structures portrayed in some of his juvenile novels are even less "bold" than the concept of slide rules on the moon—the families of the twenty-first century look like suburban American households of the 1950s—but, in light of his posthumously published first novel, FOR US, THE LIVING, that absence of innovation probably wasn't his fault. I suspect editors of books for teenagers in the 1950s wouldn't have accepted anything unconventional in that area.

Schmidt concludes that "well-balanced science fiction" needs "both extrapolation—things you can clearly see are possible—and innovation—the things you can't see how to do, but also can't prove impossible." That's one thing I like about J. D. Robb's Eve Dallas mysteries; their vision of the 2060s strikes me as convincingly futuristic but also plausible in terms of current technological and social trends.

WHICH WAY TO THE FUTURE? addresses a variety of other intriguing topics, such as the definitions of "intelligence" and "human," why we haven't been contacted by aliens (the Fermi Paradox), the proliferation of unrealistically exaggerated fears of marginal hazards, etc. Fortunately, Amazon offers numerous used copies of this fascinating collection.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment