Where is Science Taking Us? by C.J. Cherryh

Once upon a time and not so very long ago, science fiction found its inspiration in the near solar system: landing on the moon was science fiction. Landing on Mars was outright fantasy.

Now the equipment associated with the moon flight stands in museums, Mars is on the drawing-boards, and science fiction of the intervening decades has gone to the stars…a territory where the rules are a little less rigid, and where the histories aren’t yet written.

But there’s a problem with that scenario. Science fiction isn’t founded on escaping from science, or from humanity. Quite the contrary. It’s a literature of human dealings with science — at the very core of its significance; it’s what-if, and what if-this-goes-on with us? It’s us meeting nature on the macroscopic and microscopic level. And above all, it’s about what happens to us when we run into places and situations that just aren’t Kansas.

Science fiction has dealt with strange landscapes aplenty. It’s dealt with strangers. The physics of how to get there is unfolding around us. The star probes I wrote about a decade or so ago are increasingly probable in a real future. Those frontiers are just ahead, and who knows? They’ll be the next relics.

But there’s more to the future than where we’re going. Science fiction also lies in what we’re taking with us and in who we’ll be when we go. And that’s the result of changes we’re already making.

There are new frontiers.

The science of what we may become is one of the most exciting and potent—the power of genetic change. The power of the sub-visible. The power to work invisibly to create visible changes. If this sounds like alchemy—it is. If it sounds like magic—well, it answers that description well enough, too.

The expansion of understanding already required of human beings just to live in the 21st century is staggering. In an era when the pace of living requires a cellphone stuck to one’s ear while shopping, in an age when democratic process goes electronic, in an age where what we see may have been computer-enhanced beyond all resemblance to the truth…the news that the world is going to go on changing at an accelerated rate sounds incredible.

It should. The fact is that human beings are still the 10000 BC model, designed for agriculture, with a decision-making rate adequate for walking and running, and a reproductive rate designed for occasional plagues. We overlay on that a philosophical and political system a couple of thousand years old, the origins and reasons for which we collectively don’t remember very well. We invent paper records to keep up with the changes and then we invent computers to remember where we put it all. Which means we now prowl superhighways having cell phone arguments with our spouses a thousand miles away, while trying to cope with the traffic flow and simultaneously find out where we are via the GPS display. Mental meltdown and fast traffic aren’t mixing well, as is, and somehow we hang on.

Meanwhile science has still more change in store. The 10000 BC model is thinking about improving not just document storage — but himself.

The 10000 BC model won’t change everything about himself, however. And it’s my guess we still hark back to some very old patterns, if you strip everything of our civilization away. If you try to create a new world, depend on it, we still come with genetic baggage. Given a problem, we still try to do things the old way.

And how much of that capability is in our genes?

We aren’t just an organism fitted to live. We’re an organism that survived in specific conditions in which we’re sure we’re more efficient than our rivals. We run if stressed, and immediately do certain things to assure our life requirements. Getting water is the prime one. Avoiding predators. Getting food. Getting shelter. We were good at that once upon a time. We were better at it than all our competitors. When we looked for safety, once upon a time, we picked spots where we could live and our competition couldn’t. It’s that simple.

And when we look for safety again—who knows? Old choices, old instincts, old methods still may work.

We reinvent the wheel again, and again, and again.

But when we start meddling with the basic model of us, when science begins to look very much like magic—which way will we go? Will the ordinary populace keep up with the changes and understand that it’s not magic? Or will those in charge want them to know it isn’t?

Some think there’s a limit to the 10000 BC model. Some think we already can’t educate a certain amount of the population to the technicalities that now are bread and butter choices. A nation that chooses to educate its population in science is a nation that voluntarily empowers its people to make choices and effect changes. But what shipwrecks of policy and politics do we face when that education fails in any single generation?

And what happens when a generation that doesn’t understand the choices is the one that has to make them?

At what point do we have to transform ourselves as we transformed our information storage?

And if we do that—do we set deliberate limits for ourselves? Do we set some things off limits? Do we make ourselves alike one another?

Or not?

Copyright© 2002, HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. This article has been provided by HarperCollins and printed with their permission.

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