Remember the glory days of science fiction, when everything and anything seemed like a possibility? When nothing was certain, and the future applications of scientific discovery seemed as ridiculously fanciful as… well, as fantasy? I’m not sure I do. Born in the mid-seventies, at the start of an exponential growth phase in scientific discovery, it seems that every passing year has turned one more ‘impossible fantasy’ into a reality.
Less than a hundred and fifty years ago, Jules Verne wrote about exploration under the sea and to the moon. Now such things are common place. Old hat. Comfortable. Few people marvel at the wonder that is a submarine, and moon exploration (except, perhaps, for those few who believe the whole thing an elaborate conspiracy) lost its appeal soon after we realized we could do it.
Today, the ‘laws’ of nature are redefined constantly, and our understanding of what is possible changes as often as the tides. From Newtonian to Relativity to Quantum, physics underwent a drastic metamorphosis in the last century, pulling the other sciences along kicking and screaming. We take for granted what our grandparents and great-grandparents could do only in their wildest dreams, and technology currently on the horizon threatens many of the mainstays of science fiction.
Not until well into the 20th century did humanity know that DNA was the ‘building block of life.’ Now the code is cracked, the map drawn. The ability exists, not only to identify the sites that cause specific diseases and traits, but to alter those genes considered undesirable. Though still in the early stages of development, genetic modification holds great promise, grave danger, and a very big knife to the throat of science fiction. As outlined in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series, nothing but time and a thin layer of ethics prevents mankind from splicing genes from other species into its own genome, allowing it access, a-la Dr. Moreau, to all the advantages of the animal and plant kingdoms. Along similar lines, what is to prevent a ‘Eugenics War’ like the one that created the infamous Kahn in Star Trek, or the development of a super soldier?
Cryonics is no longer a fiction, it’s a reality, and more than a few people have had themselves frozen—thankfully, posthumously—until medical science can devise a cure for their condition. Which might not take that long. New procedures and drugs are created daily, and some of last century’s greatest killers are no longer a threat; others have been all but eradicated from the Earth. The average life span jumped by more than twenty years in the last century (in the U.S., at least) and other burgeoning technologies promise to revolutionize both medicine and the human condition.
In 2001, the first full, self-powered artificial hearts were transplanted into dying patients, many of whom lived far longer than expected. The age of the cyborg is upon us; it won’t be long before artificial parts are used to replace our failing organic ones. At present, the need for an external power source makes the AbioCor heart less than comfortable, but an internal battery allows for a full half hour of independent action, and the development of fuel cell technology (another fiction rapidly turning into fact) and longer-lasting batteries may soon make the artificial heart a viable transplant option for the thousands who die each year from heart failure.
Next generation prosthetics will include computer chips and sensors that will measure nerve conduction and allow the limb to move as instructed; hydraulic technology is now in development to provide joint action in knees and elbows, and from there, attempts will be made to mimic the more complex movements of the hand. Optical implants can now correct for a variety of eye dysfunctions, and research is underway on implants that feed directly into the optic nerve, bypassing the need for eyes altogether and allowing for the detection of wavelengths beyond the range of our simple, outdated human eyes.
Medical science is not the only discipline changing fiction into fact. Earlier this year, the U.S. army successfully tested its first anti-missile laser system, a building-sized laser that uses intense bursts of energy to disable incoming missiles, mortars, and artillery shells. Smaller versions are being adapted for use on military humvees, and even more impressively, the military has announced plans to use a modified Boeing-747 to house a similar system. Just imagine, a mobile anti-ballistic missile platform, capable of triangulating on nearby projectiles and using its targeting system to disable the threat without detonating it. In similar news, the first successful test of a space-based laser system took place earlier this year.
Not surprisingly, the armed forces are spear-heading other areas of scientific advancement as well. One military robotics expert claims that the army is only a few generations away from a viable adaptive artificial intelligence. In fact, there is only one final hurdle to overcome: three-dimensional spatial geometry. Apparently, today’s robotic tanks are quite capable at navigating rocks and trees, but they have a tendency to drive off cliffs when nobody’s paying attention. The navy is already designing a series of small, robotic submarines to replace the roles played by humanity’s stalwart friend, the dolphin. These submarines will be used to set microscopic sonar buoys, provide reconnaissance within enemy waters, and seek out underwater mines (and unlike the dolphin, the robotic subs will be capable of defusing the mines!)
Several sources also claim that Professor Susumu Tachi, of Tokyo University—who debuted his ‘invisibility cloak’ in early 2003—has already received several generous offers from the United States military to help it develop adaptive camouflage for its troops and equipment.
A circuit one molecule large was designed this year. Computers smaller than a watch have more features than room-sized computers did a quarter century ago. Wireless communication is almost the standard. Carbon nanotubes—a substance both strong enough and light enough for numerous ‘science fiction’ applications—are being produced at ever increasing rates, and some scientists believe that the completion of a space elevator might be something we see within a generation or two. It’s no longer a question of whether cloning is possible, but rather when will one group defy the international consensus and actually do it. The European Union is designing the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER), the first fusion reactor designed to achieve ignition and sustained burn. And in Australia, a laser beam was successfully transported a whopping one meter away from its starting point. But let’s give them a break; they teleported it!
I’m half expecting to hear that some scientist has discovered how to create stable wormholes, or that time travel is indeed possible.
Not to be pessimistic, but what does all this mean for science fiction? How long before we’re shopping in the fiction section because all the science has been proven sound and the only things left to be invented are the characters and plot? It will never happen, you say? It’s already happening, though perhaps undeservedly so. A book virtually has to take place in space to be considered science fiction, though by definition, deep sea exploration and futuristic medical novels should also find their way to the SF shelves. But you’re more likely to find Michael Crichton in ‘General Fiction’ than ‘Science Fiction’ (though the last time I checked, we had neither successfully cloned dinosaurs from eons-old DNA nor traveled through time to an alternate Earth).
Conceivably, new horizons will appear to replace those we lose, new frontiers and possibilities will dominate the writing; but eventually, science will prove or disprove those things too, until there’s nothing left to learn, and we’re left with only space operas and alternate realities to satisfy our love of SF.
Perhaps this is a problem for the future, one that will never threaten me personally, but visions of that lifeless, futuristic world haunt me nonetheless. I want my children, and their children, and all generations till the end of time to know the awe of imagining the impossible and seeing it become reality.
Information for this article came from numerous sources, including news agencies, technology websites, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines, and the web pages for the individual projects mentioned. This article first appeared in the April 2003 edition of The Illuminata, a SF newsletter published by Tyrannosaurus Press. Bret Funk has written numerous short stories and articles, is a major contributor to The Illuminata, and is the author of two fantasy novels, Path of Glory (ISBN 097188191X) and its sequel Sword of Honor (ISBN 0971881901).
You can email the author of this article at Bret_Funk@tyrannosauruspress.com