Opening Words from Sun. November 9: "On Science Fiction" by Dr. Matthew Hile

James’s talk today on trans-humanism – that is, replacing or augmenting our bodies with technology – is going to sound like Science Fiction to many of you.

Now, I love science fiction.

The first sci-fi book I ever read was Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel. Published in 1958, I read it five years later on the summer vacation before I went into the 5th grade. It is the story of a Kip, bright high school senior who “enters an advertising jingle writing contest, hoping to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Moon. He instead gets an obsolete, but genuine, used space suit.” He fixes up the suit but has to sell it to get money for college. Taking his last walk in the suit he is surprised to hear a request on his shortwave radio for a homing beacon. Followed by the landing of two flying saucers at his feet. I won’t go into the rest of the story lest I spoil it for those of you who want to read it, or at least the good synopsis of it on Wikipedia. But in the end Kip and his compatriots save the earth not by strength of arms but by their display of human compassion and selflessness. The ethical “duty” to others that Kate talked about in her platform – To whom do our lives belong.

Things are a bit easier today. You don’t need to enter a jingle contest to get your own space suit. (Younger folks can ask one of the older members during coffee hour explain a jingle contest.) I checked on eBay. You can buy an original, pressure tested, Esokol KV-2 Russian cosmonaut pressure space suit for only $22,995, which includes the original high boots and underclothes. Not to mention free shipping!

It has been suggested that sci-fi predicts the future and there are a plethora of examples where it does so correctly.

  • In 1818 Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein predicted the successful use of donor transplants.
  • Jules Verne’s 1865 book From the Earth to the Moon anticipated moon shots originating from Fl.
  • H.G. Wells’ 1913 book The World Set Free was a novel of the world living in the nuclear age and is credited as an inspiration for physicist Leo Szilard’s atomic bomb.
  • In 1949 Orwell published 1984 which describes a society watched at all times by Big Brother, not at all unlike the revelations of the NSA or the ACLU’s warning a couple of weeks ago about the unchecked rise of surveillance cameras in St. Louis.
  • John Brunner’s 1969 novel Stand on Zanzibar describes the US as being plagued with school shootings, major cities like Detroit being wastelands, the legalization of marijuana, and the invention of direct TV, electric cars, and laser printers.
  • Or one of my favorite authors William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer which described how the internet would include such things as, virtual reality, Google Glass, and the attacks and defenses of people trying to gain access to and use information held in what he termed “cyberspace.”

So it is clear science fiction can predict the future. – No, not so much.

As you must realize, these examples are cherry picking. Amazon.com, which I am sure must have been predicted in some other early Sci-Fi novel, lists 364,009 books associated with the words “science fiction.” The fact that some of these titles will have correctly described something in the future is a simple matter of probability.

But what Sci-Fi can do is to help us think about possible futures. The University of Kansas’s Center for the Study of Science Fiction describes it as

Like the scientific method, science fiction provides an approach to understanding the universe we live in. It provides the tools, tropes, and cognitive framework within which we can explore ideas and safely run thought-experiments where we cannot or ought not run (real-world) experiments.

As one of the characters in the Sci-Fi novel Fallen Angel (Niven, L., Pournelle, J., & Flynn, M.; 1992) says. “(E)ven in the most depressing dystopia, there’s still the notion that the future is something we build. It doesn’t just happen. You can’t predict the future, but you can invent it. Build it. That is a hopeful idea, even when the building collapses.”

There is a famous William Gibson’s quote; “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

We are building our future step by step. We are augmenting our abilities and heading toward trans-humanism step by step.

Think about your glasses. Who among us would not enhance their natural abilities by being able to see more clearly?

Think about Oscar Pistorius who, running on his two artificial limbs, blew through the Paralympics to become feared force in the Olympics. There was speculation that other athletes would actually have parts of their legs amputated to achieve the same results.

Look at all of this stuff (a phone, the yellow pages, a compact edition of the OED, slide projector, video camera, photo camera, photograph, newspaper, books, clock, audio recorder, cd payer, computer)…Who would not choose to replace all of this and more with a “simple” smart phone? Or something attached to your glasses? Or in a contact lens? Or, like today’s cataract surgery, as a replacement to the lens in your eye?

So “…the future is something we build. It doesn’t just happen. You can’t predict the future, but you can invent it.”

And we will build it.

And we will come.