I attended the Ad Astra science fiction convention in Toronto over the weekend, and the first two panel discussions I caught both involved imagining the future and how wrong our predictions often are. Of course, the subject was implied in other sessions too, because SF is a forward-thinking literature (alternate history notwithstanding). One of the most notable things that SF writers and filmmakers got wrong was the evolution of computing. Almost no-one predicted that we’d all have personal computing devices, especially not the size of a watch. Computers in the 50’s and 60’s were monstrous and the expectation was that increasingly sophisticated models would be even bigger. That seems laughable now, as we check our email and surf for a movie to watch on our phone. But then we also figured we’d have flying cars, eat a dinner of pills, and at least have a permanent base on the Moon by now, if not hotels (The Jetsons pretty much covered the expectations of the time).

We shouldn’t be too hard on those early futurists. As Ad Astra panellists like Eric Choi and Neil Jamieson-Williams pointed out, often the technology for such things has become available, but we’ve discovered we don’t actually want them. We like real food. We know how dangerous most of our fellow drivers are on paved roads—it doesn’t bear thinking about them swooping around us through the air. In the case of Moon bases or flights to Jupiter, a whole complex of reasons have delayed those, mostly political and economic (recessions and an endless string of armed conflicts).

Some writers nail it when predicting future technology, but I don’t think accuracy is that important. No matter how far into the future they’re set, SF stories are always about us, here and now. Our reaction to the future society and the priorities of its people. The ways future tech would change our lives. The things we’re doing now that might be creating a future we don’t want. In our stories we say, “Here’s where this technology seems to be heading, here are the implications of that, and if we don’t want those results we should act now to make sure they don’t happen.”

The idea of too-powerful governments monitoring and controlling nearly every aspect of our lives is a common trope of cautionary SF. In reality, we’re voluntarily surrendering more and more of our privacy and free will all the time: to governments in return for promised (though dubious) protection from over-inflated threats to our security, and even more puzzlingly, to corporations in return for a better shopping experience! We could have learned our lesson from science fiction, but we obviously haven’t.

The possibility that artificial computer intelligence will arise and want to wipe out the “inferior” human race is another major trope (The Terminator movies being the most famous example). But while authors like Karl Schroeder and Madeline Ashby feel that’s mostly about the way we anthropomorphize machines and expect the worst from them based on our experience with other humans, such SF stories are effectively saying that now is the time to build in safeguards for AI, limit its development, or just come to a better understanding of consciousness to ease our fears. (Karl, Madeline, and Hayden Trenholm rightfully point out that we probably have more to fear from the mindless computer algorithms currently being used by our financial systems etc. than anything with a mind.)

So, while it’s entertaining to imagine future technology, science fiction is about our world and the way we’re shaping it, day by day. The actual predictions—bullseyes and duds—are mainly useful as the answers to trivia questions.

Which is too bad, because I really wouldn’t have minded a flying DeLorean powered by a Mr. Fusion.


I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the connection between science and science fiction, as well as what distinguishes SF from fantasy. Of course science fiction has to have a basis in scientific reality, most will say. No unicorns or fairies (tell that to Anne McCaffrey, Roger Zelazny and others), no magic (forgetting Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) No gods, demons, leprechauns, dragons…you can carry the list as far as you like, and you’ll probably find exceptions to all of them in good, solid works of science fiction.

Many stalwarts would say that science fiction shouldn’t contain anything considered impossible by current scientific knowledge. Which rules out faster-than-light travel and time travel, two of the genre’s most persistent tropes (and dumps some of the past century’s best SF into the trash compactor). Some would say SF writers should extrapolate from current technology, rather than invent dazzling gizmos with no idea how they could possibly work. I can only say that such stick-in-the-muds must never have heard Walt Disney’s philosophy: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Let’s remember that there are a lot of research projects around today that owe their existence to something someone saw in an episode of Star Trek.

It’s a delight to see some of the fantastic world-building that writers like Larry Niven and Canada’s Karl Schroeder can produce while playing with (and adhering to) the laws of physics. But I also get a kick out of voyagers who travel by wormhole or transporter beam.

So much depends on what we consider to be the purpose of science fiction. Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer has told me, and many others, that SF is a literature of allegory and thereby a vehicle for commentary on contemporary society. I certainly agree that’s one of its primary functions, and when Pierre Boulle wrote La planete de singes (inspiration for the Planet Of The Apes movies) I doubt that he was much concerned about whether or not it was physiologically possible for apes to talk.

Am I saying that science fiction shouldn’t have any rules? No. I just think the genre is better served by not getting hung up on definitions, laws, edicts, preconceptions, or any of the other things that hamstring the imagination. Because, above all, science fiction is fiction of the imagination. It shows us where we might be going, and lets us decide whether we really want to go there. And it shows us ourselves as we are, though its mirror often requires a little deciphering.

I think those are the more important core values of what we call science fiction, rather than a set of rules that’s bound to change with each new leap forward in human knowledge.

Maybe that’s why it’s called fiction.

Ad Astra

Ad Astra was the first SF convention I’ve attended, but only the first of many to come. It could have started better—the first person I met at the hotel was well-known anthologist John Robert Colombo, only to learn that neither of two stories I’d submitted for Tesseracts 14 had made the cut! I also met his co-editor Brett Alexander Savory later, but the rest of the weekend had more than compensated for the initial blow to my ego.

An SF convention can be a little strange at times (or maybe I just have to get in touch with my inner Klingon), but whether you’re a fan or a writer of SF—and writers are among the biggest fans—it’s a great way to learn about the genre and learn about the craft. I got a kick out of panel sessions like “Putting the Science in Science Fiction” (how much technical info do you really need?) and “Genre Crossing” (the perils and pluses of a romance novel in an SF setting, or an SF mystery). I also got practical knowledge from “How To Get An Agent” and “An Editor’s Dream”. But the biggest draw is being able to meet the best authors in the biz. I’ve met and interviewed Robert J. Sawyer a number of times, and Canada’s most successful SF writer is just as great a guy as you hope he’ll be. I also had a chance to snag a few minutes with Peter Watts, James Alan Gardner, Karl Schroeder, David Nickle, Douglas Smith, Adrienne Kress, Ian Donald Keeling, and Dan Falk. You really don’t get opportunities like that anywhere but a convention, and the registration fee is dirt cheap. So if you’re a convention novice like I was, Google the dates of the next con anywhere near you and take that step. You’ll be hooked.