When I stumbled onto an article on the website BuzzFeed called “27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012” it got me thinking about that term “science fiction”. What the writer meant (I assume) was that these 27 things that had previously only been predicted had at last become reality (except that’s not nearly so catchy as a headline). Not everything was gadgetry or bioscience. The article mentioned the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle—theoretical physics, yes, science fiction, not really. Still, I expect most people think of SF as a literature that’s about predicting new technology. It can, and often does, but that’s not really the point. The most interesting science fiction extrapolates how such developments will change our lives.

As an example, the article describes the newest prosthetic limbs operated directly by the patient’s brain, and electronic implants that give sight to the blind. Well, SF predicted high-tech prosthetic devices decades ago, but the stories arise from trying to foresee how the arrival of such technology will affect our world. The implications and ramifications are what’s interesting.

I mentioned in a recent post that such high tech devices can often be hacked—let your imagination run on that possibility. Will the proliferation of “bionic” limbs and eyes and ears create a new class of citizen? Before you laugh, consider that governments love to require us to have special licenses to operate complex devices. Are you sure robotic legs would be any different? And is it much of a stretch to say that such specialized licenses might imply defined categories of personhood? If prosthetics do end up providing an advantage in strength and speed (like the Six Million Dollar Man) then people with them will be in demand for certain activities and likely banned from others (in the interest of fairness). Will you need to get special insurance for your electronic eye? Will your life insurance policy pay out if your mechanical leg fails while you’re crossing a busy street? We can assume there would soon be a black market for prostheses and their parts. Would there be a thriving used market, too? What would happen to people whose body part replacements need maintenance or repairs for which they can’t afford to pay? Repossession? Perhaps indentured service until the debt is repaid?

The BuzzFeed article also touched on an experiment that extended the lifespan of mice to three times their normal age. That’s science. The science fiction writer would explore how our society would be changed if certain members of it, through wealth or privilege, could live three times as long as the rest of us. There would be no question of different classes then. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few would make today’s wealthy one percent look like pikers. Inheritance laws would be thrown into chaos. The long-lived might have to escape the wrath of normal people by changing their identity several times throughout their lives. Could we expect marriages to last more than two centuries? Would they become afraid to take risks with so much more life to lose?

I don’t claim that any of my speculations above will come true, but that’s when science fiction is at its best. Not so much predicting technology or other developments, but helping us to see what the implications of such things might be so we can make choices about them in advance before hard decisions are thrust upon us.

And let’s face it, for both writers and readers, the speculating is just plain fun.


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan. Maybe even more than most North Americans, because I have a wonderful Japanese daughter-in-law, I’ve visited the country, and I have a great affection and admiration for the people. The earthquake, tsunami, and the ongoing nuclear threat have tested Japan and its people in many ways.

Of course, this isn’t the only major disaster in recent years: a serious earthquake in New Zealand just last month, unimaginable flooding in Australia, the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year, even the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia are all vivid in our memories. And that’s a very short list, not including any manmade disasters.

It occurred to me that disaster stories have always been a mainstay of speculative fiction. My own story “Tartarus Rising” was recently published in the anthology Doomology: The Dawning Of Disasters, a collection of twenty-three examples of the form, all very different. I’ve also written a story called “The Cleansing” about a future consequence of genetic modification of crops. But why the fascination with disasters?

Apart from the fact that they’re naturally compelling, they also offer lots of narrative and dramatic potential. The moment a disaster strikes, any number of conflicts arise: man against nature, man against man, man against self, and nearly endless subcategories. There are always elements of a trial, ordeal, or quest—classic themes of fiction. Manmade, and even many natural disasters, provide the opportunity for the perennial SF strengths: allegory and cautionary prescience. But, perhaps most of all, disasters are the perfect means to reveal character.

I’ve heard it said that fiction isn’t about stories, it’s about the people the stories happen to. And a disaster scenario is guaranteed to reveal the best and the worst in a person, whether real or fictional.

In the media, much has been made of what the recent disasters have revealed about the character of the Japanese people. But these events, and even more so disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, reveal just as much about the character of the rest of the world community. Good and bad.

Maybe that’s why they’re so compelling—they teach us about ourselves as well as those with whom we share the planet. I think that’s reason to conclude that disaster stories in SF won’t be going out of fashion anytime soon.

On a completely different note, I was glad to see the newest issue of On Spec hit the stands. It includes my story "The Wind Man" about a born storyteller with a very unusual curse. I hope you'll get your hands on a copy. The whole issue is very good.