SCIENCE fiction is in serious trouble: As a genre of literature, it is suffering from too much success on the one hand and not enough imagination on the other. Although it has been quite accurate on occasion in predicting the impact of science and technology on human culture, it has completely missed the boat regarding the time factor involved in the conception and development of new areas of science and technology. Science fiction is now running out of rocket fuel because of lack of imagination on the part of writers and editors and because of a loss of the "sense of wonder" on the part of readers.
Every serious, s-f fan is more or less familiar with the general history of science fiction and of its success in predicting certain consequences of the advance of technology. Witness Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory" written in 1939 and facing us now. Or Del Rey's "Nerves," or the classic, oft-quoted Cartmill-Campbell description of an A-bomb in 1943. The embroilment of s-f in astronautics long before that word was coined is also well-known.
In fact, science fiction has been so very successful in its consideration of space flights that it must bear part of the responsibility for the present space race. Although Oberth, Goddard, Hohmann, and others formulated the concepts of present-day space flights, it was the science fiction writers who were the press agents for it. Our lack of a decent space system designed around human beings is a direct consequence of the s-f writers and editors who firmly planted the concept of the "blast off" in the minds of the young people who grew up to become today's rocket engineers. I am as guilty as the rest. Instead of sitting around designing rocket-powered artillery shells in great detail, computing trajectories and acceleration profiles on tablecloths, and detailing to the nth degree the rocket-powered spaceships we envisioned, we should have had the imagination to consider other space-flight systems, too, and design them in careful detail as well. It was too easy for us to get all of our technical background material from Willy Ley or to doubletalk our way around the essential details of a field drive.
Because s-f has been so very successful in the areas of nuclear energy and astronautics, it has lost these areas as happy speculating grounds. Large corporations now hire people to speculate about the future of astronautics, nuclear energy, biophysics, and other fields in order that management can engage in some degree of planning. Many s-f writers have discovered that they have had the rug jerked right out from under them in these areas. And they may suddenly discover that their failure to keep up with the march of technology has made them contemporary writers.
Many of the new s-f writers, seeing that the revered masters of s-f have been so successful in the fields of physical science, have attempted to emulate them by taking on the areas of psychology, sociology, psi, psycho-biology, et cetera. But the old masters could at least run a slide rule and comprehend the pages of a physics book. From recent stories, it appears that some of the new blood never bothered to study the basics of the science they have based their story on and have, instead, relied on the Sunday supplements for information. No wonder that science fiction has again become second-class literature!
Science fiction is really speculative fiction based upon the new force in human affairs, technology. It has ceased to be virile and exciting because it no longer uses speculation based on future trends in science and technology. It does not consider the future in a reasonable manner.
My full-time legitimate business involves the promotion of scientific innovation, management of scientific research, and synthesis. I don't run a laboratory; I sit with a pencil and paper, I read constantly, and I travel to find out what Dr. Knowsall happens to be doing in a remote corner of his lab. In order to find out what is likely to be significant to my company in the future, I must identify a new area of science or technology early . . . preferably before it becomes a real new area and before everyone else knows about it, too. If a new area makes sense in a number of ways, and if everybody else thinks that you are stark raving mad to consider it, it is exactly what the doctor ordered. It's not an easy job; just when you think you have things well under control, the program planned nicely, and the future well in hand, through the door walks someone with something new. And you have to start all over again.
Old training as an s-f writer taught me the value of future trend curves. In order to write a story about the future, one had to have some notion of what the future held in store and in what approximate time period it was likely to take place. This sort of crystal ball gazing is quite useful in research management, particularly when you must sell a screwball concept to management. Trend curves were probably first considered as a serious aid to research management by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in 1953.
Trend recognition was used by many of the masters of s-f twenty years ago, probably without full knowledge of the principles involved. But it worked, and it produced wonderful science fiction. If you understood science, it was not difficult to set a story in the future, extrapolate a scientific trend, and build your plot around your characters' reactions to the situations created thereby. Wells and Gernsback were champions at this, but it was given true rigor by Heinlein in his Future History series. This was the s-f we loved!
In a recent session of the refurbished Manana Literary Society—-where s-f writers talk about the stories they are going to write manana—the discussion arose as to which s-f writer had probably predicted the future with greatest accuracy. Williamson? Heinlein? Gernsback? Wells? Kuttner? Asimov? Clake? Sturgeon? It was Heinlein himself who finally spoke up, "Obviously, it's Doc Smith in his Lensman yarns. It's the impossible that usually becomes fact, even the most wildly impossible. So it has to be Doc Smith."
Heinlein is a student of trend curves and, as a good writer should, he does his homework and keeps up with the technical, social, political, and economic trends of the times, matching them against his own versions of trend extrapolation. Most writers and editors do this intuitively . . . and they are always wrong! They continue to underestimate the slope, the rate-of-change of slope, and the time scale of trend curves, to say nothing of simply misunderstanding what the trend extrapolations are telling them.
A trend curve is a simple thing to plot. It isn't hard to construct one. It is difficult to do the necessary research to begin with and to interpret the results when you are finished. For a better understanding of this matter of trend extrapolation, let us consider one of the simplest and most obvious of trend curves: speed.
If we plot the time in years on the abscissa while plotting the speed achieved by manned devices (and/or unmanned devices, too) on the ordinate, we get the simplest and purest sort of trend curve. In 30,000 B.C., a man could make 4 mph walking and about 10 mph running. Plot the point. In about 2000 B.C., he rides a horse at about 30 mph maximum; another point. Get the idea? Then come ships, starting at zero mph for simple rafts in umpteen-hundred B.C. and progressing to about 40 mph in 1800. Then comes the train, starting with the 10 mph of Stevenson's locomotive in 1830 and rising to the 128 mph achieved by the Pennsylvania Special in 1905.
There is already something of interest that the trend curve can tell us at this point: each time a new concept of transportation showed up, the speed curve for that device rose sharply and finally leveled off as the practical limit for that device was reached. But, at the same time, each new quantum jump in speed was produced by a new device based on a new concept. This, then, gives the integrated curve a continually increasing slope.
Back to our buttons: The airplane shows up in 1903 flying at a graceful 30 mph. From that point on, speed begins to increase with great rapidity: 200 mph in the 1920's, 500 mph in the late 1930's, Mach 1 in 1947; Mach 2 in 1952. But there the speed of the airplane begins to flatten out. But along comes the ballistic vehicle!
At this point, the curves for unmanned vehicles have not only achieved orbital velocity, but escape velocity as well. Manned vehicles should achieve orbital velocity in 1961. Shortly thereafter, much sooner than anyone believes possible, manned vehicles will achieve escape velocity.
This speed trend curve was drawn up by members of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in 1953 to convince people that space flight was indeed becoming a reality and that the Air Force should get moving. With this curve, USAF officers were able to predict, in 1953, that orbital velocity would be achieved Jate in 1957 and escape velocity shortly thereafter. Obviously, they were crazy ... or were they?
Now having a typical trend curve to play with, let's analyze it. Note the shape of the curve. By using linear scales on both the speed and time axis, the curve would appear to be practically flat until a few years ago; and the curve would appear to be exponential. OJK., this means we must transfer it to semilog paper, graph paper with a linear time scale but a logarithmic speed scale; on this type of graph paper, a true exponential function becomes a straight line. But a trend curve on semilog paper is still an upward-turning exponential! So we must therefore transfer it to a curve with a log scale on speed and a reverse-log scale for time. Even at that, the trend curve still turns upward in an exponential fashion!
What does this mean? Just that things are happening much faster than we believe. Most laymen are content to predict the future in terms of a trend curve that levels off from the present everonward. Scientists, on the other hand, are a bit more radical; they tend to predict the future trend with a curve of constant slope from now on.
A layman can't really predict the future at all; he has no understanding of the forces that are in motion because of accumulated knowledge. Scientists will grudingly try to predict the future using an extremely conservative estimate—one that has always been wrong. Using a linear trend curve, scientists in 1930 were predicting a controlled nuclear reaction not before 2000 A.D. Obviously too conservative, because a controlled nuclear reaction was achieved ten years later.
Science fiction writers, myself included, were using a straight exponential trend curve, also a conservative one, and predicted generally that space flight might be achieved around 1975, and that we might land on the Moon or travel to Mars around the turn of the century.
The laymen and scientists have already shown that they are conservative when it comes to predicting the future. And it may come as a shock to learn that the science-fictioneers are also being far too conservative as well! As Sprague de Camp said, "It does not pay a prophet to be too specific." If you are a real prophet and understand trend curves, you can probably have your prediction hit very close; you will be considered absolutely out of your mind when you make the prophecy. If you miss, you're a louse. If you hit it, you were "lucky" or a mystic. Or you had an inside track.
You will have trouble selling a story based on such an impossible prediction. "It won't happen that way," if I may use the words of a science-fiction editor who bounced one such yarn of mine based solidly on the super-exponential trend curve.
If you really understand trend curves, you can extrapolate them into the future and discover some baffling things. The speed trend curve alone predicts that manned vehicles will be able to achieve near-infinite speeds by 1982, and I would not want to bet that I have been too conservative in extrapolating the curve! It may be sooner. But the curve becomes asymptotic by 1982.
The trouble with a trend curve is that it may tell you quite accurately what to expect, but it doesn't tell you how it is going to happen. I have no idea how we are going to achieve near-infinite speeds—or near-infinite acceleration. The curve simply goes asymptotic.
If this is really the case, a true scientific breakthrough of major importance must be in the offing in the next twenty years. The breakthrough itself will probably be within the next few years. It takes time to go from theory and experimental hardware to practical engineering devices, although the trend curves show that this time cycle is getting shorter all the time, too. We can't know how long the development cycle will be because we have no idea what the concept or theory entails at this time. But, with cybernetic computers, improved management techniques, and the benefit of centuries of accumulated knowledge and technique, you can bet that the development cycle will be much shorter than it was for the airplane or even the ballistic missile.
What does this mean to us as human beings and, especially, as science-fiction editors, writers, readers, and fans? Answer: plenty of entertaining speculation. Suppose we get a new space drive within the next few years. What will be the consequences? What will be the impact of this upon the world political situation if it is discovered in America? In Russia? In Switzerland? In Spain? What is going to happen to a space exploration program built around rocket engines? Suppose it is a true antigravity machine; what's going to happen to the chief helicopter designer at Ofifwego Aircraft.
This is downright serious stuff, not fantasy, because the trend curve says that something is going to happen. Consideration of all the varied aspects of this is a proper, legitimate, and professed job for science fiction. It is the only medium of communication by which this can truly be considered in advance. Get busy; something's going to happen damned soon to keep the speed curve rising.
The speed curve isn't the only one that is going up fast. All trend curves are now rising rapidly, and all of them go asymptotic before 2000 A.D. Here are a few of them, plus some things to think about:
1. Life expectancy is increasing, and this trend curve indicates that anyone born after the year 2000 A.D. lives forever, barring accidents. Recent Russian biological work indicates how this may be achieved, but regardless of the method what are the implications? Should my grandson buy life insurance or accident insurance? In fact, what is going to happen to the life-insurance business? How will all of this affect the practice of medicine, and how will the medical arts be changed as a result of the knowledge that permits longevity? Heinlein has tackled one aspect of this in "Methuselah's Children," but what are some of the other aspects of the problem? If a man can live for a thousand years, does this make interstellar travel at sub-light speeds practical? And how much can a man learn in a thousand years?
2. Population is rising rapidly, and early in the Twenty-first Century there isn't enough room on the planet Earth for everybody. This curve shows no more signs of leveling off than the other trend curves do, so we cannot take the easy way out via starvation, birth control, or mass destruction, because those things are apparently not in the cards when other trend curves are also considered. Can we export people to other worlds fast enough? Isaac Asimov says we can't, and Dandridge M. Cole says we can . . . and both can back up their arguments with calculations. Or is this curve, in connection with other curves, simply telling us to expect an event of major cosmic significance in the next fifty years? If so, what?
Historical cycles are getting shorter. Rome rose and fell in about eight centuries, the lifetimes of many men. The British Empire came apart in a matter of years, not centuries. A cultural cycle today is about twenty years long. Soon, we can expect to see several major cultural changes in one life span. This is probably due to the improvement of rapid communication and transportation devices. All right: what are the effects of this upon the individual human being? How adaptable must a man be to withstand this? What sort of a successful human being is likely to result from adaptation to rapid cultural change?
The trend curve for controllable energy is rising rapidly. The richest baron of feudal times did not control the same amount of energy in his human serfs and slaves as you have at your command beneath the hood of your automobile. The advent of controlled nuclear energy has boosted that curve even more. It is highly probable that controlled fusion has been achieved in the laboratory and will become commercial within a matter of years, thereby kicking the curve up to an even higher level. By 1981, this trend curve shows that a single man will have available under his control the amount of energy equivalent to that generated by the entire sun. To use an energy source, you must have an energy sink; you must have some place to dissipate the energy in performing work. What are we going to do with this much energy? How are we going to use it? How will this alter our way of life? What can we do then that we can't do now because we don't have the energy sources? Unless a man has the proper training, we presently deny him the use of certain forms of packaged high energy such as explosives, nuclear reactors, and high-speed vehicles; what kind of training must a man have before he is allowed to use the energy of a star?
5. The number of circuits in cybernetic devices is increasing on the familiar trend curve. The human brain has an estimated four billion neural circuits. By 1970, computer engineers may have achieved the same number of circuits in a digital computer; they may do this by building one large computer or by slaving many smaller computers together by data links as they have already started to do. The speed of digital computers is quite high, and they are getting faster all the time. What are the logical consequences of this? Will these machines think? Will they repair themselves? Will we finally achieve the ability with these machines to handle problems with extremely large numbers of variables, problems which cannot presently be solved? What problems? Will these machines be used in the manner of Ken Crossen's SOCIAC, or will we put them to work as tools to help us solve the riddles of biochemistry and psychology? By building complex machines of this type, will we gain a better understanding of our own mental processes, and, if so, what are the consequences? Assume that mankind will not allow itself to be replaced by its own machines, and then consider what steps mankind must take to achieve a dynamic, viable solution to this problem.
6. The amount of knowledge that must be assimilated by our young people before they are equipped to earn a livelihood is also increasing on the super-exponential trend curve along with the curve representing the total accumulated knowledge of the human race. People used to spend only a few years in school learning the three R's. Now, they must spend at least twelve years in school ... or sixteen and more if they desire to enter a profession. Question: Must we, therefore, spend more and more of our lives in school, or have we already reached the point where we must both study and work during our entire lives if we are to keep up with our own field of endeavor? What must we do to our educational system to cope with this? This is more serious than the growing shortage of classroom space and teachers, because there will always be a shortage of these two items from now on; we can't catch up. But the amount we must learn continues to increase. What sort of an educational system can be designed to cope with this?
All of these trend areas have been touched lightly in some cases by science fiction, mostly in a cursory and imcomplete fashion, and mostly by extrapolating a single curve to its ultimate limit without consideration of the other curves. In writing such stories, the authors have allowed one factor to advance while everything else stood still. This isn't the case. All the trends are upward, not just one of them, and any yarn based on a single curve without consideration of the others results in an unrealistic extrapolation toward a nonviable future state of affairs. But writers continue to make this mistake, and competent scientists and managers make the same one when they attempt to chart the future on the basis of extrapolation. In research management or science-fiction writing, one must consider every possible factor, weighing each as to its importance and recognizing that there is a time scale involved, too.
In other words, one says to himself that Gadget A is not possible until Metal B is developed. When Gadget A becomes a reality, Device C results. It is then possible to cross-fertilize the technology of this with the data now in existence in Science K. We come up with an instrument that will be useful at that time in thrimaline research over there, possibly leading to ... In other words, a multi-dimensional array. Organized brainstorming, or cerebral popcorn.
Science fiction, where it has considered future trends and future cultures, has been both unimaginative and conservative. In relation to reality, that is. The predictions of s-f are an order of magnitude better than those of professional scientists, but are still several orders of magnitude below reality. Things are going to happen much faster than we think, and they are going to have much wider implications than we have considered. We need only look at the last twenty-five years. And we need to realize that we will see just as much change in the next ten years.
If we have the courage to admit this to ourselves, it means that it is time to think, time to argue, time to speculate, and time to philosophize. If the trend curves can tell us that all this—and more—is going to happen, we should try to do a little engineering and planning in advance so that they don't happen willy-nilly, so that we can have some control over making them happen the way we want them to. We can and must plan for the future world in the same manner that a successful business plans for the inevitable retirement of a bond issue on a certain future date.
Science fiction is the obvious and logical medium in which to do this. Science fiction is truly speculative fiction. It has been fairly successful in the past, but its true Golden Age is yet to come if it again realizes that the future is starting to happen right now. There is plenty left to speculate about because the well hasn't gone dry. On the contrary, grab yourself a bucket because it is raining soup.
The future isn't all death and destruction. We live in a better world than our fathers did. Our children will live in an even better world if we apply our minds to the problem right now.
Science fiction has led us to our present world. It can lead us to tomorrow in a surer fashion if it stops being conservative, unimaginative, doomsday literature.
Enjoy yourself; your wildest expectations will probably be far short of the mark.
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