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The Reality of Science Fiction

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Brenda Cooper
Futurist and Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006; 12:00 PM

Is Science Fiction really just fiction? Which ideas and themes embedded in the novels may actually become part of our reality? Futurist and writer Brenda Cooper was online Wednesday, June 21 at Noon ET to chat about what aspects, from some of your favorite science fiction books, may actually be in store for our future.

A transcript follows .

Brenda Cooper's fiction has appeared in science fiction publications such as Analog, Oceans of the Mind, Strange Horizons, Time After Time, and more. Her collaborative fiction with author Larry Niven was published in Analog and Asimov's. Together, they co-authored the novel "Building Harlequin's Moon." Her writings on the future appear at http://www.futurist.com/ .

About this series: Beyond the Future is a weeklong series of live Web chats with noted experts and Washington Post reporters examining the kinds of technological advancements the world could see in 20, 50 or even 100 years. Related news on the subject can be found on the Science and Tech Frontier pages of washingtonpost.com.

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Brenda Cooper: Good morning from the west coast. As a science fiction writer and a futurist, I know that neither writers or futurists are terribly good predictors. After all, we still don't have rocket-packs or aircars or large underwater cities. But every once in awhile we get something right or can start a discussion that leads to future innovations. I'm looking forward to this chat.

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Rockville, Md.: What I really hate to read in a discussion is "That is not real. It is science fiction." I came from an ero of SF when writers were like Heinlein and Clarke and knew science and fiction and wrote to get us ready for a future. Not "THE" future, but ready for what was on the way. Now we need good science fiction even more to explain our world and our choices. But where is it in the mainstream? All I see are people in rubber faces. Who wants to have a realistic go at global warming and perhaps a character who says "Wait a minute. We are getting warmer. Is that good or bad?"

How about spelling out energy choices and showing what it would be to live with hydrogen as fuel? Lots to be done? Where is today's Heinlein or Clarke or even Philip K. Dick?

Brenda Cooper: Good question. It does seem like there is a smaller market for, or at least fewer books out, that are true hard science fiction like Clark's work.

Some suggestions include Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder or the work of Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow. These are harder for those of us who grew up reading rocket stories to recognize at attempts to really see the future, but I think they are excellent science fiction in thier own way.

Also, Kim Stanley Robinson did a great job with Forty Signs of Rain, part of a trilogy exploring global warming.

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Alexandria, Va.: Regarding space travel, the early sci-fi writers turned out to be overly optimistic.In the fifties, they had us on Mars in the Seventies. In the sixties, Clarke & Kubrick had us on Jupiter and beyond the infinite by 2001. It's now 2006 and we're not even close to either destination. What gives?

And remember the teleportation devices in "The Fly" and "Star Trek"? After spending 7-8 hours in an airplane going to and from Germany recently, this is one future invention I'd like to see come to fruition.

Brenda Cooper: I'm equally disappointed that we are not further out in space.

Part of the problem, of course, is politics. Part of it is that human space travel is a lot harder than we originally thought.

I am encouraged by the infant commercial space industry and also by Hawking's recent comments that support moving more people to space.

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Atlanta, Ga.: What far out science fiction idea(s) do you think could be in our future?

Warp Drive, Anti-Gravity, Teleporting????

Brenda Cooper: I'm not sure about any of those three. I am willing to bet on nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and better/faster ways to get to and around in space. We may see space elevators.

I'd love to have teleportation, and I hope I'm wrong when I suggest that we'll have virtual teleportation. I would love to get to Paris without the long flight and have coffee. :)

There will be a lot more done with virtual reality, and I expect very long life spans in the fairly near future. If not for me, than for my children or grandchildren.

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New York, N.Y.: Good morning Ms. Cooper,

I am a huge sci-fi fan, especially of the "Cyperpunk" subset. Do you think we will see any of the tech from books like Stephenson's Snowcrash in the future? Virtual reality, implanted computers/direct mind-to-internet connection (i.e. Ghost in the Shell) or "smart wheel" motocycles and cars?

Brenda Cooper: Yes.

That's the short answer. Snowcrash was wonderful, wasn't it? There are cars in development (and maybe production) that will parallel park for you. Not as cool as Stephenson's skateboards, but I suspect we'll get there, too. At least to some extent. We seem pretty risk-averse as a society.

Virtual reality is already being used for some real work. For example, the Human Interface Technology lab at the University of Washington developed a snowy virtual reality place that is used to help burn victims undergoing painful treatment. As bandwidth - particularly wireless bandwidth - grows, we'll see a lot of location-aware applications and virtual information laid on the real world and accessible. It may not all be good - walking by a restaurant may mean getting assaulted by an advertisement and a menu.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What is your opinion of Stephen Baxter's books? I have read several of his books, and am intrigued by his vision of the future, rooted in his "hard" science orientation.

Brenda Cooper: Baxter is wonderful. I have not read many of his novels, but I have read quite a bit of his short fiction. He is doing good, hard sf and I would recommend his work.

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Menlo Park, Calif.: In John Shoch's Xerox Parc Document (Blue and White) he gives credit to a science fiction work titled "Shockwave Rider" as the inspiration for his work in creating the first computer network 'worm.'

I spent considerable time in Xerox's research organizations and marvel at the subtle impact of SF on the creative scientific mind.

Q: Is there a place or a rationale for the for formalizing capture of known instances of SF impact, e.g. database, and the creation of a group (wiki) to mone accumulated content to act as a stimulus for existing and future creative people?

Brenda Cooper: Some. I found a few links when I was doing research for today's chat. Wikipedia has a future predictions area that talks about science fiction (and other) predictions, and I found a few people on the web who had collected some as well on private pages or blogs (just search for science fiction predictions from a major search engine).

I don't know of any academic, funded, or otherwise large effort to do this.

To some extent, our tools are science writing and science news, which we think about and then make up stories about, so most of our ideas are sparked by current research. At least, that is how it seems to work for me and for other writers I've talked to.

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Moscow, Russia: Dear Brenda, in a few words how do you describe the modern stage of science fiction? What is its main contributing factor?

Brenda Cooper: Science fiction is a wonderful place to write and read now. There are so many scientific advances and so much new knowledge, largely because of the internet and global collaboration, that the stage is quite big.

I also think we are at a pretty critical point in our development as a species. We have multiple ways to kill each other off, and multiple ways to help each other. We seem to have a lot of fear and a lot of impetus to solve big problems like global warming. We are in need of some more global governance and leadership, but what that should look like is pretty murky.

Another main contributing factor to much of today's science fiction is the idea of the singularity as proposed by Vernor Vinge, which has led to a whole sub-genre that is usually referred to as tranhumanist or post-human fiction.

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Herndon, Va.: A common theme in much science fiction is the amalgam of human and machine into the "Cyborg". What many people don't realize is that the cyborg was actually a brainchild of two NASA scientists in the 60s, a vision of how humans would eventually need to evolve to survive in space.

Nowadays we have the ability to attach and implant robotic and mechanical parts to humans, but nothing is yet a perfectly autonomous addition to the body that doesn't require some conscious input or maintenance. How far off do you think the true cyborg is -when technological improvements and replacements to the human body just work, subconsciously, and without a doctor checking on them every month or so? Or will this ever become a reality?

Brenda Cooper: How many of you know people with new knees that work great? I'd say we will certainly see this kind of physical adaptation. Much of the current research and work in this area is in prosthetics or as replacements for worn parts or solutions for illness (cochlear implants help many deaf people hear, and LASIK has helped me see). But that will eventually spill over into the mainstream. Think of a bicyclist with limbs built to help them circumnavigate the globe.

In some ways, this is happening now. Social acceptance of bionic or cyborg changes that are purely elective and enhance or replace normally functioning body parts is probably at least a few decades away. Except perhaps the special case you mention about space travelers...

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Herndon, Va.: As an author, do you agree that a trend exists in Western science fiction that characterizes robots and other automata as evil, malevolent, or the ultimate downfall of humanity (i.e. Terminator, The Matrix) versus a more prevailing Eastern view of automata and robots as friends and co-existents in society (Appleseed, Chobits, AstroBoy)? Do you think this trend seems to be changing as, increasingly, robots and technology continue to be accepted as an inevitable part of modern and future life?

Brenda Cooper: Well, I can now buy robots at Costco to mow my lawn or vacuum my floor. I anticipate a large increase in the number of functional robotics available to common people, and familiarity will reduce contempt in that case. How many of us are deathly afraid of our microwaves today?

I don't know enough to answer you directly on western versus eastern writers, but I think we are doing way too much demonizing of science as a western culture right now. It is a reasonable backlash to, for example, the promise in the 50's of better living through chemicals. Perhaps the pendulum will dampen some to a good balance of care and curiosity.

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New York, N.Y.: Science fiction I feel, is still primarily viewed as a male dominated interest. But clearly this is changing as more female authors(and scientists/researchers) come to the fore. Can you tell me who think are the best female sci-fi writers today and how their vision (if it can be generalized) differs from their male counterparts?

Brenda Cooper: Great question for me! I think that science fiction has benefited from the increasingly female readership and from more female writers. Some of those benefits include more character-driven work and more focus on larger social issues.

Some of my favorite female writers today include Louise Marley (her most recent work is "The Child Goddess"), Syne Mitchell ("End in Fire" is good old-fashioned hard sf), Nancy Kress, Kristine Kathryn Rush, Catherine Asaro, Connie Willis, Kate Wilhelm....and there are a bunch more.

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Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Have you written or plan to write any sci-fi that involves the concept of the Singularity?

washingtonpost.com: Ray Kurzweil discussed his Singularity theory earlier this week.

Brenda Cooper: Larry Niven and I wrote two stories that are post-singularity, with characters that are humans who have been downloaded. The impetus for those stories actually came from Kurzweil's THE AGE OF SPIRITUAL MACHINES. The stories were "Choosing Life" and "Finding Myself" - both published in Analog.

I am sure I will explore this more in the future. It is challenging - the concept of the singularity suggests a nearly un-knowable future, and that makes it tough to write about.

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Contemporary Futurists: Have you ever worked with any of the killer Bs - Brin, Benford, and Bear? What's your opinion on their "futurist" quals?

Brenda Cooper: I know both Greg Bear and David Brin, and have also heard both of them talk about the future. They are well-read, thoughtful men. David's book, THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY, is a great non-fiction read where he tackles transparancy and other good social issues. It's a little dated now, but still worth reading. David does a nice job of making me think. Greg does his research, and often in areas which most of the rest of us aren't really focusing on. That showed up in DARWIN's RADIO.

I think they are both well qualified. That doesn't mean I believe everything they say, but then, what kind of conversation can you have about the future without some varying viewpoints?

I recommend all three as writers, by the way.

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State University, Ark.: How likely, in your opinion, is it that alternative dimensions exists (as in Wilson's Shrodinger's Cat Trilogy) and do you agree with the term "Speculative Fiction" to describe "Science Fiction?" I like the idea of "Speculative Fiction" because Science Fiction has been frowned upon, but most importantly, speculative fiction entices the imagination to make that fiction reality.

Brenda Cooper: I like the term "speculative fiction" since I think that it is more accessible.

I don't know how likely alternate dimensions are - my physics isn't that good. I have read Hawking on it, and a few others. I kind of hope they exist. I did write a story about the search for these that was also published in analog, and again in YEARS's BEST SF 10 called "Savant Songs." The idea is sure intriguing.

There is also a good story called "The Walls of the Universe" by Paul Melko that recently came out in Asimov's.

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Baltimore, Md.: There was a time when much SF took place in a post-war future, at least internal to Earth or human societies (think Star Trek). But now, almost a decade into the 21th century, not only do I have neither flying car nor cyborg monkey butler, but I don't think we can see any end in sight for war and armed conflict on massive scales (geographical, technological, or otherwise). Do you see this changing in SF?

Is it the kind of issue SF can or should be dealing with?

Brenda Cooper: Social and political issues have always been good subjects for sf. Think Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD, or more recently, Atwood's THE HANDMAID's TALE.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What would you, as a futurist, identify as the most important step(s) needed to outrace the dangers that threaten us (global warming, overpopulation, resource exhaustion) and reach the Golden Age that so many of us SF fans expect/hope/yearn for?

Brenda Cooper: A better and more global, cooperative governance than we have been able make work so far

Increased tolerance in the world

Governments (existing) that acknowledge the problems and are willing to host hard discussions on them

Global willingness to compromise

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Brenda Cooper: I would really have liked to answer all of the questions - there were a lot of great ones that I didn't get to. Thanks a lot for being such a great, thoughtful audience, and enjoy the rest of your day.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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