Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Asimov on science fiction, plausible science, and predicting the future

In 1975 Sy Bourgin interviewed prolific science fiction (and non-fiction) writer Isaac Asimov for the US Information Agency. I'm not sure that the interviewer had actually read many (or any) of Asimov's novels, but it's an interesting discussion all the same.

In the interview, Asimov is asked to comment on science fiction writers as futurists. He points out that most science fiction writers - including himself - are pretty bad at predicting what the future will look like:
"When people talk about how science fiction writers predict the present, it's because they've gone through a large corpus of work and picked out certain things. We can't just predict, there isn't enough story material in straight prediction. We make up futures. It doesn't matter whether we really think they'll come to pass or not. But we ask ourselves only if this will be interesting to deal with, if this will make a nice story, and then if some of them due come true, well...sure [it makes him feel very good]."
That is one of my pet peeves: reviewers (and sometimes authors) will pick out a tidbit from a science fiction story and use that as an example of the awesome powers of science fiction writers as technological fortune tellers. Often the "prediction" is vague or obvious enough that almost any development in that field of technology will appear to be a match. And they usually forget to mention all the stuff the author got wrong, which isn't  necessarily just the present-day lack of jetpacks and faster than light travel, but incorrect depictions of basic science. 

That's not to say that science fiction is needs to always be scientifically factual.  As Asimov points out, what's important to the story is that the science is at least plausible. And, to do that successfully, the writer needs to know when they are departing from reality. As he put it:
"You're allowed to depart from scientific possibility provided you know you're departing from it and can explain it. The reader will go along with you into the realm of fantasy if you give them an excuse. But to do it without realizing you are going into fantasy is insulting to the intelligent reader."
I think that the biological sciences often get short shrift in that regard. Science fiction is often so focused on physics and engineering that even basic cell biology, anatomy, evolution, and biochemistry are given short shrift.  Of course, Asimov's background as a biochemist at least let him understand when he was departing from reality in that regard.

But despite his claim that most science fiction authors' predictions don't come to pass, Asimov does talk about the future. He makes the point that technology is changing rapidly, which I think everyone can agree with:
"I think science fiction refers to different societies which are connected to ours through scientific and technological change. There is always that feeling that we are heading right now rapidly into changing societies. People who are young people today know that when they are middle aged that life will be nothing like what it is now. And science fiction gives them an opportunity to try in different societies. It's the only thing that's relevant. Anything that deals with the world of today is going to have no meaning to young people of today in say 30 years." 
I was just a kid in 1975, and while I don't like to think I'm middle aged now, the "young person of 1975" he's talking about could be me. I've seen massive changes in technology in my lifetime, from rotary phones to cell phones and video chatting. And 1975 was the infancy of the biotechnological revolution that has spawned technologies that allow fast genome sequencing, routine genetic engineering (at least of microorganisms) and even the cloning of mammals.  

But some technology hasn't changed that much.  Driving a car isn't all that different than when I learned to drive in the 80s, and we still haven't set up a colony on the moon. 

And what really hasn't changed that much are people.  Sure social mores and attitudes have changed significantly, and I think for the better. But we still have the same human desires and foibles that we did 30 years ago (not to mention a century ago). We still have interpersonal relationships and conflicts. And we still have the need for adventure and the desire to explore.  That's what makes older fiction still interesting and even relevant to the present day.

And I think Asimov's predictions for the society of 500 years from now is way off base. He says:
If by the year 2000 we have not solved the problems that face us today, then I would say in 500 years we'll see a world containing a  technological civilization in ruins, in which there will be a relatively small number of human beings, sort of surviving, and with New York City as the most magnificent ruin in the history of the human race.
By contrast, if we have "solved our problems" by the year 2000 he predicts that 500 years in the future we may be living in a utopia.

It's not clear to me whether Asimov really believed that all human problems actually could be solved in the 25 years following the interview, or if he was just pessimistic. Certainly we still have problems today, and I'd like to believe that doesn't mean the human race is doomed. There are always going to be social, political and technological "problems" for society to solve. I think that it's our ongoing willingness to try to resolve our problems peacefully and efficiently that will determine what our future will bring.

Watch the whole interview for more from Asimov about his prolific writing, non-English language science fiction writers, the plausibility of the biology in Fantastic Voyage, and space exploration. 

The interview is also available for viewing or download at archive.org.

Books mentioned include Asimov's Fantastic Voyage and Robot books, and Richard Adams' Watership Down (which Asimov calls "excellent fantasy"):

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(Thanks to Zetetic Elench for posting the link to the video in this discussion on Google+)


  1. Very invigorating,delighting read. Thanks Peggy for sharing!
    The point that Sf has projections of the societies other than the present ones must be helpful to those who remain eager to define Sf -what it is and what is it not.....!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it!


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