Science Fiction Future at the BFI in London


At the end of this month (Sunday May 30th), Simon Ings from the New Scientist magazine is hosting an afternoon of talks and short films on the subject of our ‘science fiction future’ and ‘why stories, games and falsehoods may be our best guide to tomorrow'. This event is part of the 'Sci-Fi-London' festival. The highly successful science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds will be giving the keynote talk and that’ll be followed by short films and panel discussions. The event is taking place on the South Bank in London at the British Film Institute.

The title and strap-line for the event has got me thinking; what is our science-fiction future? More broadly, since a lot of people think science-fiction is about the future, with special emphasis on techie stuff, the question really becomes: What is our future? (note: remember to talk about techie stuff).

This shouldn't be too difficult a thing to work out, at least broadly speaking, as long as no attempt is made to predict specific technological developments, as that's a complete minefield. The potential for making a really stupid technology prediction can be shown, for example, when leading lights of the computing world in the 1950's confidently stated that Britain would need probably three, maybe as many as six computers, but certainly no more than that. Another example is when the US Military’s ARPANET system became available for university use in 1970, the techs involved concluded that no more than ten thousand people would use these new-fangled I.P. internet addresses, and therefore handed out huge allocations to interested parties, since there were 4 billion possible addresses to go around. Forty years later, we’ve effectively run out. Here's a third; when mobile phones were developed in the early nineties, the companies involved thought SMS texting was an irrelevant feature, but since it cost nothing extra, they left it in. Two decades later, that same service is being used six trillion times a year.

To quote the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Neils Bohr:

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."

Truth be told, if the boffins in 1950 had been asked about the technological future, they could have simply said that 'everything big will be tiny, everything heavy will be light, everything slow will be fast and everything nearby will be far away, and vice versa'. That would have neatly summed up seventy years of technological development.

But what about the big issues? What about the future of humanity, of civilisation? Will we get better? Will we survive? Will we really all end up looking like male and female models as we zoom around in cool vehicles? It seems unlikely, but you wouldn't think it if you watched the last half-century of sci-fi movies.

Fortunately, as this is an obscure website bobbing up and down in the waters of the great Internet Ocean, I can ignore the pleasing aspirations required by large, commercial concerns and actually be accurate (as far as I can tell). So, in the next blog entry, I'm going to give it my best shot…