Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Science Fiction, Prophecy, and the Shape of What Will Be

Over the last six months or so, I've been throwing myself back into evening reading.  With a brief imposed lull in my reading for my Doctoral work, I find that the opportunities to read for pleasure have presented themselves again.

And my pleasure, for the most part, is some blend of page-turning rip-snorting yarns, Books of Quality, and hard science fiction.  Preferably all three, if I can get it.

That third category...hard sci fi...is the literary catnip of choice for my brain.  Hard sci fi is to be distinguished from fantasy sci fi, in that it actually attends to reality.  It can be character driven, sure, but the authors tend to have training in the hard sciences.  They want their narrative reality to feel real, to be cast within the realms of what truly might be.   Some particularly beautiful less-hard sci fi does this too, sweeping you up with brilliantly rendered characters or fascinating psychosocial implications.  The astoundingly thought provoking works of Ursula K. Leguin or Maria Doria Russell's stark and challenging The Sparrow come to mind.

But good hard stuff makes the medicine go down smooth. It means, for the hypercritical reader, that the suspension of disbelief comes more easily.  This could be real, your higher functions say, and you just go with it. 

There's a peculiar side effect to this focus on the real, though.  Some hard sci fi ends up being...well...right.  It pegs the future.  It stakes a narrative claim in a future reality, and then that reality manifests itself.   This, in another age, was the realm of the prophets.

Oh, I know, we liberal Jesus-folk are always talking about prophets as social critics.  Prophecy is when you challenge injustice, we say.  Prophecy is when you speak truth to power.  We say that a whole bunch, and we're not wrong.  It ain't soothsaying, and it does not involve crystal balls.

But that's only part of it.  We remember Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos and Micah not just because they were social critics who poetically skewered injustice, but also because when they made a call about the future, they were dead on.  They understood, through the eyes of faith and insight, the implications of the brokenness they encountered.  The future was not closed to them.

Nor is it closed to other observers.  Take, for instance, a book I recently read.  The book was a near-future tale, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, published four years ago.  It's a huge sprawling shaggy dog of a story, weaving and interweaving multiple narratives.  A fun story, although it ended oddly, as if Stephenson had suddenly looked at his watch, gotten up, and wandered off.

The thrust of the book...and this is only mildly spoiler-esque...revolves around the creation of a radically secure encrypted "data haven."  It's a virtual place that would allow for transactions, exchanges that would amount to currency exchanges, all of which would  exist outside of governmental control, not part of any state or nation.

As I was reading this, I found myself thinking: this is Bitcoin.  What Stephenson was describing is Bitcoin, that odd lawless anarcurrency that nation states are now wrestling with.  It's not exactly the same, but close enough to be recognizable.

And when Stephenson was writing his novel, Bitcoin didn't yet exist.  The possibility existed, right there on the cusp of being...but it was not yet real.

Is that prophecy?  No, not quite.  But it is a close cousin.

And just as we remember the prophets, I think those folk whose vision of the future becomes the present are folks we'll remember.