Thursday, 9 April 2015

How quickly the future becomes passé

The thing about the future is that it gets out of date so fast.

As a young teenager, I became quite a fan of science fiction. One of the writers I particularly enjoyed was Robert Heinlein, and when I came across one of his novels again the other day – pretty well half a century on – I decided there might be pleasure in wandering down memory lane with it.

Well, it was as much fun as I’d hoped, but not for the reason I’d expected. 

Quite fun. But so out of date
Even though it's set in a remote future
The novel was Time for the Stars. The basic theme is that, at some time in a century or two, interstellar ships are setting out from Earth to try to find new planets to settle. One of the biggest problems is communication, but by an almost spooky coincidence we have just discovered that certain pairs of identical twins, and even some others, have telepathic powers. And, as luck would have it, telepathic communication is instantaneous. However far away a telepath travels, he or she can be in contact with the other end of the partnership immediately.

For me, that works just fine as a premiss for a science fiction story. I mean, I’ve seen a lot worse. For instance, the notion that a galactic empire might have built a dark star death machine that can leap interstellar distances, but then get stuck behind a moon, with no clear shot of the band of poorly armed but incredibly plucky rebels on the planet beneath. Instead of just pushing a butoon to zap the entire planet from back home, without even stirring from their chairs or thrones or whatever they sit on.

You can imagine how Time for the Stars goes. One half of a pair of telepathic twins leaves with a starship while the other stays behind to receive messages. The rest of the story is reasonably enjoyable and well told, but pretty predictable, so I won’t spoil it by telling you any of it here.

What I really enjoyed about the novel was some of the futuristic technology it introduced to its readers.

We had wonderful electronic devices. All driven by valves.

Anyone remember valves? They were those large lightbulb-like things you used to find inside radios, at least if you’re of my generation or earlier. If you’re not, look them up. The idea that anyone will still be using them in a century or two, especially in the confined space of a starship, really requires a large suspension of disbelief.

So is what happens on board ship when they have news to distribute. The telepaths receive it from Earth. It’s all typed up. And then – printed out, on paper, for distribution to the crew.

But what I liked the most was the moment a complex calculation had to be carried out fast. They didn’t waste time on a computer, but had one of their resident maths specialists do the sum in her head – I presume she was gifted like Alan Turning who, it seems, was comfortable doing base-32 arithmetic without machine assistance.

The idea that programming a computer takes so long that it’s not worth doing it if you’re in a hurry is glorious, isn’t it? Of course, programming was one heck of a task but then, in 1956, when the book was written. But today it’s hard to imagine not using a machine for a complex computation.

Ah, well. That’s the danger of science fiction. Brilliantly futuristic when it’s written. Sadly out of date not that many years later.

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