This is an expanded version of my Adaptive Lab “10-minute talk”. All new ALabbers are asked to do a short talk when they start.
I have been collecting pulp sci-fi paperbacks for close to ten years. Currently I have around a dozen. They are dusty and old, most from the late 60s and early 70s, some a little older. I find them at flea markets every now and then—not a major collection, but always fun to find one.
What sparked this? My old friend Victor Essnert. Many years back we were both working for the digital product agency ustwo (he still is). He chatted excitedly about his collection of vintage sci-fi books on a work trip, and showed me a couple when we returned home. I was hooked straight off the bat; always had a soft spot for sci-fi movies so this was an easy sell.
They are great to collect; the cover art is 👌 next level. No photoshop, all airbrushed by hand. They cost peanuts. Lastly, the stories are great, a mix of outlandish ideas and kitsch visions. In places sexist — even the sci-fi writers of those times were affected by the social norms of the day.
Something struck me. A thread that runs through the stories, and is amplified by their age. It took me a while to unpick it—along with a few chats with Victor. Boiling it down, it feels like this can be summarised into two insights:
- Humans are really good at massive innovation leaps and really rubbish at predicting little innovation evolutions.
- We are a product of our time. The stories are an imagined future from a time that was very different to the age we living in today. Society, technology and the general optimism of humanity are all uniquely linked to a point in time. Like a finger print. Working together to define the idea space the writer is bound within, without the writer knowing.
A great example of this is the short story by Ray Bradbury included in Three To The Highest Power. It tracks the uprising of a human like race from Mars. The story unfolds on a prison ship. Pretty early on, a handwritten message is delivered in a mini rocket. Seriously—they have mastered interplanetary travel, but are still sending handwritten notes by rocket!
What I think is going on
These 60/70s sci-fi writers find it easier to imagine impossible innovation — underwater worlds, interstellar travel, giant kingdoms in space. And avoid or find it hard to imagine long term iterative innovation, like punch cards becoming floppy discs, becoming cloud storage.
It could be explained as excessive plot overhead. Why paint in all the small everyday details, when the reader will be concentrating on the fact that the story is unfolding on a planet billions of lightyears away from earth. Why worry about the little things, when a big impact is going to grab all the attention. But I do think it shouldn’t feel this pronounced: to a modern reader it’s the everyday details that make a future vision feel dated. It seems the writers are predisposed to fail at predicting the impact of everyday iterative innovation. Arguably the most impactful innovation we have. Small iterative change is not always easy to notice, plot or predict.
Its safe to say the age of the stories is a factor. Their oddity is amplified by their age. They were created within the bounds of their time. A future vision shaped by a past present. An optimistic time, looking ahead with excitement. The reach of mankind unlimited in all ways. We had been to the moon! Does this give more freedom to look further, think bigger?
Future prediction is really hard to get your coconut around. When we try to imagine the future, we hit an issue: our present imposes invisible boundaries. We struggle to see outside of our current rules, our own biases, the status quo. Smashing out of these requires effort. Could it be the further out in time we imagine, the more effort is required to build a rounded prediction?
In contrast to these stories it feels as if we live in a time of waning optimism. Is the sci-fi being created today staying closer to the present as a result? One (extremely non exhaustive) example is the Charlie Brooker TV show Black Mirror. They take burgeoning science and technology and tell a dark tale of a near future path society could take.
Could we be seeing similar effects across our society today? We setup ethics committees for AI, at a point where general intelligence AI a long long way out in the distance—an exciting headline grabbing theme, the threat of Terminators. While society (and governments) missed predicting social media growing from its simple harmless beginnings back in the early 2000s into the internet swallowing unchallenged news ‘provider’ it is today. Not to mention the very real effect on governments we are uncovering.
Big thanks to my mate Victor for getting me into Sci-fi books 🙂