Last year, Slate posted this piece as a part of a conversation with the new book Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, which is an anthology that proposes a revitalization of the science fiction landscape for the sake of real science.
Why are all our narratives about the future 50 years old? We seem to be recycling big ideas as if we live in an inspiration drought. We’ve retooled Star Trek so many times, it’s starting to look like one of those 1957 Chevrolets still cruising the streets of Havana.
One reason is that writing about the near future is hard to do convincingly. Imagining life 10 or 20 years down the road requires placing the same big bets that science fiction always makes (in the future, we will all wear matching leotards!) but provides an incredibly short runway to get from now to then.
Storytellers can play it safe by depending on tropes that we have already been trained to expect: In the future people will use phasers and doors will swish open with a satisfying noise. We make a comfortable nest of assumptions and “rules,” allowing everyone to get on with the tale of young love or the hero’s journey.
But the trouble with stories is that they don’t stay in their fictional boxes: A good science fiction narrative will change your thinking about the world. Isaac Asimov’s robot stories have come to shape the whole idea of the robot in important ways, and that means robotics researchers are grappling with Asimov’s Three Laws.