After my pathetic begging last week I got asked several questions; thanks if you did so! I’ll be answering them at the rate of about one per week, so I should have them all done by the end of the month.
Adam Benton asks
I know this is a rather difficult question, and one you’ve probably answered before, but what game/tv/film depiction to you think is one of the most accurate glimpses of the future?
For example, on the one hand we have Mass Effect, which postulates some crazy advanced technology but seems to keep it within the laws of physics (as much as I know). On the other hand we have BSG, which has less crazy technology but does have dogfights in space ships which – as your most recent post suggested – is unlikely to happen.
We have to work with a given value of “accurate” here, since nearly every single fictional depiction of the future has taken certain liberties with present-day physics in order to make their universe easier to portray/easier for us to understand. Your examples are a good illustration of this. Mass Effect does no more than pay lip service to real-life physics with things like mass drivers and the Normandy’s stealth technology. It gets worse as the series progresses and the writers change and Bioware is less concerned with a coherent universe and more concerned with THRILLING PLOT TWISTS, but even in the first title the mass effect fields, kinetic barriers, even the gun tech which is dressed up with a fair amount of technobabble handwaving – all that stuff is pretty much space magic. As for BSG, which is a gritty, grimy, “realistic” take on sci-fi, even the humans have got things like artificial gravity and FTL travel, which are acceptable concessions to narrative necessity, but they’re also running the Galactica on what appears to be the futuristic equivalent of a 486 processor, which isn’t.
Most accurate, therefore, is only going to be a relative title. Every sci-fi story that’s been shown on a screen of some form has taken liberties with the science, and for good reason; nobody wants to watch a show where it takes a minimum of four years to travel to the nearest star and you get repeatedly fried by solar radiation on the way out of the solar system. You’re more likely to find accurate sci-fi in written form, where it is known as “hard” science fiction; a good example is the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy, where the first book (at least) is a decent jab at how we might believably go about colonising Mars, but which is nonetheless an absolute nightmare to read because the characters are all crap. There seems to be a tradeoff: you can focus on the characters and character conflicts and use the science as an enabling device and tell an interesting story, or you can focus on getting your science as right as you possibly can, but you can’t do both, which is why the people who make films and tv shows tend to focus on the former.
As a result the most scientifically accurate depiction of the future is going to end up being something which mentions the science as little as possible. The less it talks about it, the less likely it is to be caught out in an outright contradiction of what we currently know to be possible. Something like Blade Runner would be a good contender; there is only one scientific concept stated overtly in the film (that it is possible to make androids that look, sound and act just like humans) and even that doesn’t outright break science. Everything else is shown to the viewer or mentioned in the background; we are never told explicitly how the flying cars work or why there are wars going on in the offworld colonies. We just know that they exist, and that, at least, is something that falls within the bounds of the scientifically possible.
Therefore the question is more a literary one about how sci-fi narratives are constructed than it is about scientific verisimilitude. If I absolutely had to pick, though, then it would come down to a choice between two titles, and both of them are video games.
Otherwise known as The Game That Got Me Into Astrophysics. Alpha Centauri’s tech tree is a thing of wonder: exhaustively researched, initially grounded in “real” science and advances we suppose to be just around the corner, like fusion and superstring theory, and then as the game progresses branching out into truly fantastical technologies like teleportation and singularity engines. You can probably quibble about the timescale – I doubt humanity is going to have working anti-gravity devices by 2300, for example – but while it is somewhat suppository it is at least based on the probable direction we think science might be headed in over the next couple of centuries. The stuff you actually do in-game is also pretty damn convincing; the terraforming mechanics in particular are a work of art, scientifically speaking. Of course, Alpha Centauri is working with the advantage that as a 4X it doesn’t really have to bother itself with telling a story (although unusually for the genre there is the skeleton of one in there). If you want a viable future world that does work with that constriction then you should look no further than…
Not Human Revolution or Invisible War, which both ventured into what would have been space opera had any of it actually been set in space, but the original dystopian world of tomorrow. Like the best sci-fi stories, it takes just one big scientific concept – the incipience of nanotechnology as a viable… uh, technology – and bases its entire structure around examining the social and personal effects that this advance might have on people. There’s some of the other near-future tropes in there as well – sentient AI, robotics, cybernetic augmentations – but this is all stuff that genuinely is going to happen within the next century (Deus Ex is set in 2052). Nanotech is the big pill that the audience is asked to swallow, but once they have, every other fantastical device in the game – think the Dragon’s Tooth sword, Denton’s augmentations, the Universal Constructor – follows on naturally and logically from that one scientific leap. In other words, if we had functioning nanotech we really could do all this stuff, and that’s why I think the world of Deus Ex is the one that’s most connected to the world of today: it takes only one liberty with science, and even that is not completely out of the question. Nanotech is possible, if perhaps not feasible. It’s not even in the same league as some of the things we routinely swallow like anti-gravity, which outright break the established laws of physics.
You’ll notice that both these games have a lot of roots in what is going on in the research laboratories of today. That’s because it’s easier for me to say something is believable when I can draw a straight line between now and the future. If you have something set in the mid-to-far future, like Star Trek, the whole thing becomes far murkier. I can’t make predictions about what 24th century science is going to be like any more than Isaac Newton could have predicted the microchip. So who knows? It’s possible that some of the things depicted in Mass Effect may actually come to pass given the development of magic 22nd century technologies. That’s the nice thing about the future: anything could be possible. It’s a heartening thought.
(Battlestar Galactica is still balls any way you look at it, though.)