June 12, 2024


Science It Works

Science Fiction Is Coming to Life All Around Us

I have been reading science fiction for half a century, having spent my childhood consuming it in various forms. Now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I am living in a science fiction serial.

The break point was China’s landing of an exploratory vehicle on Mars. It’s not just the mere fact of it, as China was one of the world’s poorest countries until relatively recently. It’s that the vehicle contains a remarkable assemblage of software and artificial intelligence devices, not to mention lasers and ground-penetrating radar.

There is a series of science fiction novels about China in which it colonizes Mars. Published between 1988 and 1999, David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series is set 200 years in the future. It describes a corrupt and repressive China that rules the world and enforces rigid racial hierarchies.

It is striking to read the review of the book published in the New York Times in 1990. It notes that in the book “the Chinese somehow regained their sense of purpose in the latter half of the 21st century” — which hardly sounds like science fiction, the only question at this point being why it might have taken them so long. The book is judged unrealistic and objectionable because its “vision of a Chinese-dominated future seems arbitrary, ungrounded in historical process.” The Chung Kuo books don’t reflect my predictions either, but it does seem that reality has exceeded the vision of at least one book critic.

Dogecoin is another sign that current reality resembles fiction, a point that has been stressed by the Portuguese author and politician Bruno Macaes. In 1994 I co-authored a book on monetary economics, suggesting that monetary institutions and money itself would change radically over the next several decades, due largely to technology. The book fell on deaf ears and seemed of no practical use.

Looking back, I now see that it was much too conservative. You have to search long and hard in science fiction to find anything as good as the Satoshi story (Hari Seldon from Asimov’s “Foundation” series?). The whole assemblage of crypto institutions no longer seems to be just a bubble. This is true even though Dogecoin literally was created as a joke.

Another sign of science fiction becoming reality: I live in Virginia, and last week I could not find a ready supply of gasoline for four days because a hacking group called DarkSide attacked a major regional gas pipeline. My life hardly degenerated into a “Mad Max” scenario, with gang wars over gas and women. Nonetheless, this was a reminder that the conveniences of modernity are fragile at the edges, again a common theme in science fiction. One cybersecurity firm reports that reported ransomware cyberattacks rose 485{13aab5633489a05526ae1065595c074aeca3e93df6390063fabaebff206207ec} from 2019 to 2020. Crime is heading into a new and slightly terrifying future. Read these science fiction hacker novels if you need further background.