table of contents
Science Fiction
September 2001

The Death of Science Fiction

The following essay is based on a series of posts in the usenet newsgroup, rec.arts.sf.written. The question was raised as to what works of science fiction would be still be read 100 years from now. In response I argued that the entire field is fated to be passe a century from now.
The End of Science
Navigating the Singularity
The Death of Science Fiction
Life After Death
Appendix - The equations of change


I shall argue that science fiction as a field will be forgotten 100 years from now except by the inevitable specialists in the trivia of the past. Oddly enough, this prediction seems to upset many science fiction fans. I say "oddly" because, far more often than not, the futures depicted in science fiction are ones in which science fiction does not exist to speak of.

This is not a paradox as such; what it implies is that science fiction (hereafter SF) fans are not particularly interested in futurology, i.e., in the serious attempt to understand and predict the future, as they are in the use of various futures as settings for stories. Still it is odd to see SF fans making precisely the error that SF fans would be expected not to make, namely that the future will be very much like the present, i.e., that the circumstances that dictate what is remembered and what is forgotten are similar to those of the past 150 years.

Predicting the death of science fiction in the coming century may seem perverse. After all, the critic might object, SF is a dynamic genre, one that has become absorbed into the mainstream. If one had predicted in 1950 that SF was a dead end that would soon disappear it would have been a plausible prediction. SF was the province of specialty magazines and book publishers, most of whom were financially precarious. SF had little presence in the mainstream culture and scant respectability. To most people, insofar as they had heard of SF at all, it was "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff" and B-movie monsters. In the scheme of thing it was a small ghetto; its disappearance would not have been surprising.

In the year 2000, however, matters are quite different. SF is widely recognized and accepted. SF movies and television shows are staples of the culture. SF novels crop up on best seller lists. English departments teach courses in imaginative literature. The jargon and terminology of SF has become part of the popular culture. In short, SF has hit the big time; the literature of the future has inherited the future. Predictions of eminent demise would seem to be a bit premature. As they say in the investment brochures, however, previous success is no guarantee of future performance.

The main points of the argument are: (a) in the coming century innovation in science and technology will come to a near standstill and will cease driving cultural change; (b) the mainspring of science fiction is the perception of innovation in science and technology; and (c) as innovation in science and technology ceases being a major determinant of cultural change science fiction will dry up and fade away. We will examine

The End of Science

In 1996 John Horgan published the interesting and provocative book, The End of Science. It is a flawed book - Horgan has, perhaps, been corrupted by too much exposure to modern literary analysis. In the individual sections wherein he interviews big names in various disciplines he pushes too hard for the view that the exciting big breakthroughs are all past and all that is left is the mopping up. In my view the most important part of the book is in the introductory section where he discusses the progress myth and debunks the patent clerk myth. [According to legend, "in the mid-1800's the head of US Patent Office quit his job and recommended that the office be shut down because there would soon be nothing left to invent." (p20). The story has been traced to the testimony of Henry Ellsworth before congress in 1843. Far from wanting the office closed down, Ellsworth was asking for more money.]

Horgan envisions the end of Science as being one of running out of surprises, new fundamental discoveries. The approach he takes is that of surveying various fields and asking the big names what surprises they expect. This, not surprisingly, yields little. The main feature of the surprising unknown is that, after all, it is unpredictable and unforeseeable. He does concede, however, that progress will continue in the applied sciences.

The subtitle of Horgan's book is "Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age". I argue that we are not in twilight but rather in the first flush of the heydey. It will be a short heydey, however, and in another 50 years the game will be all but over. Moreover innovation in the applied sciences and in technology will have come to a standstill also.

The argument is not a matter of judging what will mostly be done or not done. Rather the issue is one of rates of return of investment. Advancement proceeds by cherry picking, i.e., by exploiting the lines of most profitable development. Naturally the cherries change - what is difficult to exploit at one stage may be easily accessible at a later stage. What happens is that the cherries become sparse; it doesn't matter that we don't know which technologies and which lines of study are chosen. What does matter is that the rate of return from investment in innovation declines and that the required capital investment (capital here is not just money - it is intellectual and social capital) increases.

The situation is similar that to species radiating in a region of empty niches. There in an initial period of exploration followed by rapid species diversification as niches are exploited and developed. In turn diversification and rate of evolutionary change (this would be morphological change in phenotypes rather than accumulated genotype change) slows down until near stability is reached.

Chad Orzel illustrated the argument with:

To take the concrete example of computer technology, much of the current progress is driven by the exponential increase in computing speed known as "Moore's Law" (and all too often cited as if it were "F = ma", a personal peeve of mine). Most blind techno-optimists want to continue this trend through another few decades.

There are two major problems with this: 1) physics, and 2) Moore's other law.

In reverse order, along with noting that the speed of computer chips doubled every eighteen months, Moore also noted that the cost of designing and building those chips had a similar exponential growth. This is the "commitment of resources" issue Mr. Harter mentions-- if you continue the well-known "Moore's Law" growth for another fifteen or twenty years, you get a terahertz computer, but you also expect the factory to build it to cost something like the GNP of the entire planet. Something's got to give, and a fair bet would be that it'll be "Moore's Law" growth in computing speed.

Part of the reason for the expense, and a more fundamental problem facing the field is just basic physics. The huge speed increases of the past decades have been achieved mostly by making everything smaller, and squeezing more transistors onto a chip. Extrapolating this trend (as many are wont to do), you find that somewhere in the 2015-2020 range, we need to make transistors the size of a single atom. Which is a bit improbable... At this point, blind techno-optimists usually wave their hands frantically, and invoke Quantum Computing, but there are some very serious issues there (chief among them being the difficulty of algorithm design) that will prevent quantum computers from being the means of continuing the rapid increase in computing speed available to businesses and individuals.

So, there are good reasons to expect a tailing off of the dramatic progress in computing technology in the next fifteen to twenty years. To the extent which this is a driving force behind the current apparent Singularity, that bodes ill for the continuing increase in technology.

Navigating the Singularity

In a series of SF novels Vernor Vinge exploits the notion of The Singularity. The thesis is that accelerating technological change is approaching a singularity.

The "singularity", however, is not a true singularity but rather is a short period of extremely rapid change, much like a phase transition. I argue that we are going through the 'singularity' now with the peak rate of change somewhere in the next 25-50 years. The singularity, while fun as a concept, isn't realistic. Back in the 70's or thereabout there was an article that argued civilization was approaching an asymptote. The chap graphed various trends such as transport speed and argued that they all showed asymptotic behaviour (the singularity) with the asymptote occurring around 1997 - in other words (according to him) the singularity has come and gone and we didn't notice.

At this point it is natural to ask: How do we know where we are on the curve? How can we tell that the near singularity won't happen a hundred years from now rather than in the near future. The answer is that the near singularity occurs just before we start running into the limits that dampen out the rate of change.

The equation has two factors, each of the form x(1-x), representing respectively the percentage of societal effort devoted to technological advancement, and the rate of return per investment. The key indicators are (a) the percentage of people involved in creating new technology, and (b) the capital investment needed for effecting new technology. (Technology here is a grab-bag term including scientific research.)

The percentage of people engaged in creating new technology/science has climbed exponentially at a rate faster than the population growth for the past 150 years and is now a significant fraction of the total population; we are beginning to hit the limits here. This is complicated by the fact that the world is split into regions with different levels of development. Euroamerica is well ahead of most of Asia in the percentage of the population engaged in technology creation so there is room for Asia to come up to speed but not much. In any event, what with resources crises and ecological problems I think Asia (China/India/Indonesia) has insuperable problems in the short run (the coming century).

The other factor is size of investment and return on investment. The size of investment required for individual technologies is also climbing sharply. This varies a great deal - there are still plenty of garage shop startups - but most of the action is in good sized enterprises. Big science has become very big indeed, not just in size of total effort but also in size of individual efforts.

The Death of Science Fiction

Let me first pose this rhetorical question: Why was science fiction as a genre invented and developed in the twentieth century (we may ignore Moskowitz's "scholarship"); why not substantially earlier? As an answer consider the changing conceptions of "the future".

Prior to the industrial revolution there was no significant conception of the future being essential different from the present with the exception of millennarian visions. Empires might rise and fall; prosperity might wax and wane; et cetera; but the thought that the future would be different in kind from the present was a thought that did not occur to people to think. Insofar as people thought of change over time they tended to think of it as degeneration over time with a golden age in the misty past.

In the wake of the industrial revolution we see the Victorian notion of progress. This was a thought of change but one in these terms - the future will be like the present only better. It is only in the twentieth century that possibility of the future being different in kind from the present and that technology would effect this change became plausible, at least to visionaries (and in part science fiction is a literature of visionaries.)

Elsewhere I have argued that:

I would argue that Science Fiction depends on several strands which are: (a) The sense of play - the good gadget; (b) SF as a literature of social prophecy; (c) psychological displacement; and (d) Straight adventure. I have already referred to the good gadget. When I speak of Science Fiction as a literature of social prophecy I am not referring to the sociological gadget story. Rather I am referring to the idea that it was the literary response to the perception that the future is being shaped by science and technology.
The twentieth century was a century of radical and accelerating change; science fiction was a literary response to that change. I am arguing that the twenty-first century will not have the same character, that, after a final spectacular flurry of radical change, The answer, I opine, is that it will not. To be sure, there will be much scientific and technological development but the pace of advancement will slow by mid-century and by the end of the century it will no longer be a major engine of change in society. It will be an exciting and somewhat dangerous century; we have yet to play out the possibilities of global warming, the looming oil crisis, ecological collapses, resource wars, and other bits of fun. The thesis, though, is by the end of the century we will have arrived at a state similar to that prevailing before the industrial revolution - the world will change with time but it won't change in kind. What this means for science fiction is that one of the driving impulse that makes science fiction interesting will have disappeared.

In effect, science fiction will have become obsolete. This is already happening. Many of the stories written fifty years are already obsolete - they are tales of a future that is not, never was, and never will be, written using assumptions about society that are also obsolete. The stories from then that survive tend to be science fantasy - Star Wars and Star Trek and a thousand others. These survive and flourish because they are not realistic.

However they flourish because this is the heydey of change; the changing future is all around us and the conventions of science fiction are being realized in the market place. They provide good settings for adventure stories. When the pace of change slows they will become irrelevant in a way that historical novels of adventure do not. Novels about the frontier and adventures in unexplored parts of the world were once a big thing; they aren't today but they can still be read and written and enjoyed. No change in society, no change in technology is going to make the frontier disappear from history. The situation is different with science fantasy because the very settings will have disappeared from the popular consciousness. They will have disappeared because the conception of the future that they rest upon will no longer be viable.

Life after death

The precise way in which science fiction decays and vanishes is a matter of speculation - we can expect that the world of AD 2100 will be quite different from the present in its tastes and preoccupations. Still, we can identify trends.

If we look at the kinds of stories that are being marketed as SF (where SF includes fantasy & alternate history) we see that "hard" science fiction is almost extinct. Space opera, on the other hand, is thriving whether it be spin-offs from Star Trek and Star Wars or the popular Bujold novels and military SF. The major expansion has been in alternate worlds fantasy, usually but not necessarily medieval with some sort of magic. The works of authors like Glen Cook, Steven Brust, Robert Jordan, and David Eddings appear intermingled with science fiction just as though their works were science fiction. Likewise works of alternate history, e.g., the interminable series by Turtledove, and moderns displaced backwards in time increasingly fill the racks. In short science fiction has already begun to vanish.

The media in which science fiction (and its relatives which are sold as science fiction) have been changing. Science fiction is and has been in decline in the printed media. The magazines are moribund and the book market is dominated by fantasy. On the other hand, SF is thriving in the movies and on the tube. It is even arguable that there is more "hard" science fiction in the movies and on the tube than there is on the book racks. It may be hokey but then there has always been a large element of hokum in science fiction. The greatest area of growth has been gaming and in particular, role playing games on the internet.

If these trends continue through the pseudo-singularity we may expect printed science fiction (except for media tie-ins) to fade to a small speciality market. Science fiction in the media will continue to thrive but increasingly will be replaced by fantasy. The field as a whole will continue to thrive.

As we pass through the pseudo-singularity science fiction will vanish with the future (the kind of future that science depends upon). This will include space opera. On the other hand some varieties of fantasy may continue on.

Appendix - The equations of change

The equation for exponential change is

(1) dx/dt = ax

i.e., the rate of change of x is proportional to x. The solution to equation (1) is:

(2) x = C*e^at

This is the law that underlies compound interest. It says that if the rate of change of something (which x measures) is proportional to the amount of that something then the amount will grow exponentially with time.

This is not the law that governs technological change because not only do we build on the past but we also increase the percentage of resources that we devote to increasing technology. The relevant equation for this kind of change is

(3) dx/dt = ax^2

The solution to equation (3) is:

(4) x = a/(T0 -t)

The solution to this equation is asymptotic, i.e., it goes to infinity as t approaches the singularity at T0.

However in the real universe we don't observe either unrestrained exponential or asymptotic growth. What we observe instead (when we do not have chaos) is growth that resembles exponential or asymptotic growth in its early phases and runs into limiting factors which are insignificant in the early phase of growth and becomes dominant as the limiting factors are neared. The simplest example of this kind of equation is the logistic equation in the differential equation formulation. It looks like this:

(5) dx/dt = ax(S-x)

The solution to this equation is a symmetrical S curve,

(6) x = S*e^at/(1+e^at)

It grows nearly exponentially until the midpoint and then the rate of growth drops in the same manner as it increased and the curve flattens out as it approaches the saturation level S.

In practice limits do not come into play until they are nearly reached. A simple example of this is bacteria growing in a petri dish; the colony grows exponentially until the boundaries of the dish are reached. A better model in many cases is:

(7) dx/dt = ax(S-x^2)

which has the solution

(8) x = sqrt(S^2*e^2at/(1+e^2at))

The solution to this equation is similar to equation (6). It, too, is an S curve. However it is asymmetric; it rises higher than equation (6) before flattening out and flattens more sharply after the era of maximum growth.

The equations that governing the growth of technology are more complex because there two sorts of limiting factors, the percentage of societal resources dedicated to advancing technology and the diminishing rate of return on investment. The combination produces a more extreme version of equation (8).

If we translate this out of the mathematics what this says is that the rate of change of technology increases steadily until it reaches a critical level. At that point it goes pseudo-asymptotic and increases very rapidly for a short period of time. At the end of this short period it flattens out drastically and for all practical purposes the era of substantive change is over.

The actual situation is more complicated because of various time constants, e.g., the rates at which people can learn and societies and industries can change. The diagnostic feature which lets us recognize where we are on the curve is percentage of societal resources committed to advancing technology; when that becomes significant the story is almost over.

This page was last updated August 6, 2007.
Copyright © 2001, 2007 by Richard Harter

table of contents
Science Fiction
September 2001