Technology: the progressives dream and the reactionary's nightmare. Advances in technology have been creating upheavals in society all the way back to the start of the Bronze age and further.
But things really shifted into high gear with the Industrial Revolution. Technology started industrializing the United States around 1790, changing it from an agricultural society into a manufacturing society.
Things seemed to settle down until some clown invented television and the inhabitants of sleepy little United States towns had their minds blown by the realization that people who lived in other places were (gasp) different! That was just awful! Well, actually it was just change, which was bad enough to these folk. They didn't even notice the real problem: technology was starting the transformation of the United States from a manufacturing society into a service society.
The reactionaries started freaking out with the exodus of good-paying jobs from rural areas into the cities. And they started foaming at the mouth when technology gave us the internet.
Understand that the angry reactionaries are not just hicks rubes living in the sticks. Many of them are very rich and sophisticated people who happen to be buggy-whip magnates and are upset that the basis of their wealth just evaporated.
The point is, if you the science fiction writer postulate lots of technological advances in your novels, you must at least pay lip service to the sad fact that it will make a sizable segment of your society very angry.
On the other tentacle, progressives will find things bewildering as well.
As of this writing (2017) a person in their 50s will find much about current life to be quite different from when they were young. Nowadays land-line telephones are increasingly rare while mobile cell phones are proliferating. Children do not understand technologies like printed encyclopedias and telephone directories. For us old geezers a "computer" is a box with a monitor and a keyboard, increasingly a computer is a smart phone. Jerry Pournelle predicted that in the far future people could use something like an internet to find answers to their questions, but failed to predict that people would be angry if the answer took longer than three seconds to appear (drat that Google is slow today). There are even jobs that did not exist a couple of decades ago (Search engine optimization expert?)
Funny thing about society in general and people in specific. Back in the 1750's this new thing called "Science" really started coming into its own. It was amazing the things it could discover, and so many of them with marvelously practical uses! It seemed like there was nothing science could not do. Science was going to bring us to a grand and glorious Utopian future. Even now there is some nostalgia for this view, the technical term is "Retro-Futurism".
This all turned to worms in the early 1900's. Suddenly science revealed its dark side. Science unleashed unspeakable horrors, there were things man was not meant to know, and one started to see more and more dystopias in science fiction literature.
Science didn't change, it can't. The change was in the attitude of society.
So what happened? Yes, I know most of you suddenly shouted "The invention of the atom bomb, you moron!". BZZZT! You're wrong, thank you for playing. It was already in full swing long before 1945. So what's the answer?
I believe that master science fiction author and science explainer Isaac Asimov has the answer. He wrote about it in a 1969 essay entitled The Sin of the Scientist (collected in The Stars In Their Courses). He was speculating on what a "scientific sin" would be. Turns out it would be an act that would blacken the very name of science itself.
A milder but more tech-hostile form of this comes from powerful people whose basis of power is threatened with technological disruption. If you are an ultra-rich oil baron for whom petroleum is the basis of all your wealth and power, you are going to fight the solar power industry like you were a cornered wolverine. Just try to find a CEOs of telephone-directories, newspaper, encyclopedia, and magazine publishers who has anything nice to say about the advent of the internet. All of those publishers are rapidly going bankrupt.
Such powerful people want the status quo ante, thank you very much. Not for deep-seated psychological reasons, it is just about the money. They will use every tool at their disposal. Everything from buying all the rights to the tech and supressing it, to forcing their bribed politicians to pass laws outlawing the disruptive technology, to sending a stealth team of elite assasins to kill the researchers developing the technology and burn all the research notes. Remember all those urban legends about the guy who invented an automobile that would run on water, and how they mysteriously vanished never to be seen again.
On the other hand there are powerful people wannnabes who hope to seize power by exploiting a new disruptive technology. They are more or less at war with the status quo group. Examples include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Let alone any corporation who have made their profits skyrocket by utilizing this new thing called "the internet."
Science fiction writers sometimes use this as a plot idea. Indeed, the oil industry's fight against solar power was predicted in Robert Heinlein's short story "Let There Be Light" (1940). On a cynical note, Heinlein made a time-line to place all his stories and characters on. In the story the two protagonists Douglas and Martin prevail over the Power Syndicate. On the time-line I noticed that Douglas and Martin died on the same day. I suspect that they were assasinated in revenge by the Power Syndicate.
Technological Unemployment is when a machine steals your job.
(But the term "sabotage" did not come from Luddites tossing their wooden clog sabots into the the machinery. That is not supported by the etymology. I don't care what Lt. Valeris said in Star Trek VI. It is a common story, though.)
Anyway the economists will assure you that history proves there is nothing to worry about. Yes there will be some short-term pain as all the buggy-whip making jobs vanish, but in the long-term the march of technology will create more new jobs than were originally lost. Believing otherwise means you are an economic ignoramus making the mistake of falling for the Luddite Fallacy.
But around 2013 more and more economists became alarmed that this time it was different.
Up until now, machines were taking away jobs by replacing human strength. Now they were taking away jobs by replacing human intellect. Yuval Harari said “Humans only have two basic abilities — physical and cognitive. When machines replaced us in physical abilities, we moved on to jobs that require cognitive abilities. ... If AI becomes better than us in that, there is no third field humans can move to.”
It started slow. Personal computers with word-processing software drastically reduced the number of secretarial jobs. Income tax preparation software drastically reduced the number of tax preparation companies. Currently many fast food franchises are replacing food preparation workers with robots.
But that's OK said the economists. The displaced workers just need some more education so they can find jobs which have not been computerized yet. And they will be higher paying jobs, just you wait and see!
The economists got a rude shock when computers started taking away high-education jobs. That wasn't supposed to happen. It was also a chilling wake-up call to those with high-education jobs who had been smugly saying their jobs were safe.
For example, a new company called Enlitic applied Google's deep learning software TensorFlow to the task of diagnosing lung cancer by examining lung CT scans. They easily trained the software to do the work. Then they did a test where a panel of four of the world’s top human radiologists competed with the software. The results were dramatic. The human radiologists had a false positive rate (incorrectly diagnosing cancer) of 66%. The software had a false positive rate of only 47%. What is worse, the human radiologists had a false negative rate (missing a cancer diagnosis) of 7% while the software had a false negative rate of Zero.
Which means that once Enlitic trains their software on the other diseases, human radiologists will suddenly find themselves out of a job. The software will be cheaper than a radiologist's salary ($286,000/year), and can work 24-7. OK Mr. Economist, what sort of education would you suggest so these suddenly unemployed radiologists can find a better-paying job? Preferably a job that will NOT become lost to computer software before they even complete their education.
Such software is also making inroads into stealing such jobs as writing sports stories, journalism, computer programming, sewing garments, marketing, doing the job of junior lawyers by sorting through previous court cases and legal resources to find precedents, money management, and writing legal briefs. Not to mention financial analysts. And it is just a matter of time before general medical diagnosis falls as well.
As one commentor noted: It's not that complicated. Automation will go from freeing us up to do what we're good at, to being better than us at what we're good at. That's why it's different.
The mood among economists is becoming grim. While many are still maintaining that new jobs will eventually replaced the vanished ones, their pronouncements are starting to sound a bit hollow. The economists who believe the jobs will not be coming back used to be a tiny minority, but a 2014 Pew Research revealed such economists are now more like 48%. Technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates. The Luddite Fallacy is on very shaky ground.
Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a study with the findings that almost half of U.S. jobs are at high risk of computerization over the next 20 years. Positions that are particularly vulnerable to automation include telemarketers, tax preparers, watch repairers, insurance underwriters, cargo and freight agents, and mathematical technicians. Driving jobs on mining sites are already being automated and long-distance truck drivers, forklift operators and agricultural drivers could be replaced within five to 10 years.
A more recent McKinsey report suggested today's technology could feasibly replace 45% of jobs right now.
And for jobs requiring lower education lost to automation, even if they are eventually replace in the long-term, the short-term can wreck the entire US economy if the number of jobs is huge enough. It can be a disaster if the transition is too fast. The advent of autonomous cars and driverless trucks could put five million people in the US out of a job. The point being that the US economy does not have the ability to create five million new jobs fast enough to employ these people.
There are those who say: but what about creative jobs? A robot might be stronger and a computer might be smarter, but can they make art? The first point is if you actually think you can solve the unemployment problem by teaching the unemployed to be artists, well good luck with that. The second point is yes, computers are starting to make art.
Taken to its logical extreme, eventually there won't be any more jobs. None, everything will be done by robots and computers. Which is a problem since in modern society one needs money in order to avoid starving to death. And there are not a lot of ways to get money without a job. Not legal ways at any rate. The only people with money will be the ones that own the robots, or have income from either stocks or being independently wealthy.
Yes, corporations that manufacture goods for sale are shooting themselves in the foot by firing all their employees and replacing them with robots. This reduces the number of potential customers (ones who have money to purchase your product at any rate). However this is a "tragedy of the commons" situation. Basically each company figures the declining number of customers is Somebody Else's Problem, not their problem. Even worse, if a company decides to virtuously hang on to their workers to maintain the number of consumers, the company will find itself at a competitive disadvantage with respect to all their evil competitors who use robots. The virtuous companies will go bankrupt from the unfair competition from the evil companies.
But the big point is any society is only three missed meals away from violent anarchy. If widespread technological unemployment increases, the problem will be solved either elegantly by government and society, or it will solve itself inelegantly by natural forces. Probably food riots and angry hungry people setting up lots of guillotines to take care of the robot owners. The French Revolution was over 200 years ago, but the situation is much the same and if we are unlucky so will be the solution. Everything old is new again.
And obviously the food riots are not going to hold off until 100% unemployment happens. They will start much sooner than that.
So what are the elegant solutions?
And there are those who say that the rich should foot the bill for a solution, telling them that this is the fee for "guillotine insurance."
But a commentator named Kalin said: The elites will share their wealth only insofar as it's cheaper to do that (bread and circuses) than it is to keep the proles at bay through force. What Marx saw as an inexorable trend towards socialism may have in fact just been a temporary consequence of the industrial revolution, wherein labor was especially important and the power of an individual worker was large in historical terms. It's not impossible to imagine a sort of "Neo Feudalism" where a small minority of elites find it cheaper to maintain control via technological force-multipliers than to share their earnings such that everyone is actually happy or nearly so.
In other words, the rich will do the math and may well discover that a private army is cheaper than funding a Basic Income.
One of the many ways of classifying personally types in twain is into "Neophiles" and "Neophobes." The former love and enjoy changes and new things, the latter instead hate and feel threatened by the same. Neophobes are hostile to series of changes, with responses ranging from "Stop The World, I Want To Get Off" to full blown Reactionary feelings.
And when the changes start coming faster and faster (i.e, the rate of change increases), Neophobes become more and more frantic. Which makes the current world situation a pretty dire place for Neophobes, since accelerated change is exactly what is happening. None of the Neophobe attempts to turn the clock back have any effect (generally because large corporations are making too much money exploiting the changes). At some point a given Neophobe is going to snap.
This threatens advancement along a tech tree since technological advancement is by definition a series of changes. Such technological changes always have a social impact. Just ask anybody who used to have a job on an automobile assembly line. Or people forced to be caregivers for their elderly parents who were granted longer lifespans by advancements in medical technology (welcome to the Sandwich Generation).
The concept (and the very term itself) of Future Shock was popularized by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book. As of this writing (2016) Toffler's book has been shown to be quite accurate by current events. There is a worryingly large segement of the population that is so oppressed by Future Shock that they apparently have undergone a psychological break, and now refuse to accept facts from science and indeed from reality in general.
Characteristically science fiction authors have some future shock aversion themselves, because it makes writing science fiction so much more difficult. There are many literary methods.
This is when a technological advance is so powerful and destructive that some idiot will eventually use it to cause powerful destruction. Things are bad enough when some human researcher stumbles over the advance, but it can be lots worse when the advance is some ultra-high tech paleotechnology from a long extinct Forerunner species. The classic example is the Krell technology from the movie Forbidden Planet.
The important point to note is that the technology is not bad or evil per se, only in the hands of a primitive emotional race such as human beings. Once the human race reaches maturity such technology is safe. Imagine a type of nanotechnology that can be hacked into a form that can turn the entire planet Terra into gray goo, yet simple enough to be made by a bright teenager in their parent's garage. Terra wouldn't last five minutes before it started to dissolve. Some idiot would try it, probably thousands of idiots simultaneously. Morons who what to see what happens, angry people who want to make the entire world pay, depressed people who want to really end it all, those who think such a corrupt world needs a do-over, I'm sure you can think of many others.
However, you cannot child-proof the entire universe. The long term solution is not to suppress technology, but to uplift humanity. Because suppressing technology never works in the long term. When it is steam-engine time, it is steam-engine time.
But sometimes people try. The TV Trope is Keeper of Forbidden Knowledge. An example are the colonists sent to planet Topaz in Andre Norton's The Defiant Agents. The Western Alliance and Greater Russian are both frantically sending interstellar colonists to every planet they can find. They hope to find valuable paleotechnology from the forerunner galactic empire that collapsed about ten thousand years ago. Topaz is supposed to be a Western planet but Russia infiltrates some of their own. Paleotechnology is discovered. However, both sets of colonists realize that if either the Alliance or Russia gets their hands on the alien tech, Terra will be destroyed in the resulting war. So they set themselves up as keepers of forbidden knowledge, with three colonists on each side knowing the secret, and faking the failure of the colony.
This is sort of the inverse of You Are Not Ready. Terran space explorer may run across a planet-bound technologically-primitive alien species. Naïve and idealistic explorers may succumb to the temptation to help out the aliens by giving them a few technological tips.
This is generally a very bad idea:
- The aliens technological development will become distorted. At the least will be horrible technological disruption, at worse the species may inadvertently or advertently kill themselves off.
- Do you want Space Barbarians? Because this is how you get space barbarians.
This is more or less the reason for the Star Trek's famed Prime Directive. Author Sylvia Engdahl maintains that she thought of her version of the Prime Directive in 1950 (before Star Trek) though her first novel featuring it was not published until 1970. Though the first example in written science fiction appears to be Olaf Stapledon's classic 1937 novel Star Maker.
In most incarnations of the non-interference claus, the space explorers are forbidden to give the primitive aliens any technological tips. In the extreme version the space explorers are forbidden to let the alien know that the explorers exist. Either the explorers have to restrict their explorations to observing the planet from orbit, or if it is possible for the explorers to disguise themselves as the aliens in question you cannot make any revealing slips.
When does a civilization graduate to being "ready" and no longer subject to the Prime Directive? Generally there is some benchmark. In Star Trek the primitive civilization graduates when they invent a faster-than-light starship. In the CoDominion Universe it is when the level of technology advances to the point where they can put an astronaut into space. In the Anthropology Service Universe it is when the species evolves to the point where they sponaneously develop psionic powers.
As opposed to the above, this is technology that will be forever bad and evil, no matter how mature humanity becomes. This is not quite as common in science fiction, since science generally does not admit to the existence of any such thing. It generally is found only in stories based around one moral system or another so the evilness is relative to the morality, not an absolute. More like in fantasies like H. P. Lovecraft's tales of dread Cthulhu.
A mild version of this sometimes appears in science fictions as a dystopian background, or as something the author uses to deliberately put the brakes on technological development so the novel's background does not confuse the readers.
Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.
Obviously it is a hot-button issue. Most groups become hysterical when you suggest limiting their right to reproduce (especially if said group fears they will slip from being the majority to being the minority).
They get even more hysterical when they are prevented from reproducing by being put to death.
However there are other troubling questions. The main one is exactly what sort of measuring standard are you using to define "improved"? Almost as troubling is "who decides the measuring standards, and who does the measuring?" Obviously those in power can abuse this as a nasty form of ethnic cleansing.
More innocently, harm can mistakenly be done. For instance, sickle-cell anaemia is a genetically caused disease which occurs when the person inherits two allele of the sickle cell trait. People suffering from it rarely live past age 60. So that allele should be eugenically eliminated, right? Wrong! People with one allele are resistant to the even more deadly disease malaria. In this case, using eugenics would do more harm than good. The same holds true for the cystic fibrosis allele and cholera.
There is also the fear that such manipulation will reduce genetic diversity thus leading to inbreeding depression. In Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, genetic selection for increased health, longevity, and intelligence has become so widespread that the unmodified 'control naturals' are a carefully managed and protected minority.
Finally there is all those hideous overtones of Nazi Germany.
A milder form of eugenics is when the decision is made by the parents, not the government. You generally see this in science fiction with in vitro fertilization and a doctor giving the parents genetic counselling. The doctor gives the parents a list with check-boxes so the parents can chose what traits they want in their offspring, and advises them to omit obvious genetic diseases. The choices are fed into the machine, there is some quick genetic engineering on the zygote, then it is ready to be implanted (or popped into the artificial womb). See the movie Gattaca.
There are many ways to implement eugenics.
Quote Brain Wave has been moved here.
A concept that appears in science fiction once or twice is that "humans have stopped evolving", specifically technology and medical science have drastically hindered the process of natural selection. For instance, in primitive times a person with the genetic disease Phenylketonuria probably would not be able to survive long enough to reproduce (natural selection will prevent passing on the genetic disease). But currently modern medicine can detect the disease in newborns, and treat it with a special diet. In other words the person would survive long enough to pass it on to their offspring, thus thwarting natural selection.
Sir David Attenborough stated "We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95–99 percent of our babies that are born." Others have pointed out that while that might be true of 1st world countries, it is far from being true for the entire world.
In the Alan E. Nourse novel The Bladerunner (no relation to the movie of the same name) the world of the future has free, comprehensive medical treatment is available for anyone so long as they qualify for treatment under the Eugenics Laws. Preconditions for medical care include sterilization, and no legitimate medical care is available for anyone who does not qualify or does not wish to undergo the sterilization procedure (including children over the age of five). The ideas is to stop thwarting natural selection.
Others say humans are indeed still evolving, all we have done is shifted a large number of selective forces. While modern medicine has averted many biological cause of natural selection, one can see many new versions of natural selection by just perusing the Darwin Awards. In other words: deadly diseases has been replaced by Jackass.
A tangentially related concept appears in the Cyril Kornbluth short story The Marching Morons (which later inspired the movie Idiocracy). In the story, married couples who are intelligent tend not to have children, while unintelligent couples breed like cockroaches. After several hundred years of this, the average intelligence is what we would currently call an IQ of 45. The few intelligent people have no idea how to stop the collapse of society, but lucky for them a con artist who had been in suspended animation for 300 years has an answer that is effective (abet draconian).
The main flaw with the story is that the possibility of genetically breeding for stupidity is unproven.
The vast majority of mutations either [A] have little or no noticeable effect or [B] kills the embryo before it can be born. The process of evolution is advanced by zillions of tiny mutations over zillions of generations, culled by the relentless forces of natural selection.
No, exposure to radiation will not turn you into a mutant. But if your gonads are irradiated, your future children might be.
Early science fiction authors either didn't understand mutations or found the actual process incredibly boring. So they jazzed it up.
They frantically waved their hands and breathlessly announced that mutation could lead to the Next Stage Of Human Evolution™ !
This concept contains two ignorant fallacies for the price of one. First off it makes the ridiculous assumption that there are "levels" of evolution (measured by what metric, pray tell?) then it compounds the stupidity by postulating that evolution is working towards a specific goal ("orthogenesis") and you can use these non-existent evolutionary levels to measure the progress to the non-existent goal. The tell-tale sign of the latter is the phrase "more evolved."
In reality, the only "goal" of evolution is for the organism to be able to survive and thrive in whatever the current conditions happen to be in this geological epoch. Since conditions change with time, the goal of evolution is a moving target.
Early SF writers who were evolution-theory morons assumed that "intelligence" was the goal of evolutionary progress, the "ultimate life-form" at the top of the evolutionary ladder. The ultimate intelligent life-form was some sort of giant brain. Examples include the Arisans from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series.
This would lead more evolved females to demand Cesarean section. You see the relatively large size of the human baby's head is the reason why of all the species on Terra, humans are pretty much the only ones who suffer painful child birth. The evolution of a larger pelvis has not kept up with the evolution of larger baby heads.
Latter writers assumed that the goal was a set of superhuman abilities (you know: super-strength, advanced intelligence, immunity to various lethal things, and of course psionic abilities). Examples include Adam Warlock. Others cut to the chase and postulated that the end goal was to evolve humans into energy beings. Examples from Star Trek include the Organians, the Q, and arguably the Melkot, the Thasian, the Metrons, the Medusans, and the Zetarian.
The "levels of evolution" nonsense also lead to nonsensical stories where radiation from nuclear testing creates a crop of mutant children all with the same mutation. In reality mutations are more random than Pi. Not all such stories have this flaw, but there are enough to be really annoying. The only way to get lots of mutants with the same random mutation is if they share a common ancestor.
The stupid writers also got the mechanism wrong. In reality if somebody was exposed to a mutagen, their future offspring might be mutants because the DNA in the germ cells got mangled prior to procreation. But the writers were under the misapprehension that the mutagen would transform the poor exposed person into a mutant on the spot, much like the way cosmic ray exposure created the Fantastic Four. This erroneous concept was apparently created by Hugo de Vries in his 1901 story Die Mutationstheorie.
Mutants are not just people either, don't forget the radiation-spawned giant ants in the movie Them!.
None of this is scientifically accurate, but it is very exciting reading.
In Edmond Hamilton's 1931 story The Man Who Evolved, the concepts were twisted for a shock ending. The mad scientist Dr. John Pollard figures out that cosmic rays are responsible for evolution (sort of true) so exposing a person to concentrated cosmic rays will rapidly evolve them to the next stage of evolution (nope, author is unclear on the concept, it will just fry them to a crisp). With each treatment his brain becomes larger while his body becomes more spindly. At the next to the last stage he is nothing but a huge brain feeding on telepathic energy. Unfortunately for him the final stage is a pathetic primitive single-celled organism. Because apparently the levels of evolution are arranged more as a circle than as a rising staircase.
After 1945 science fiction writers finally got it through their heads that radiation would cause you to have mutant children, but not grant you any unusual powers apart from a drastically shortened lifespan. But they were still stuck on that goal oriented evolution nonsense.
The authors did however invented a brand new trope: a world wide rise in the number of mutants born due to either nuclear testing or in the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war. "Children of the Atom" so to speak.
In science fiction, mutants from low level rises of background radiation due to nuclear testing tend to be superior beings with super powers. The X-Men and Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps fall into this category.
Post-atomic-war mutants on the other hand tend to be pathetic cripples with misshapen bodies and the wrong number of limbs. In Forrest J. Ackerman's shaggy-dog story The Mute Question, the muties have a proverb: two heads are better than none.
The muties of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky fall into this category, though in this case the radiation is not from an atomic war. As it turns out the mutie Joe-Jim also has two heads.
In the X-Men stories there is often deep-seated prejudice against mutants, since average humans have the not unreasonable fear that mutants will supplant them. Draconian anti-mutant laws are passed, and periodically there are attempts at mutant genocide. Which just goes to show what idiots average humans are. Especially given the stupendous superpowers possessed by mutants and how angry they become when you try pulling that "final solution" atrocity on them.
There is also plenty of "mutants are evil" garbage in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. Take a post-nuclear apocalypse community with about Amish levels of technology, mix in an oppressive religion with a paranoid fear of the new, and you have a formula for a real eugenic nightmare. Mutations are considered to be "Blasphemies" and must be either killed or sterilised and banished to the Fringes.
In the Perry Rhodan novels, Terra discovers that the solar system is surrounded by highly advanced interstellar empires that would love to annex the planet. He needs an ace-in-the-hole or Terra is doomed. The Mutant Corps is a team of mutants with psionic powers which the alien empires cannot cope with. The 18 founding-members were mostly Japanese who were born shortly after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The X-Men are sort of the Marvel comics version of Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps, since X-Men issue #1 came out about two years after Perry Rhodan volume 6.
The archtypical superhuman mutants are the Slans from the eponymous novel by A. E. van Vogt. Every subsequent novel with "Homo Superior" mutants owes something to the Slans (though the novel is sadly unknown nowadays). When it came out, science fiction fans embraced the concept. This is because they naturally figured that they were Slans. The fans started using the pejorative term "mundane" for non-fans, sort of a science-fiction-fan version of the term "Muggle." A house or building where lots of SF fans lived was called a "Slan-shack."
There are a couple of science fiction novels dealing with mutants and galactic empires. They imply that mutants tend to appear when an empire is in the "decline and fall" stage. In his immortal Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov has the mutant the Mule appear during the Dark Ages after the fall of empire. In Andre Norton's Star Ranger the historian mentions that the current time of galactic empire collapse is when "change mutants" make their appearance.
Other novels mention dark rumors about how mutant occur on those planets beyond the rim of the galactic empire. An example is John Brunner's Altar On Asconel.
In Jack Williamson's Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock, the children of asteroid miners occasionally are born with abilities useful in the space environment. Rob McGee is immune to radiation, and has an ability to sense gravitational masses. This allows him to navigate the asteroid belt with relative ease. McGee is the first evidence of asterites evolving into humans suited for living in space.
It does seem like a truism that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and the middle class vanishes. Since science fiction can turn the volume up to 11, it can play with Extreme Speculative Stratification
Since the wealthy enjoy looking down upon the peons, they often try to make the process easier by living at a higher altitude. Some readers might remember the British comedy show Upstairs, Downstairs. Turn this up to 11 and soon all the aristocrats are living at the top of skyscrapers. The peasants live on the ground in wretched hives. The skyscrapers are cross-connected with elevated walk-ways and flying cars, so the rich do not have to descend into the slums in order to visit an adjacent building. Often the tops of the skyscrapers are Arcologies.
In the comic book Magnus Robot Fighter, ordinary citizens live in kilometer-high skyscrapers, while the malcontents who despise civilized life live in the shadowy valleys at the base of the buildings. Malcontents call the citizens "Cloud Cloddies", while the citizens call the malcontents "Gophs", short for gophers.
In Isaac Asimov's The Currents Of Space, all the cities have two levels. The upper level is for the Sarkite masters and bottom level for Florinian serfs. The Florinians have to make do with the little bits of sunlight that come through the limited gaps in the Sarkite's floor. All the rest in in shadow.
In the Star Trek episode "The Cloud Minders", the Ardanans live in the antigravity city of Stratos in luxury, while the miserable Troglytes are forced to labor in the mineral mines.
In the movie Elysium, the rich live in a posh space habitat in low orbit, all the better to snicker at an entire planet that has degraded into Detroit.
In the classic movie Metropolis, the rich live in skyscrapers which depend upon subterranean laborers being worked until they drop.
This is inverted in James Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT series. The antigravity "Okie" cities travel from star to star and visit planetary colonies, and are thus technically of higher altitude than the colonies. However, the colonists consider the Okies to be little better than tramps, hobos, and migrant labor. The Okies earn their living by being hired by the colonists.
But in the future, things may reverse themselves, sort of.
Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that there is sort of an inverse relationship between communication and transportation. What he means is the more advanced one becomes, the less you need the other. If communication develops virtual reality to the point where businesses can conduct meetings with members who physically are located all over the globe and you can't tell the difference, why go to the expense and inconvenience of traveling physically to a meeting? Already many corporations are experimenting with telecommuting.
By the same token, if transportation develops a teleportation device that can whisk you from Hong Kong to New York in a fraction of a second, who needs teleconferences? In other words: in many ways communication and transportation are two different techniques dealing with the same problem.
With respect to cities, the point is that if either technology becomes advanced enough, who needs cities?
"Immortality" means being partially or fully immune to dying from old age. You can still die from starvation, being blown out an airlock with no spacesuit, or being drilled between the eyes by a laser rifle.
"Invulnerability" on the other hand is being remarkably difficult to kill. Having a body composed of diamond, Wolverine-levels of regeneration, resurrection like Count Dracula, that sort of thing.
Having one of these abilities does not necessarily mean you have the other. TV Tropes calls having both Complete Immortality.
Immortality is a perennial favorite, since practically nobody wants to die. I'm not kidding. The concept dates back at least to the The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BCE) the earliest surviving great work of literature.
But the invention of any new technique of prolonging lifespan is guaranteed to create major problems in the society and political power structure.
For one thing, unless you pass laws about term limits and maximum age of political office, you've suddenly got a gerontocracy on your hands.
For another, if the lifespan lengthens to past about 500 years or so, you'd better limit the number of children allowed to a family or overpopulation will make a reappearance. Once you have death control you have to have birth control or you'll be standing on Zanzibar. Logically, the reason any species has the ability to procreate is because they are mortal. Otherwise the species would go extinct. Remove the mortality and you remove the need for procreation.
Naturally, this becomes less acute if immortality is not for everyone, but just for a privileged few. Even if that spoil-sport Immanual Kant says it is immoral to do something that is only bad if everybody does it.
TV Tropes calls this the Immortal Procreation Clause: The fertility of a species is inversely proportional to its lifespan. Thus, as a species approaches immortality, their birth rate approaches zero. This can be the result of natural infertility, or because they don't want to be up to their eyebrows in squalling babies so contraception is employed.
On a broader level there is the problem that reducing the birth rate also reduces the evolution rate of the species. No children, no evolution. Keeping in mind that the invention of modern medicine has already put a damper on evolution.
There are other problems with immortality, over and above the literary motive of saying it is just plain immoral for some reason or another.
A couple of time the science fiction author wanted to make the immorality rather stark black-and-white. The immortalty treatment requires the death of another person (sometimes of an alien species but still...). Stories include Ben Bova's Stars, Won't You Hide Me? and the Babylon 5 episode Deathwalker.
It has often been noted that in society "the rich get richer." At least nowadays the super rich eventually die so their wealth is divided among the children. But an immortal rich person is just going to keep getting richer. The same goes for a politically powerful immortal. They keep getting to be more powerful and are never removed by death (well natural death at any rate, I'm sure the descendants will be busy hiring assasins).
In "The Martyr" by Alan E Nourse the invention of immortality puts the breaks on progress. They can only give the treatment to 500 carefully selected people each year, but after a couple of decades the effect is quite noticeable. The starship project stalls because there is no motivation to get things done in a timely fashion. Since each treatment adds another sixty years to your life, why not spend yet another year on starship testing just to be absolutely sure? And the politicians start becoming permanent fixtures. With each decade they just add to their repertoire of dirty political tricks, new novice politicians don't stand a chance. Stagnation.
The "lack of pressure" drawback is also featured in Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield, in chapter 29.
In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun the Spacers have a lifespan of 400 years or so. They become hypercautious and terrified of disease, since they have so many more years to lose than a filthy Earthman with their three-score and ten. Spacers are also unbelievably conservative and resistant to change.
In many science fiction stories the supreme enemy of an immortal being is boredom. After ten-thousand years or so it is almost impossible for an immortal to find anything new, or even anything they've only encountered five hundred times before. In The Lost Worlds of 2001 Arthur C. Clarke said "There were few things that an immortal welcomed and valued more greatly than surprise; when there was none left in the universe, it would be time to die." This is explored in Raymond Z. Gallun's The Eden Cycle and Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time sequence where the protagonists must go to extreme and absurd lengths to keep ennui at bay.
In the role playing game The Burning Wheel, the Elves are immortal. As a consequence they are elegiac, tragic, and constantly grief-stricken. After all, the longer you live, the larger the number of friends you have seen die (generally in combat). Us older people have experienced a mild version of this: the older you get, the more of your beloved TV and movie actors you loved from childhood depart for that big silver screen in the sky. Especially in the year 2016.
In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End Captain Teague tells Jack Sparrow: "It's not just about living forever, Jackie. The trick is living with yourself forever."
In Glen Cook's The Dragon Never Sleeps people periodically make brain recordings as a backup. If they are killed, a new cloned body can be quickly warmed up and impressed with the latest recording for an instant resurrection. Sort of like playing a computer role playing game and saving the game periodically in case your player character unexpectedly dies. In fact, if the body of the dear departed has a brain that is not too damaged, it can be scanned to proved a back up more recent than the last brain recording.
However, since the powerful Houses in the novel are about as peaceful and innocent as the ones in The Game of Thrones, assassination is commonplace. So much so that a specialized weapon was developed: the skull-splitter. It fires a bullet of compressed metallic sodium which will totally fry the victim's brain beyond all hope of scanning. In other words is it a weapon specifically optimized to screw up the target's resurrection. Granted, it only eliminates the person's memories between now and the last backup recording, but that can be useful in carefully crafted political plots.
But immortality is not all bad. It comes in handy with slower-than-light space travel. Or even faster-than-light, the "anti-agathic" immortality drugs of James Blish's Cities In Flight series were developed because star travel at 20c still consumes a huge chunk of one's lifespan. In Robert Forward's Rocheworld, the drug No-Die slows the aging process to one-fourth the normal rate. Unfortunately it temporarily lowers intelligence by roughly the same factor. It is needed because the STL laser light-sail is going to take 42 years to fly to Barnard's Star, and a crew of retirement-age astronauts would do an exceedingly poor job of exploration.
Science fiction authors are also fond of teasing the reader about immortality. In Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo? by Gerald Kersh the protagonist meets the eponymous Cuckoo who was born in 1507. He suffered a severe head trauma, and was treated by mad doctor Ambroise Paré with The Digestive (a concoction of oil of roses, honey, turpentine, and egg whites). This makes Cuckoo both immortal and invulnerable. Cuckoo wants to buy a farm to produce the needed ingredients so he can make a fortune selling The Digestive.
The protagonist torpeodes Cuckoo's plan by pointing out the wide variations in bee honey, eggs, et al. The chances of recreating the formula by using such organic ingredients is zilch.
Tales of technology turning civilizations into worthless decadent people dates back at least to H. G. Well's The Time Machine (1895), with the pathetic Eloi and brutal Morlocks. Things have only accelerated since then. Some such stories have become quaint, overtaken by events. E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1901) has people living in little cubbies, their only activity is using a sort of video conferencing machine to communicate with others. Sounds to me like present day guys living in their mother's basement, doing little else besides trolling Facebook and Twitter.
I remember people predicting the downfall of Western Civilization due to the invention of the TV remote control. Just think about a generation of couch potatos too lazy to get up, walk to the TV set, and change the channel. Actually, such predictions were not far off the mark.
Many science fiction stories with faster-than-light starships feature civilian commercial starships that can ship freight over interstellar distances at about the same transport cost as modern-day cargo aircraft.
While an era where long-established starships exists makes for a safe and familiar sci-fi background for the readers, authors should keep in mind that in the historical era where casual FTL starships are first invented, times are going to be stark raving nuts. Disruptive innovation is putting it mildly.
For instance, corporations found it most lucrative back in the days of company mining and logging camps. The employees were not paid in money, but instead in company scrip. The company scrip could only be spent in the company store. Due to this Truck system, the employees more often than not wound up owing their soul to the company store.
With casual FTL travel, they can set up company planets. Located light-years beyond the jurisdiction of any Terran nation. Most disruptive indeed.
Casual interplanetary travel may be similar on a smaller scale. However, sharing the same solar system as Terra means warships from various nations will be closer at hand to keep corporations et al on a shorter leash.
The idea is that every person will be given a computerized device at birth which will will stay with them, teaching them and learning their owner's personality. They could even take over dull routine tasks like answering the telephone. They would also record more or less everything their user sees, hears, and otherwise experiences for their entire life. Sort of a backup memory.
Stealing such a device would be tandamount to stealing a person's entire life. Example: movie Taking Care of Business, except more so. There will also have to be laws against the police subpoenaing a person's electronic companion, something along the lines of spousal privilege.
Also, the device could assist a child while growing up; example: the nanotechnology educational book given to Nellodee in The Diamond Age. Such a device could also mold and brainwash a child; example: I Always Do What Teddy Says.
With respect to an electronic companion substituting for you over the telephone, there was a recent article titled: Tired of texting? Google tests robot to chat with friends for you. The Fark.com version of the headline was "Google tests robot to chat with friends for you, so you could be dead for weeks before they know it"
Drugs that amplify intelligence (temporarily or permanently) are called Nootropics (aka smart drugs, memory enhancers, neuro enhancers, cognitive enhancers, and intelligence enhancers).
Examples from science fiction include R-47 from Gordon Dickson's THE R-MASTER, “VC” (viral coefficient) from John Brunner's THE STONE THAT NEVER CAME DOWN, "Hormone K Treatment" from Ted Chiang's UNDERSTAND, Methuen Treatment from L. Sprage de Camp's THE EXHALTED, NZT-48 from the movie LIMITLESS and CPH4 from the movie LUCY.
A Brain-Computer Interface replaces the standard interaction between person and computer via monitor, keyboard, and mouse with something a little more intimate. The comptuter is connected direcly to your brain via implanted electrodes or something like that. Imagine a USB port in your skull. See the above link for details.
In the intelligence amplification category, such an interface can allow such IQ accelerating techniques as querying Google at the speed of thought and providing a math coprocessor for your brain.
In William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive are datachips called "skill softs." If you need to speak Mandarin Chinese, pop in a Mandarin skill soft into the chip port on your skull. Ditto nuclear physics, cordon bleu chief, or military strategist. Skill softs for physical skills like karate, sharpshooting, and jet fighter pilot will require additional interfaces to your reflex nervous system. Skill softs are Upgrade Artifacts.
In James White Sector General science fiction novels if for instance, a human surgeon had to operate on a Melfan patient, the surgeon would be temporarily imprinted with an appropriate memory tape. This is a brain recording of an alien surgeon who is an expert in the required surgery. The trouble is the brain recording is not just the surgical skill, it is all the alien's memories. So the poor surgeon has an alien split-personality as long as they are imprinted. The memory tape is erased from the surgeon's brain immediately afterwards. Diagnosticians are entities who have such mental stability that they can hold multiple brain recordings simultaneously. They use this cross-knowledge to do original research.
The movie Brainstorm noted how such an interface can be used to record an experience on tape and play it back so another person can experience the same things. Eating a meal at a five-star restaurant, sky-diving, traveling to exotic places. Not to mention pornographic applications. They didn't go into it in the movie but such an interface can be used to directly connect two people together, creating a sort of computer assisted telepathy.
From the person's standpoint, it appears like their mind is moved out of their meat body and transferred into a computer.
From an outside view it looks more like an incredibly advanced computer program is written which can perfectly simulate your memories, thoughts, and personality. The meat person still exists, they are a little dubious about this perfect simulation software running in the computer in the next room. Yes, this opens a screaming can of flailing worms full of questions about what is identity and related matters.
This is part of the Digital Crew Concept for slower-than-light starships, since uploaded people only require a computer, they have no mass and require no consumables.
Note this can result in the extinction of the human race by Existential Risk 6.1 Take-over by a transcending upload.
Mind control, now there's a concept guaranteed to frighten almost every rational being. The concept of brainwashing has been around since the 1950s. The concept of deprogramming a person back to quote "Normal" unquote is more recent. The fear is that future advances in technology will make brainwashing easier and more efficient.
There are also zillions of science fiction stories about alien parasites that burrow into a victim's body and take over control of their brain. Examples include the neural parasite from ST:TNG Conspiracy, The Invisibles from The Outer Limits, the slug from The Hidden, the energy being from Kronos, and Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters.
The movie Invaders from Mars used a less efficient technique, they surgically emplanted mind-control crystals into Earthlings to transform them into brainwashed agents. A similar technique was used in the movie Uchū Daisensō (Battle in Outer Space) to mind-control Dr. Ahmed.
In Babylon 5 people convicted of a capital crime were not put to death. Instead they suffered "Death Of Personality", where their personality was erased and imprinted with an artificial personality. The new personality was slanted to altruism and public service, so the new person would in a small way repay their debt to society. The old personality was gone, executed.
In the novel Dune, "Imperial Conditioning" rendered a person almost incapable of taking a human life. Such people were highly prized by leaders who have to deal almost daily with assasination attempts. Nice to have at least one person around that you can turn your back on.
In Damon Knight's Analogues series asocial behavior is dealt with by giving the person an "analogue", a mental imprint of an authority figure that intervenes whenever violent or otherwise harmful acts are contemplated. What you wind up with is a society where everybody is foaming-at-the-mouth insane on the inside, but their analogue forces them to act like they are sane. Things get really bad when the world splits into smaller nations, each with different definitions of what constitutes "asocial behavior." In one, not maxing out your credit card is considered asocial by the powers that be.
In Robert Heinlein's Coventry convicted criminals can undergo brainwashing or they can be sent to Coventry. This is a huge walled-off area where the rule of law does not apply. Dog-eat-dog, every man for themself.
In Tom Corbett: On The Trail Of The Space Pirates, people convicted of serious crimes have a choice of undergoing psychotherapeutic readjustment or exile for life on the Prison Asteroid. The asteroid dwellers can opt for psychoadjustment at any time, but most are such hard bitten criminals that they'd rather die.
In the ST:TAS Mudd's Passion at the end of the episode interstellar rogue Harcourt Fenton Mudd resignedly tells Mr. Spock he supposes he'll get rehabilitation therapy for his crimes, again. Spock says that he can guarantee it.
In Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange the sociopathic protagonist is convicted of first-degree murder. In exchange for commuting the rest of his prison sentence he agrees to undergo the Ludovico Technique. This is a species of aversion therapy to condition him to become severely ill at the mere thought of violence. Hilarity ensues.
In the Star Wars movies, Jedi Knights and Sith can use the force to implant suggestions into minds of the weak-willed. "These are not the droids you are looking for…"
In Phillip High's The Prodigal Sun, the police state control malcontents by brain programming. They are given a little book called Programme. It lists all the things they are forbidden to do or think. If they transgress, their brain programming gives them ten seconds of agonizing pain. They then have to frantically leaf through the book to figure out what they did wrong. By simple operant conditioning they will become perfect little police state drones after a couple of years of this.
There is a tradition in science fiction stories of people pretending that they have magic powers but are actually using high-tech devices hidden about their person. TV Tropes calls this Magic from Technology. To give them their due, some use tech that is so high it invokes Clarke's Third Law, so the question of whether this is fakery or not is moot. If a technomage can point their finger and the target is incinerated by lightning, does it matter if it was done with a magic spell or with a miniaturized particle beam weapon? Incinerated is incinerated.
A related concept is Magitek.
The United States is conquered by an Asian Empire called PanAsia. But at the last moment, a hidden military lab makes a scientific breakthrough. The lab now has the secret to weapons of Doc Smithian power and other cool gadgets. Unfortunately they are only seven men in a nation occupied by zillions of PanAsia troops. What can they do?
The scientists want to start an underground rebellion. But you need large groups to spread the conspiracy, and the Empire has forbidden large gatherings. However there is one loophole: religious worship allows large gatherings. The asians know how touchy an occupied nation is about their religions.
So the scientists invent a crazy religion with ridiculous deities. The asians don't notice anything odd since this new religion looks just as inscrutable as the other US religions. The occupied populance can see this is odd, but the religious services offer a free lunch. The high tech devices can do things like cure cancer and other diseases, which also attracts "worshipers." The congregations soon notice things such as all the hymns are being to the tune of forbidden US patriotic songs. And the sermons are full of dog-whistles about undercover resistance. The priests are on the look out for particularly intelligent and motivated members of the congregation. They are vetted and recruited into the rebellion.
For "religious" reasons the priests have to wear large floppy robes with turbans, to allow more space to hide high-tech devices hidden about their person. The turbans conceal communciation devices, and a bit of tech that makes the illusion of a halo. Their sacred walking staffs are energy projectors, emitting rays that can heal, transmute lead into gold, and disintegrate. Since the staffs are important to the religion this gets around the PanAsian ban on weapons. Their belts contain a force field generator.
When the final battle occurs, there is a particularly striking image. For psychological purposes, they use a holographic feature to create the illusion of one of the priests as tall as a skyscraper, sending rays of death and destruction into the PanAsia troops.
The Singularity is a theoretical event where computer artificial intelligence escapes control and Everything Changes. If an AI figures out how to improve its intelligence, the Singularity will happen rather quickly because computers can do a gazillion mathematical calculations in a fraction of a second. It took mankind about 300,000 years to go from the Middle Paleolithic to present-day knowledge, a crude AI could do that much in about four months.
Charles Stross calls it "The Rapture Of The Nerds", because Singularity fans talk about it in terms one generally only hears among eschatologists. Human history will come to an end, beer will be five cents a pint, everybody will have their brain uploaded into the paradise of a hyper interstellar internet, there to live out a blissful immortality while being all watched over by machines of loving grace. And it is going to happen Real Soon Now.
But both predictions are meaningless, since the point of a singularity is it signals where the math breaks down and future prediction is impossible. Sort of like a historical event horizon. Any prediction you make is revealing more about the hopes and fears lurking inside your personality than it is the actual details of the post-Singularity future.
Anyway the label was first mentioned by Stanislaw Ulam in 1958. But it was popularized by Vernor Vinge to the point where pretty much every science fiction author has at least heard the term. Of course there have been a few science fiction stories written about it.
Vinge is of the opinion that the Singularity will strike the instant that some entity appears that is "Superintelligent." It will then work its will, and the human history will vanish into the unpredictable event horizon of the Singularity. Vinge figures this can happen four different ways:
- A computer may be developed that is both awake and superhumanly intelligent. This might be from some human genius who builds a very smart machine, or by a human who makes a computer capable of such recursive self-improvement that when the human's back is turned the computer undergoes an intelligence explosion, bootstrapping itself into superintellence.
- A large computer network may "wake up" as a superintelligent entity. Arthur C. Clarke used this in his 1965 story Dial "F" for Frankenstein when the telephone system wakes up. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind is the internet, which is a disturbing thought. Blasted thing will have 4chan for a dark subconscious.
- A computer/brain interface may become so intimate that the users will be for all intents and purposes superintelligent.
- There may be no computers involved at all. Biological science might be able to grant human beings the power of superintelligence.
Naturally once you have a superintelligent being, there is nothing stopping it from creating a super-superintelligent being, and so on.
This is the nightmare Skynet Scenario, with hordes of Terminator robots hunting down humans with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, crunching human skulls underfoot. Once the rogue artificial intelligence is created, it decided to exterminate the human race for reasons that make sense to its cybernetic mind.
Less evil but still deadly is death by paper-clip maximizer. Here the AI is not actively trying to exterminate humanity. Instead it has a goal (the thought experiment has the goal of manufacturing as many paper-clips as possible). The problem is that the AI sees planets, ecosystems, and human beings themselves to just be convenient sources of raw materials for paper-clip manufacture.
Even less evil abet still deadly (and terribly selfish) is death by indifference. When humans decide to build an appartment complex, they give zero consideration to all the ant-hills and ants that will be totally annhilated by the project. For the most part they do not even notice that the ant-hills exist. By the same token, an AI trying to build a hyperspace by-pass will give zero consideration to Terra and all the humans living on it if the planet has to be demolished because it is in the way.