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Some ideas for science fiction in the 2020s
The future ain't what it used to be.
Yes, OK, I know this is supposed to be an economics blog, where I explain things like banking crises and interest rates and whatnot. But this week for some reason I’m just in a mood to blog about futurism and technology. So here’s one more of those.
As you all know, I’m a big sci-fi fan. In recent years, I’ve felt that near-future sci-fi visions have gotten a bit stale — either recycling old cyberpunk tropes, sinking into eco-doomerism, or chasing the market with YA fluff. That’s fine — tropes and fluff are fun, and writers have to write what readers want to read. But I’m a bit nostalgic for the early cyberpunk days, where the subgenre of near-future visions based on computerization and inequality felt fresh and new. In a world where those cyberpunk tropes have mostly become reality, I’m excited to see what kind of futures authors can imagine for the year 2073.
I’m no fiction author, so I won’t be writing those visions myself. But I thought I’d write up a series of tropes that I think could make for very interesting and fun visions of the near future, based largely on extrapolation from recent trends. These aren’t predictions of what the real future will actually be like; after all, as Margaret Atwood says, “sci-fi is really about now”.
The fight in the phone booth
Most stories need a good external conflict. In far-future sci-fi this is usually pretty easy to produce — it’s an evil star empire or a godlike AI or a space cult releasing a nano-plague, etc. But near-future sci-fi can have a difficult time with this, because it’s very easy to imagine that a major international conflict will just result in nuclear war — and then we’re into the realm of the post-apocalyptic. Failing that, the bad guys have to be smaller-bore stuff — an evil corporation, a terrorist organization, Disney, or whatever. Usually this results in a sort of cloak-and-dagger, spy-vs-spy, cops-and-robbers sort of plot, which is typical in cyberpunk fiction.
But the Ukraine War has suggested a future where great powers can engage in intense, full-scale conventional warfare without resorting to nukes (knock on wood). The importance of HIMARS, drones, and hypersonic missiles in Ukraine suggests that this sort of conflict will be fought with increasingly smarter and longer-range conventional weapons. Meanwhile, the emerging Cold War 2 with China and Russia has shown that nuclear-armed great powers can fight each other directly, if they restrict their attacks to things like cyberwarfare, “information operations”, and combat between uncrewed vehicles — things that don’t warrant all-out warfare in response.
Of course, all of this conflict takes place on a planet Earth that seems to be shrinking every day, thanks to modern communications networks like Starlink and 5G, as well as social media discourse and the web of global commerce and supply chains. High-stakes conflicts thus increasingly resemble a “fight in a phone booth” — nations or other actors trying to strike at each other from as long a range as possible while being bound ever more tightly together. That could provide some very thrilling and interesting external conflicts for sci-fi stories. I haven’t yet seen many stories like this — Paul J. McAuley’s The Quiet War comes to mind, and that was back in 2008.
Drones as the universal weapon
On a similar note, most sci-fi still features guns as the main weapons with which kinetic conflicts are fought. But the Ukraine war is demonstrating a sea change in the technology of violence — while soldiers still carry rifles, they’re now more of a sidearm, with grenade-armed quadcopter drones increasingly being the method by which regular infantry fights each other. You could imagine a similar shift in urban combat, where instead of trying to shoot each other, opponents send out drones to hunt each other down (and those drones then battle it out). That would make for fight scenes very unlike the ones that now prevail.
In fact, a few sci-fi authors have envisioned a future like that — Daniel Suarez’ Kill Decision and Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime, for example — but I have yet to see drone combat get codified into a form as fun and standardized and recognizable as the gunfight or swordfight or starship duel or mecha battle.
A world alive with robots
It’s not just drones that are going to be increasingly ubiquitous in our world; it’s robots of all types. Lithium-ion batteries have made it possible for energy to be carried around in very small packets, at very low cost. And advances in AI allow robots, either individually or in groups, to do much more on their own. This seems like it could lead to a golden age of robots.
Most robot-centric sci-fi — Isaac Asmov’s Robot series, Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, or Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous — tends to deal with androids, because it’s easy to make androids into human-like protagonists that resonate with human readers. And many hard sci-fi stories incorporate self-assembling robots or robot swarms as plot points. But I’d like to see near-future worlds where it’s just normal and accepted that robots do many of the small physical tasks in the world, from stocking shelves to washing dishes to building skyscrapers to cleaning solar panels. Obviously, repurposing these systems of little robots, whether by hacking them or simply using them for some special purpose, could be a major plot point in tons of stories.
Interestingly, I’ve only seen a little bit of near-future sci-fi where a roboticized world really stands out, though I’m sure there’s some that I just haven’t read.
The age of lies
The internet is supposed to be about information, but some sci-fi writers — e.g. Vernor Vinge — saw very quickly that it would unleash a flood of misinformation. The combination of anonymity and virality have driven the cost of Big Lies to zero, and we’re just starting to discover what that means for human society. And we may just be getting started — GPTs and other LLMs have amazing conversational ability and zero understanding of the difference between truth and fiction. In the wrong hands — or even in the right hands! — AI thus has the potential to be a God of Lies, spamming our already hopelessly contaminated information ecosystem with plausible-sounding falsehoods.
It would be very interesting to read sci-fi in which simply ascertaining truth from falsehood was a constant and onerous task. I can think of a couple of stories that center around this challenge — Malka Older’s Informocracy, or Ursula LeGuin’s delightfully weird City of Illusions. But it would be interesting to have the ubiquity of online lies relegated the background of futuristic narratives, like the need to find a place to sleep.
Incommensurability as the new inequality
More subtle than the proliferation of falsehoods — but perhaps even more deeply transformative — is the way the internet has fragmented the information context of the human race. With large centralized sources of information (TV and radio, big newspapers, the Catholic Church) replaced by a kaleidoscope of social media echo chambers, our capacity for shared consensus reality has broken down. You might think everyone knows that Covid vaccines work, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was unprovoked aggression, Trump lost the 2020 election, and gender is a social construct — and then you might run into someone who just takes it for granted that everyone knows the exact opposite of these things. This isn’t just about disagreement — it’s about pockets of strong agreement that suffer from epistemic closure due to a fragmented information ecosystem.
Sci-fi could draw on this trend for a vast array of interesting plot points. Normally, if sci-fi depicts a group of people who has a bunch of weird, seemingly insane beliefs about the world, it’s because they’ve been isolated — a post-apocalyptic tribe, or people marooned on a world cut off from galactic civilization, etc. But with the internet, you can encounter weird belief-bubbles like this anywhere you go. And the people who believe the weird stuff might decide to do very nasty things to Our Heroes — or help them in unexpected ways, or just require some skillful fast-talking to deal with (possibly with the help of GPT).
Worldview incommensurability could even function as the background reality of a world gone mad, similar to the way economic inequality forms the backdrop of many cyberpunk stories. Cory Doctorow has already experimented with some worlds like this, though his characters have a tendency to info-dump their weird worldview instead of forcing the reader to realize that they’re dealing with an alternate reality.
The transparent society
David Brin’s 1999 book The Transparent Society was a remarkably prescient work of nonfiction futurism. A quarter century later, much of what he envisioned has come to pass. The ubiquity of cameras, internet data trails, and location-tracking cell phones has dramatically reduced humanity’s ability to keep secrets. We’re already seeing the dystopian results of universal surveillance in China and the rise of “surveillance capitalism” everywhere, while the disruptive effects of “sousveillance” are still making themselves felt throughout Western society.
This gives sci-fi writers the opportunity to tell stories about universal transparency that diverge from the canonical Big Brother of Orwell’s 1984. Universal government surveillance could have a far gentler and more subtle presence in our lives — a form of behavior control and thought control that goes unspoken and usually unnoticed. Rebelling against that control could provide a whole lot of interesting plots. And people’s increased ability to record and snoop on each other could be even more interesting as a plot point.
Compute as a scarce resource
We’ve grown up in the era of Moore’s Law, where it was just assumed that compute costs would go to zero over time (this is one reason why technologists have difficulty with the idea that AI will be subject to comparative advantage in the labor market; they mentally set AI’s resource costs at zero). This has led to all sorts of fabulous far-future extrapolations of Dyson swarms, self-replicating robots turning whole worlds into computronium, galaxy-reshaping AI gods, and so on. That’s cool! But also cool is the future where Moore’s Law peters out, or the cost of computation eats the world’s energy supplies, and compute becomes something that companies and nations and other organizations fight over like oil.
Surprisingly, I haven’t seen much sci-fi explore a world of limited, costly computation (though I’m sure you can all recommend some in the comments). External conflict typically requires some scarce resource for people to fight over, and in a near future where compute can give you access to marvelous things — godlike AIs, autonomous drone swarms, etc. — it would be interesting to see gaining control of scarce compute become a central plot point.
AI-hackers and drone-slingers
Every good genre needs its quintessential hero — the samurai, the cowboy, the space fighter pilot, the starship captain. In cyberpunk sci-fi these were the hacker — typified by Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Hiro Protagonist in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — and the bio-modified “street samurai”. Armed with esoteric knowledge of computer systems, the hacker can repurpose a computerized world to their desired ends. And a bio-modified champion is basically a superhero in a physical fight.
What kind of lone human heroes make similar sense in a near-future world dominated by AI and robots and drones and the internet? Perhaps an updated version of a hacker who knows how to prompt AI to do unusual feats — more like a summoner than a wizard. Buddy stories about a human protagonist with a trusted AI companion are immediately appealing (interestingly, the best example I’ve seen of this comes from fantasy — the Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz stories by Garth Nix). Another possibility is a drone-slinger who battles other drone-slingers in the gritty streets of a megalopolis, or in a chaotic war zone, or wherever.
Anyway, these are just a few ideas for how sci-fi writers might build exciting visions of the world of 2073 that don't rely on recycling the tropes of the 80s and 90s or writing one more eco-doomer tale about the fallen world after climate change. I'm sure you can all think of some additions to this list — and some examples of authors who are writing these visions right now.