Comic-Con took a break from media frenzy to have a thoughtful moment with a panel featuring some of the most interesting contemporary science fiction writers in print right now: Robert J. Sawyer (Rollback), Ann Aguirre (Grimspace), Tobias S. Buckell (Ragamuffin), Alan Dean Foster (author of more than 100 books), Charles Stross (Saturn's Children), and John Zakour (Dangerous Dames). Moderator Maryelizabeth Hart, from Mysterious Galaxy, did a great job steering the table packed with writers into interesting discussions about whether scifi can keep up with scientific and social changes — and changes they predict we'll see in the future.

Buckell said it's daunting to keep up with the tech field, especially when a movie like Apollo 13 feels like steampunk. He added:

For all of the computing power they had, they were using nuts and bolts and analog machines and flipping switches. It's amazing they did it with the tech they had. I don't think scifi raised our expectations — the Apollo program did it. It did something amazing, and we're now just catching up to doing that stuff again without being completely nuts.

Foster joked:

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Somebody should write a book about a science fiction writer who can never finish a novel because the technology keeps changing and he has to keep rewriting it. Of course, I'm not going to write that book. My favorite scientific developments are ones nobody sees coming. One of my favorites from the last few years: Chocolate is good for you.

Aguirre mentioned that she "goes dateless" with her books, meaning that she completely avoids the question of how far in the future they're set. But she also reads Wired and Discover to find out what kinds of technology is emerging. She explained:

I came up with a weapon called a disruptor, based it on the work of Australian researchers who were able to teleport some atoms. I wondered what would happen if they never perfected it, and all it did was scramble your guts instead of teleporting you. You'd turn it into a weapon so that people's guts would come out and they'd die of shock. That's what I like to do in SF.

When an audience member asked the panel about what they thought of longevity technologies, the responses were pretty mixed. Sawyer plugged his new book, Rollback, which is all about longevity. Zakour made the observation — which many have already discussed — that marriages wouldn't be the same. You couldn't stay married to one person for hundreds of years. Stross took the long view, however, saying that marriages are the least of it: If you had a society where nobody was dying, you'd be dealing with a culture so dramatically different that it's practically inconceivable.

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Buckell had one of the most interesting responses to that question, which was to point out the economic stresses that longevity would cause. He pointed out that social security in the US is the largest part of the federal budget largely because people are living longer than ever before. Stross jumped in to add that in Japan, the average age of rice farmers is quite old, and that he thinks part of the reason the Japanese are building robotic exoskeletons is to help the elderly continue farming well into their 70s. Buckell agreed, and pointed out that our greatest advances over the next decades may arise from the unintended consequences of a population essentially outliving its bodies. Hart followed up by saying that longevity also changes the way women live their lives, because now it's likely that women will live almost half their lives post-menopause. Which is another historical novelty whose consequences we can't predict.

Are there caps on technological advancement?

The conversation moved on to talk about how technologies will affect our bodies.

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Aguirre thinks we'll reach a point when you can resculpt your body, as long as you can afford it. People will have bodies designed for certain functions, with incredible specialization. To go to Mars, for example, you'd want adaptations instead of a space suit. Stross said that that issue opens a political can of worms. He believes that conservatives think humans are hardwired, while liberals think they are mutable. With tech that can change humans at a fundamental level, at least one group will see it as a threat (and I think you can guess whom he meant).

Hart asked Zakour rather sarcastically whether the hot babes in his books are all a result of genetic tweaking. He replied, after spluttering a bit, that they probably are. He believes that women are going to become more beautiful, while men remain average. "If you look at TV," he explained, "You get average guy and babes, so that's where society is going." Because TV is where our society is headed?

Sawyer thinks a lot of this advanced biotech and nanotech isn't really about beauty at all. "It means that just one lone mad person could bring the whole species down," he concludes.