Many of science fiction's most rosy ideas of the future seem less and less likely, or they've already failed to materialize on schedule. But the future could still be a beautiful place.
There are still plenty of optimistic science fiction stories that haven't been disproved yet. They don't involve science that's been debunked, or events that were supposed to have happened by now. If you need something to believe in, here are some positive science fiction stories that could still come true.
Top image: Monosquare by Sparth.
Nowadays, it feels like a lot of science fiction is focused on apocalypses and dark challenges. Meanwhile, a lot of the older, more upbeat science fiction is already expired. We didn't colonize Mars by the year 2000. The Eugenics Wars didn't happen. A lot of magical technologies, like faster-than-light travel, are seeming less and less plausible. We seem no closer to eliminating war and famine and other scourges.
So what positive, hopeful science fiction stories could you still believe are real — or at least make a case for? Here are some suggestions.
What it's about: This is probably the most classic utopian future that everybody has seen. It's the year 2062, and everybody's living in middle class paradise. It's apparently a post-scarcity society. American manufacturing is alive and well, and George only needs to work nine hours a week to provide for a stay-at-home wife, his two children, and a dog. There don't appear to be any poor people — in the Christmas episode, which is ostensibly a lesson about "giving," Spaceley only learns to "give" George more time off, not to give to the poor. Still, we have no idea what sort of post-apocalyptic mutants might be inhabiting the surface of the Earth in this universe — we never see what's happening on the ground, so it could be a zombie-strewn wasteland down there.
Why it could still happen: We're certainly capable of creating houses in the Jetsons style (just look at the Seattle Space Needle). Just how high we could feasibly build an entire city of them is up for debate, but we have the technology. Flying cars, meanwhile, are still a long way off being practical (although some early versions are reportedly hitting the market next year.) They're also not very socially responsible. Drunk drivers on the street kill people and down telephone poles. Drunk drivers in the air? They'll destroy skyscrapers and smash into electrical transformers. Meanwhile, the Jetson family's "smart house" is looking more and more plausible. Even Rosie the robot is coming closer.
Back to the Future, Part II
What it's about: In the Back to the Future version of 2015, it's basically the 1980s, only with cooler gadgets. Which, judging by the way we dress today, and the way our economy looks, was a pretty accurate guess. And this upbeat 1980s version of the future includes many things that have already come to pass, and are therefore moot. Including ubiquitous surveillance cameras, the influence of Asia on American culture and society, flatscreen TVs, widespread cosmetic surgery, and video games that don't need hands or traditional controllers.
Why it could still happen: There are still some pieces of the BTTF future that remain in question. Including flying cars (see Jetsons for a discussion of them.) There's also a weatherman who predicts the length of a rainstorm's down to the second — we're getting better and better at predicting the weather, but predicting it to such a precise degree would require dozens and dozens of regional weather services, or a weather forecast keyed precisely to the viewer's GPS location.
Also, there are no lawyers, and legal trials only take a couple hours from arrest to conviction and sentencing — which sounds less than utopian, since this would end civil liberties as we know them. This also seems politically non-feasible, since it would require eliminating the Fifth Amendment, and that in turn would mean amending the Constitution.
But more important than civil liberties, what about hoverboards? The good news is that prototypes already exist, and you can build your own from scratch. There are also kits that you can buy and assemble. But we're not quite there in terms of a mass-produced small lightweight hoverboard yet. Four years left!
What it's about: It's the 23rd century, and there's a large O'Neill Cylinder called Babylon 5, which is designed as a gathering place for the sentient species of the galaxy, where they can meet to encourage peace and diplomacy. Instead, it becomes a center of conflict and political intrigues, eventually causing an interstellar war.
Why it could still happen: The political situation in B5 sounds sort of like the United Nations, just on a larger scale. And if there are older alien races, it's probably legit that they'd try to influence our development. Meanwhile, O'Neill Cylinders are pretty legitimate as well. They were proposed by physicist Gerard K. O'Neill in 1976, after he and his Princeton students discussed how to make space living not only possible, but in some way desirable. The O'Neill Cylinder was one outcome of those conversations — they produce artificial gravity by rotating, so that centripetal force comes to bear on their inner surfaces. The central axis of an O'Neill Cylinder, though, is a zero-gravity space. Of course, they're also absurdly expensive and make pretty inefficient use of space and resources. But isn't that the point of living in space? The Epsilon Eridani system, where Babylon 5 is supposedly placed, is pretty habitable.
The aliens are obviously the biggest stretch here. The idea that they would be sentient, able to communicate with us, and desirous of doing so, does stack the odds somewhat.
Meanwhile, there's also the issue of traveling via hyperspace drive, which relies on us finding a way into some other space in which distances are much smaller than they are in regular space. There's still enough research going on about extra dimensions and wormholes that a hyperspace jump drive remains conceivable — if hugely unlikely.
What it's about: This 1915 feminist novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes an isolated society composed entirely of women who reproduce via parthenogenesis. Basically, following a devastating volcano and subsequent slave rebellion, the women are left alone without men. Shortly afterward, a sort of genetic miracle occurs, and five different women find themselves pregnant. The result is "an ideal social order, free of war, conflict and domination."
Why it could still happen: There are no known naturally occurring instances of parthenogenesis (or asexual reproduction) in mammals. There are, however, numerous "virgin births" among snakes, Komodo dragons, and other reptiles. (Although some scientists claim that the females merely stored the sperm for a long time before inseminating.) Meanwhile, two female mammals can create an offspring, with some help from a lab. Kayuga, a Japanese mouse, is fatherless, created from two moms.
Meanwhile, the idea that, in the absence of sexual reproduction, mating behavior would cease, and all would be peaceful, is not entirely supported by the evidence. Among komodo dragons, even in the presence of asexual reproduction, mating behavior continues to occur. This behavior actually increases their fecundity, so it's a relatively important part of the process. Hence, the idea that Herland's women would have no concept of courtship or sexual behavior just because they could asexually reproduce is not supported by the instances of asexual reproduction we've witnessed so far. However, in mammals, the offspring of asexual reproduction tend to have real issues with sexual development. So perhaps the women of Herland's lack of sexual awareness could be a consequence of these developmental changes.
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
What it's about: This is another post-scarcity society, like The Jetsons. (See also some other fairly recent novels, such as Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.) Everybody gets food and other resources for free, and there's a central power grid of sorts called the Feed, which is controlled by one of the phyles, which are the new versions of nations. At one point, we see Feynman, Drexler and Merkle, three real-life figures in nanotechnology, in a fresco. The time period seems ambiguous, but it's probably a century or two into the future.
Why it could still happen: The post-scarcity world seems to involve devices akin to replicators, which are based on nanotechnology. They're basically molecular assemblers based on real-life theories of nanofactories. In 2001 Arthur C. Clarke predicted this tech could exist as early as 2040, although he also predicted human clones by now. Meanwhile, there are personalized newspapers, which are not unlike tablet computers.
The Golden Age by John C. Wright
What it's about: This is basically a libertarian utopia called the Golden Oecumene, which spans the Solar System 10,000 years from now. It's another post-scarcity society in which everybody is nigh-immortal and artificial intelligences called the Sophotechs do most of the work and solve most problems. Nanotechnology is like a second skin, and humans can choose which sensory inputs they receive, from among a huge array. A few people do choose to opt out of this quasi-anarchist utopia, living elsewhere. The elite Manorials never travel anywhere in person, but instead project their consciousness onto the Mentality, which is like the Solar System-wide Internet. Similar books set in the far future, with nearly immortal people and vast civilizations, include Charles Stross' Glasshouse and some of Alastair Reynolds' books like House of Suns.
Why it could still happen: Given that it's 10,000 years from now, it's at least plausible that we could have evolved into immortal post-humans — you can make almost any prediction about the year 12,000 and it's hard to contradict. We're already making huge strides with nanotechnology (artificial muscles!) and artificial intelligence. (At the same time, think about what goes into human-like intelligence: if you ask a computer if it wants chocolate or vanilla ice cream, it will probably answer either "chocolate" or "vanilla." A human will likely choose from answers that include "I don't want any ice cream," "I want both," "I want strawberry instead," and "I don't want ice cream unless there's pie.") Also, this vision of the future might be more plausible than some others, because it relies on technologies like telepresence (which we already have, in crude form) rather than faster-than-light travel.
What it's about: This 2002 role-playing game is set in the year 2100, and somehow we got through the entire 21st Century without any major disasters — instead, we spent the entire century making huge advances in information technology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and nuclear physics. China was the first nation to colonize Mars, and by now there are humans living permanently on the Moon, the Lagrange points, the inner planets and some of Saturn's moons. We've cured cancer and AIDS, restored the ozone layer, and started reviving Earth's ecosystems. Genetic manipulation lets anyone reproduce, including single individuals, same-sex couples, and groups of three or more, plus embryos can be upgraded. And you can back up your consciousness onto disk, in a process known as "brainpeeling" — but downloading multiple copies of the same person is illegal. On the less-utopian tip, there are oppressed slaves called bioroids, and because the elites can expect to live forever, there's less opportunity for young people.
Why it could still happen: Probably the most unlikely thing in this scenario is the "brainpeeling" thing — which is also a staple in books like Doctorow's Magic Kingdom and Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs novels, among others. But we've already made huge strides in reading brain waves via computer. Meanwhile, one of the major staples of the Transhuman Space universe is the use of genetic engineering, including customizing kids to have above-average intelligence and immunity to disease. We're already making strides in pre-natal genetic testing, and it doesn't seem entirely far-fetched that we could be modifying fetuses at some point — if we don't outlaw it. The biggest stumbling block for Transhuman Space is the fact that the 21st Century already looks a lot less "disaster free" than it might have in 2002. But our recent troubles could just be a bump in the road.
The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
What it's about: In 2026, a hundred colonists travel to Mars in a joint Russian-American mission aboard the largest interplanetary spaceship ever, the Ares. Over the course of three books, they succeed in terraforming Mars — although not without a large amount of complications, social unrest and debates along the way. They also discover a treatment that may allow humans to extend our lifespans into the hundreds of years, although access to the treatment becomes a hot-button issue back on Earth. Meanwhile, back on Earth, transnational corporations hold power over governments, and overpopulation and scarce resources cause huge social unrest, so that Mars gets overrun with more colonists and the domination of the TransNats — so it's not exactly a purely utopian future.
Why it could still happen: The actual terraforming of Mars still seems like it could be plausible — it's accomplished by drilling holes in the planet's surface to release subsurface heat and setting off nuclear explosions in the permafrost. This process raises the temperature of the planet to melt the polar ice caps, thus releasing the carbon dioxide within — which can be turned into carbon and oxygen — and creating bodies of water. Unfortunately, most scientists seem to agree that actually raising the temperature of Mars and terraforming the planet could take millennia, not just years. But it's possible that we could find ways to speed up the process — and at least, it's still possible we could be colonizing Mars within our lifetimes.
The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov
What it's about: The books that helped make Paul Krugman an economist feature a huge interstellar civilization, the Galactic Empire, some 20,000 years in the future. There are over 25 million inhabited worlds, with about a quintillion people living on them. Meanwhile, Asimov's story chronicles the invention of a new science called psychohistory, which combines statistics, psychology and history to allow someone to predict the collapse of the Empire and what follows.
Why it could still happen: Predicting human behavior en masse is tricky — some people think it's possible while others are more skeptical. Meanwhile, there's the issue of creating a huge star-spanning civilization. The idea of being able to colonize 25 million worlds is looking more realistic now than it did a while ago, given the rate at which we're discovering exoplanets. And as with Babylon 5, the main mode of travel is the hyperspace jump drive, and at least Asimov makes it clear that dozens of jumps are needed to cross from the far edge of the Milky Way to the central area.
It's also realistic, in that the periphery and the center of the galaxy lose communication with people for centuries at a time, and at one point the later Foundationers don't even know the Empire still exists. Meanwhile, Asimov's series includes no extraterrestrial life, other than extremely simple microscopic organisms that human settlers wiped out eons ago.
What it's about: It's 2183, and Earth is entering a new golden age. The homeworld receives resources from dozens of colonies and hundreds of outposts, which fuels great works of industry, commerce and art. There are still individual nation-states, and the gap between rich and poor widens daily. It's not exactly a utopia, but it is a pretty shiny future.
Why it could still happen: Well... a lot of the scientific advances in this universe — including the FTL travel — depend on the discovery of the fictional Element Zero, which does not exist on Earth. When you expose EZ to an electric current, you can create a "mass effect" which increases or decreases the mass of the objects around it. And you can twist the wording of Special Relativity to say that some tiny particles are capable of moving faster than light constantly — so a strong enough "mass effect" could make a spaceship resemble one of those particles for the time it needs to travel faster than light. Travel throughout the galaxy also happens via a network of "mass relays" that create a corridor in spacetime in which objects are virtually mass-free, and thus can travel huge distances almost instantly.
Other huge advances in this universe, like biotics, also require Element Zero — so a lot depends on whether you choose to believe that we might one day discover such an element. And in that regard, we've got some bad news. Still, at least unlike Star Trek, this futuristic interstellar civilization has some explanation for FTL travel, and doesn't require on a version of the 1990s that already failed to happen.
Additional reporting by Leland Rzepecki, Sophie Bushwick and Alasdair Wilkins.