Invisible Future by Susan Price

'Going to the Opera in the year 2000' - as imagined in 1882. By Albert Robida

     I was in the pub with some of my favourite people, talking and talking. The topic, this time, was science-fiction we have known and loved, and what it made of the future we're living in now.
     My brother Andrew said, "What they didn't foresee was that the future would be invisible."
     We all turned on him at once, and urged him to explain what he meant.
     "Take that high street out there. Back in the 50s and 60s, they thought it was going to be full of glass buildings with triangular doors that slide sideways to open. All the people dressed in skin tight silver foil - but nobody walking because they'd all be flying through the air in little flying cars. And no pubs, like this, serving food, because everybody would just take pills instead of eating. Big changes, you see. That's what they thought about. When you wanted to make a phone call, there'd be a huge great video screen for you to make a video call."
     "There'd be some people on foot - but they'd be sliding along on moving pavements," somebody else said.
     "Making it hard to run away when Godzilla appears," said Adam, my other brother.
     "But go outside now," Andrew said, "and it looks almost exactly as it did sixty years ago. The same buildings, the same road. Okay, maybe the buildings have bigger windows, some of them. Different signs. But it's not changed much - I mean, look at these photos." (The pub had photographs of the locality from a hundred years ago on its walls.) "Funny old fashioned delivery vans - the people are wearing old fashioned clothes - but it's still pretty much the same - same buildings, traffic in the street, people on the pavements."
     "But you said the future's invisible," I said.
     "Well, where are the giant video phones? Even 'Bladerunner' has one. Instead, it's a pretty safe bet that everybody in this pub has some kind of tiny little mobile phone that's invisible because it's in their pocket, or their bag. And even the very basic phones for senior citizens - " this with a kindly nod to me. " - have got cameras on them, and can text.
'Evening attire in 1952' - as imagined in 1882 - from Paleofuture
     "The science-fiction writers all thought of big changes. They thought of outlandish clothes, and that hasn't happened. There are lots of superficial changes in cut and trimmings, and materials have changed, but we're still wearing pretty much what we were wearing a hundred years ago. We're still eating real food - yeah, yeah, I know you're going to start saying it's adulterated and unhealthy, but what I mean is, it still comes in big lumps that we have to bite and chew. It might be full of poly-this and poly-that, and synthetic and lacking in real nutrition - but it's not a pill. You can't see the change. It's invisible.
     "They imagined wars fought with giant robots or soldiers wearing exo-skeletons - but wars will be fought invisibly by hackers planting code in the enemies' computers, which makes their power stations overheat, disrupts their fuel-supplies and electronically seals all the chocolate up in the warehouses."
     There was general shock and horror around the table at this outrage.
     "Cars have improved," the bro went on, "and they've all become more aerodynamic and more similar in style - no great fins and huge square boxy shapes. But they're still recognisable as cars. They still roll along the ground. You still drive them to airports and catch boring old planes. Nobody's whizzing over the roof-tops in them, or taking off from their back-yard with one of those personal jet-packs they promised us."
From the wonderful archive at Paleofuture

     "Oh, get over the personal jet-pack," Adam said. "Forget it. You'd never cough up for one, even if Amazon was selling them."
     "Amazon! The old writers sussed a lot, but they never saw Amazon in the tea-leaves. They'd be really disappointed - at first glance, anyway - if they could come back and see things now. None of the wonders they dreamed of are here.
     "The really big change is invisible. That's what I mean. They wouldn't be able to see, looking around, that almost every single person they see is invisibly connected to everyone else, almost all the time. They wouldn't be able to see that this pub - and every other shop on this high street - is connected invisibly to warehouses and head-offices. That people are sitting in here, buying things from Amazon on their tiny little phones. Music supplied invisibly. The Isle is full of voices."
     "My new little basic, senior citizen's phone," I said, "has an app you can set up to send SOS messages. You preset the people you want to SOS - and then in time of need, you press the dial key four times. Isn't that brilliant? - And if somebody steals it and tries to put another SIM card in it, it shouts out for help and tells you where it is - like the Giant's harp when Jack steals it."
     This produced a short silence.
     "And the mobile signal can be used to trace where someone is," Patti said, bringing us back from fairyland..
     "CCTV watching on practically every street," said someone else. "And connecting back to a network."
     "Google Earth," someone else said.
     "Big Brother."
     "Well, okay, George Orwell got some things right. But not the giant video screens. The Big Brother of our future won't need giant video screens. He'll control us through tiny implanted chips. Implanted at birth."
     "Nano-bots," Andrew said. "Crawling through your arteries, targeting tumours. Microbial robots. The future's invisible. And you read about it on an e-reader inserted in your retina. Invisible!"

     My personal take on the future, at the end of this link, involves the worship of ancient Norse Gods via computers, and bio domes on Mars.

All the images in this blog come from the wonderful 


Lee said…
I don't measure SF by its predictability, which is ify at the best of times. Getting it right means, aside from decent sentences, what we understand about people. And the truly alien is unimaginable anyway.

There's a whole crop of wonderful SF writers out there now, and of course many writers who use traditionally SFonal elements in their fiction.

Nick Green said…
Your brother certainly has a point... most of our migration has been into 'inner space', the cyber world, rather than outer space. In fact that would be my solution to the Fermi Paradox (where are all the ETs?). My answer is that civilisations don't migrate out to the stars, they migrate inwards into technology. In short, ET is too busy on Twitter to speak to us.

However... it's not all been invisible. Massive passenger planes - those are pretty visible, and futuristic. And wars ARE fought by soldiers in techno-skeletons (witness the kit of the SWAT team in Zero Dark Thirty) and by giant robots (we call them drones and cruise missiles).

What the SF writers didn't take into account was that the driving force of progress would be economical, not aspirational/idealistic. We could have jet packs, the tech is there... but economically it just wouldn't fly. (I thank you).
Mari Biella said…
Great post, Susan - a short story in its own right! I'm kind of disappointed that we're not all walking around in silver lamé jumpsuits and travelling in personal spaceships. But Nick has a point - we seem to have switched our attention from outer space to inner space.
Lee said…
Nick, the story isn't over yet. What about space tourism? plans to colonise Mars? But you're undoubtedly right about the economic motivation. (Hasn't it always been so?) So think resources.
Nick Green said…
Here's what I think will happen: we migrate online into vast computers that can store our consciousness indefinitely. Then Keanu Reeves will... [SNIP] I mean, then these machines will themselves be able to venture out into space, now that they are more enduring than the organic squishy water-bags that we are.

So humanity will eventually conquer the stars (we'll have to, as our sun will one day go kerblootz) but it won't be as people... we'll be giant gestalt entities, living spaceships. Until we've turned the whole universe into machines like ourselves.

There is a theory that this has already happened, and that the whole cosmos is an artifact.

Keanu: Woah!
Lee said…
That explains it, then, Nick - why I often feel like a machine, especially when I'm on to the third load of laundry in a morning.
Lydia Bennet said…
great to see such a discussable post Susan, SF has always had problems escaping from its own time and culture - I remember reading with irritation SF about the future (written in 50s and 60s) with all sorts of gadgets but women still housewives in the kitchen! History is a cycle more than a straight line so we are just as likely to return to an agricultural tribal existence as to head to mars in silver suits. All our technology depends on power and of course as Nick points out, money. Even in the 30s and 40s, for example, quite a lot of fairly affluent but not millionaire standard people (eg my ex ma in law's bro) owned planes, little 'flying fleas' made of wood and fabric which they parked randomly in fields, and it seemed everyone would have one eventually, yet that didn't happen.
Lee said…
BTW, Susan, I don't find a lot of stuff invisible - or at least inaudible. Just sit in a pub or train with all those people using their mobiles. Or the folks walking down the street and seemingly talking to themselves.
I have selective attention when it comes to Keanu Reeves. Like Homer Simpson with beer or donuts. Keanu. My one weakness. What was that you were saying?
madwippitt said…
My mobile trumps your mobile ... no apps, and not even a camera function. Currently saving up for a nice old-fangled ear trumpet ...
Bob Newman said…
I was brought up (having read "New Maps of Hell" etc) to think that SF stood for "speculative fiction" rather than "science fiction", and that predicting developments in technology wasn't really the point - thought it's a neat trick if you can bring it off. The point of Wells's "The Time Machine", for instance, wasn't that it was predicting that time travel could ever be possible; it was its warnings about the future. I've never liked the modern abbreviation "Sci-Fi" because to me it's an abbreviation of the wrong thing. Nevertheless, Sue and her brother make some interesting points...
Susan Price said…
Lee - no one around that pub table, least of all me, intended any slight to SF writers. The bros and me all love SF - and agree that accurately predicting the future isn't really the point. Agree with you too, Bob - speculating endlessly on past and future, without any conclusion being possible - but lots of fierce arguments along the way - is one of my favouritest pastimes.

My only real intention - and it seems I've done it - was to start people arguing. Or, failing that, discussing.

Nick - some very interesting points - but Mari, I thank all the gods that uniform silver lame never came about. I would look beyond hideous in skin-tight silver lame. As would the greater part of the population. Just imagine the crowd you last passed on the high street, all in skin tight silver lame. The horror the horror.
Nick Green said…
The skin tight silver lame is another interesting one. I think this is an interesting case of the requirements of fiction muscling on the ideas.

SF films would go for something like silver suits because they had to look instantly different - the audience had to know at a glance that this was the future. So it was a theatrical device, really (like kabuki theatre dressing ninjas all in black... real ninjas never really wore that stuff, it was just so ninja characters would be invisible on stage).

So a theatrical device somehow ends up as a prediction of the future, with no rhyme or reason beyond the fact that it 'looked different'. Fiction is powerful stuff.
Susan Price said…
Another excellent point, Nick!
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