Where's My Flying Car?

Where's My Flying Car?
From the 360 to the Moon

Susan Arendt | 9 Jan 2007 11:00
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The genius of Verne, and successors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, is that their work taps into our innate desire to achieve. Humans succeed as a species because we're constantly trying to do more, be more, have more, and science fiction feeds that need and gives it shape. We have robots today because of their efficiency, practicality and safety, and while we appreciate them, what we really want are the automatons we've read about since we were kids. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are so ingrained in our consciousness that we feel like we're already halfway to our own robot butler, so we keep trying to make a robot that could pass for human, not because it would be particularly useful or helpful, but simply because we want it.

Without question, science fiction's greatest authors have kick-started the imaginations and lit the inner fires of some of the most important men and women in history, but it seems somewhat unlikely that stories from sci-fi's golden era will provide the same sort of catalyst for the great minds of tomorrow, if only for practical reasons. Though Verne's Nautilus was quite amazing when he first described it in 1870, it becomes slightly less awesome when viewed from a world where you can rent a sub for an hour or two to view pretty fishies on your vacation. Wells' War of the Worlds still makes for a great movie, but invaders from outer space are slightly less intimidating when you're yawning over pictures from the Mars Lander in your morning newspaper. Interstellar travel, once the stuff of dreams, has become so commonplace that we barely notice when the space shuttle launches. There are certainly still ideas to be mined from the classics (I still want my robot butler), but many of the stories that were once viewed as amazing are now simply seen as quaint.

Of course, the obvious answer is that modern sci-fi writers will take on the role begun by their forefathers, but this, too, is moderately unlikely. For one thing, people simply don't read as much as they once did, and even when they do, much of what currently passes for science fiction is little more than gussied up fan fiction. (Honestly, how many Star Trek and Firefly novelizations do we really need?) It doesn't help that science fiction took a decidedly pessimistic turn about 20 years ago, starting with the cyberpunk movement. Granted, as Ray Bradbury said, "We do this not to predict the future but to prevent it," but one can only read so many dystopic views of the future before it starts to become really, really depressing.

If sci-fi literature isn't going to serve as muse, what is? It seems possible, even likely, that tomorrow's brilliance will find its roots in today's videogames. As a mode of entertainment, gaming is at least as popular as science fiction was when it inspired the likes of Goddard and Byrd, and is oftentimes similarly grounded in just enough science fact to make it all seem possible. Gamers become devoted to their franchises of choice, becoming emotionally and intellectually involved in the virtual world the games create, absorbing every nuance and detail they possibly can. The internet just makes it easier for them to indulge their passion; between developer's blogs and community forums, fans have access to nearly limitless information and discussion about game worlds, characters, vehicles, weapons and strategies.

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