The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel
by Gustav Doré - 1866

Editorial License - by Ernest Lilley

Science Fiction has gotten a bad rap as prognosticator. Deservedly, but a bad rap.

As much as I want the future shown in golden age SF to come true, at least in the short run, it's clear that life isn't simple and the good guys and gals don't always win. 

Suddenly, we're living on the edge of a cyberpunk reality. We always have to a degree, but the recent spree of terrorist events from plane bombs to anthrax laced letters, smack of the kind of dystopian future that Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson and others have taken for granted in their writing. 

As such, readers of SF find the world they are living in, or entering into to be appalling, but unsurprising. We've seen the world end with a whimper, a bang, a blackhole, nuclear fire, biobomb, dissasembled by nanomachines, polluted to eco-failure, at the end of time, before time starts, through economic collapse, stellar explosion, comet and planetary impact and by having ourselves passed up as an evolutionary dead end. 

To name a few.

Geez, I'm depressing myself.

But the sorts of things we're experiencing now have been often anticipated by our writers...and so have countermeasures.

In Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, communities are surrounded by protective immune systems of airborne nanobots. Last March I reviewed The Cassandra Complex by Brian Stableford, in which the near future world is very much at war, in precisely the way we fear things are going, and even the fabric you wear provides a second or rather primary immune system.

Atomic powered cars aren't going to pull up at stop signs any time soon, and we may well not travel to the moon on holiday in the lifetimes of anyone over 40...or possibly of anyone alive. 

Ok. I can live with that. Largely, those issues are matters of energy, not finesse, and I'm not into splurging energy for the current crop of humans and leaving those to come to do their best with what's left over. I fully expect the sorts of personal and community protection evidenced in recent fiction to come into reality. But they won't be enough.

For every cure, there can be another cause...sometimes by using the cure in a new way.

What Science Fiction is less eager to promote are solutions that involve opening ourselves to others. Science Fiction has historically been about the wisdom and folly of looking for technological solutions to problems, and no doubt we'll find many such solutions to the new threats posed, many of which have been foreshadowed in our literature.

As technophiles, we love to barricade ourselves behind defenses, or to strike from great distances, but we tend to stay away from others, especially ones that might think we're odd.

Our advantage over the population in general is that we're used to thinking outside the box of what's odd, or normal, or human, or alien. We've got to take that thinking and add some courage to it, to get involved with the world, not shut it out.

The one technological fix I'm looking forward to is portable machine translation. No, it's not impossible, and it's really important. There are too many tongues on Earth for anyone to know more than a handful, and here in a basically mono-lingual culture, Americans don't have the chance to learn others. Learning languages in school is pretty limiting, and rarely successful.

Certainly, email translators should be within our grasp, and that would be a great start. If cost was no object, you could use cell phones to bring a human translator into a conversation, and in the name of increasing understanding between peoples, maybe the costs involved wouldn't be so outrageous.

I just got through listening to Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash on audiotape, and he makes a lot of interesting points about the power of separate tongues, and I'm sure he's right...but I'd like to be able to listen to what others are trying to say...without the drama of having to be hit over the head first.

So, as we look for ways to cope with the dawning age, let's look for ways to build bridges, as well as walls. 

Now, don't get the idea that I think brotherhood is the natural result of communication. Indeed, it may be that we find that there is no common ground between ourselves and someone else. Ask Horatius, holding the bridge to Rome by himself if bridges are always conveyors of good things. But if we put my head in the sand and my hands over my ears, I'll never see it coming, and if there are roads to peace, I want to be able to find them.

Ernest Lilley
Editor - SFRevu