Science fiction gives us metaphors to think about our biggest problems

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Science fiction, it has been said, tells you less about what will happen in the future than it tells you about the predominant concerns of the age when it was written. The 1940s and 50s is known as the golden age of science fiction: short story magazines ruled, and John Campbell, editor of Astounding Stories, demanded better standards of writing than the genre had seen before. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, AE van Vogt, and Robert Heinlein all got started in this period. The Cold War was building up, but the West was emerging from the destruction and austerity of war, technology was powering consumerism, and the stories were bright and bold and filled with a sense of wonder.

The golden age was followed by an edgier period, as the Cold War got into in full swing. With the surprise launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Soviet Union revealed its disturbing lead in space technology, and a New Wave of writers led by William Burroughs courted controversy, writing about dystopias, sexuality and drugs. Established SF figures like Asimov and Heinlein changed their styles to fit, and innovative new SF authors arrived, including Samuel R Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and JG Ballard.

Cyberpunk burst onto the stage in 1984 with the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It was becoming clear that computers were going to play a growing role in humanity’s future, and it is one of history’s nice ironies that Gibson managed to make his online world so compelling when he had no experience of the internet and indeed had hardly ever used a computer.

The twenty-first century is said to be post-cyberpunk, but it is perhaps too early to tell what that means. The themes of cyberpunk haven’t gone away, but space opera has returned. SF has also been infected by fantasy, which has become unaccountably popular. Very talented writers like Hannu Rajaniemi (The Quantum Thief) blend it with their hard science so that it is hard to tell where one stops and the other starts.

One of the biggest themes in today’s SF is the creation of conscious machines. This isn’t new, of course: AI has been an important feature of many of SF’s best-loved books and movies, from The Forbin Project to 2001 to the Terminator series. But writers have often failed to grasp the impact that thinking machines will have – if and when they arrive. Christopher Nolan’s ambitious but flawed film Interstellar was a classic example: fully conscious machines were treated as – and behaved as – bit-part slaves, even though their cognitive capabilities clearly exceeded those of their human masters.

Writers like Will Hertling (the Avogadro series) and Daniel Suarez (Daemon) are finding new ways to explore the question of how humans will fare when the first super-intelligence arrives. Hollywood is joining in, with thoughtful movies like Her, Transcendence and Ex Machina. We need more great stories about artificial general intelligence: coping with its arrival may well be the biggest challenge the next generation ever faces.

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