There are two ways of reading or experiencing science fiction. One is to imagine it as a promise of the future, and relish each arriving piece of evidence that this future is upon us. Another is to fear it as a threat that the future will not be like the past.
Elon Musk has a knack for combining the two. He is legendary for almost single-handedly reinventing four – and counting – industries. He made his first small fortune at 24, when a software business called Zip2, which he started with his brother, was sold to Compaq for US$341-million. By then he owned only 7% of the business, which brought him $22-million. He put half of that money into starting the company that would become PayPal. Aside from reinventing online payments, he earned US$165 million from the $1.5-billion sale of the company to eBay.
That’s when he really got going. In short order, he formed SpaceX, bought out the ailing Tesla, co-founded SolarCity, and unveiled the Hyperloop. Clearly, however, reinventing space travel, electric cars, sustainable energy and mass transport, is not enough.
In the last three years, he started an artificial intelligence (AI) non-profit organisation, a neurotechnology company to integrate the human brain with AI, and a business called The Boring Company, intended to dig tunnels, but which has so far sold only hats and flame-throwers.
The latter provides clues to Musk’s quirky sense of humour. The world was exposed to it last week when he launched SpaceX’s most ambitious rocket yet: the Falcon Heavy, a massive machine that competes with the Saturn V that took the Apollo spaceships to the moon.
Being a test flight, it carried no commercial cargo, but is already legendary for what it did carry: Musk’s own used Tesla Roadster electric car. Aside from being one of the most audacious marketing gimmicks in history, it also came with a dummy astronaut, named “Starman”, after the David Bowie song of the same name. On the car stereo, the Bowie song “Space Oddity” will also play itself out for eternity – or until a head-on collision with spacefaring rock.
Most telling of all, a sticker on the dashboard read: “Don’t Panic”. That happens to be a key ingredient of one of the most loved science fiction series of all time, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The words are emblazoned on the cover of a travel guide used by characters in the series.
This is wonderfully quirky, but not too surprising. Adams grew up on a diet of classic science fiction. Key among these was the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The central character predicts 30 000 years of human decline, and comes up with a plan of sending scientific colonies to the stars.
Musk told Rolling Stone magazine: “Asimov certainly was influential because he was seriously paralleling Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but he applied that to a sort of modern galactic empire. The lesson I drew from that is you should try to take the set of actions that are likely to prolong civilization, minimize the probability of a dark age and reduce the length of a dark age if there is one.”
At the same time, however, Asimov’s writings on robots and their responsibilities – along with many dystopian visions in science fiction – also seemed to have a negative impact on Musk’s vision of artificial intelligence. He has gone so far as to declare: “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilisation.”
There, in one person, we see the two extremes of the SF vision of the future: human ingenuity will both save and destroy humanity.
However, one can view SF in a different way: as a roadmap to the future. In this context, anyone reading the SF of the past few decades, going back as fas as the 1930s, would rarely be surprised by the latest breakthroughs in technology.
The advent of computers has been presaged in numerous works by giants of SF like Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The very latest initiative by Musk, the brain-machine interface, is at the heart of the seminal 1980s William Gibson novel Neuromancer, which coined the term cyberspace, and gave rise to the cyberpunk genre of science fiction.
The rash of science fiction TV series emerging on Netflix, from The Expanse to Altered Carbon, are only barely ahead of the touchscreen, holographic, AI and virtual reality technology that is emerging into the mainstream now. In the next decade, we can expect technology that mimics telepathy, and then the upload of our memories into the cloud. All of which science fiction has promised for many years.
Not only are serious SF fans not surprised by what is emerging from laboratories, and what will be available on shop shelves – if those even still exist a decade from now – but they are expecting it. Some, like Elon Musk, don’t have the patience to wait for it, and are working hard at creating that future today.
If you want to know what’s coming next, pick up a classic SF novel in an online library today.