Friday, January 30, 2009

Technologies In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

After ordering a cup of the restaurant's strongest tea, Jape pulled a rolled-up sheet of black material from a pocket of his cape and spread it on the tabletop. "Softscroll, activate," he whispered, and within a few seconds the featureless surface came alive, displaying windows filled with words and pictures.
--From The Last Protector

I first wrote about the "softscroll," a futuristic personal computer built into a thin, flexible sheet of plastic that Jape, the time-traveling Ranger, could just roll up and stuff into a pocket, almost ten years ago. At the time, it seemed like a pretty far-out concept. But today, while subbing in the science department over at Saint Charles East, I saw a presentation on nanotechnology, and a part of the new tech being displayed was... you guessed it, "stretchable silicon," which is supposed to lead to such things as a TV that's just a paper-thin sheet of plastic you roll out on the wall, or cell phones that roll up inside a pen, or... yep, a flexible computer.

Granted, the stuff that John Rogers of the University of Illinois has created won't do quite everything the "softscroll" does... yet. And flexible computers aren't on the market... yet (good thing my book came out last May!). But "stretchable silicon" does illustrate one of the problems of writing science fiction: technology is moving forward so quickly that by the time you've written, sold, edited and released a book incorporating a "far-out" new gadget, you may find the gadget isn't very far-out at all! My friend Jerry Weinberg wrote a book called The Aremac Project, which featured a machine that could read your thoughts, and now, just a few years after its release, he's worrying in his blog that technology may have already caught up with him. He advises writers to set their SF books far enough into the future that something like this won't happen. And to get back to nanotech for a moment, it's starting to look like carbon nanotubes may very well make the "elevator to orbit" concept feasible... rendering obsolete all those great SF books in which people fly around in rockets.

I wonder if this rapid advance of technology, which makes SF gimmicks obsolete almost overnight, is part of the reason fantasy's taken off in the last few decades. Odds are the University of Illinois won't develop your story's central gimmick if it involves magic. Then again, as Clarke observed, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic...

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