The Day Sci-Fi Went Retro: Forever?

When I was choosing my Technological Inspiration for my homepage on this site, I didn't hesitate in picking author William Gibson. Whenever I walk past an abandoned, now defunct phone box, I'm almost instantly transported back to those hazy, techless days of the mid 1990s, when a library copy of Count Zero was as near as I ever expected I'd get to a real computer, let alone one that offered the abilities and possibilities that the machine I'm typing this on provides for me. Gibson's Cyberpunk world seemed as possible as interstellar travel, flying cars, the discovery of intelligent life on Saturn, or the myriad fantasies of Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelany, Gene Wolfe, of any of the sci fi authors whose works I'd read with studious amazement and which had fired my younger imagination.

We all know what happened though. Virtual reality was quickly superseded by the fact of accessible computing which went beyond the 2D Casiotone variety, and science fiction itself seemed to suddenly fall into the retro category. After all, the 80s really did look like the Blade Runner set, the Enterprise crew just kept getting older, and some of the most re-readable stories I went back to took on new and different forms. Less shiny metal, less robotic monomania, and even less shock and awe at the improbable futures predicted. Something was humanising an entire body of literature, bringing living flesh to the circuitry and dulling the gleaming monoliths into more appreciable and approachable entities.
Our species has lived through more actual scientific development in the 20th century than in its previous known history, and almost all of it has actually worked. I would perhaps appreciate buying and listening to music with the larger, equally technically superior to vinyl Laser Disc system that CDs swiftly overtook, although that has more to do with what I think about album sleeve art than the actual music. What our recent history has done though is avoid those great 'nearly' moments - the Assyrian sulphur battery, the Greek steam engine, the refusal of the Inca civilisation to use the wheel - we got the internal combustion engine, the aeroplane, colour TV and the digital watch, regardless of the ongoing 20th century wars and crisies that remain fresh in so many of our minds. 25th century historians are going to make a lot of these developments. They will also correlate our fractious recent past along with them, and perhaps wonder how anything managed to stay upright. 

So, happy then? There's no plastic without oil, and Peak Oil theorists are predicting that we're going to run out of much of our present supply in the 2050s. We are now around a decade away from the widespread commercial availability of the intelligent electric car, but if more nations follow the German lead we might end up with no fossil or nuclear - generated electricity to power them, certainly with less than we're going to need. More public transport isn't a given: why is Edinburgh experiencing such continuing delays in building its tram system? Without sustained public funding we end up with fewer buses and trains, and for every struggling local authority there's a quango of self appointed representatives of The Taxpayer arguing for less spending. I haven't yet seen a wooden computer, but this opens up yet another enviromental argument.

I appreciate that Radical Animal is designed as an ideology-free zone. For me though, the concept of sustainability brings to the fore wider questions, ones which go beyond my own individual  concerns as I attempt to envisage exactly how our technologies will shape our immediate future, the one that everyone reading this is going to see in the 2020s and 30s. Re-reading those yellowing sci-fi paperbacks might provide some clues. I don't think anyone really predicted the Kindle though.

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