Reading David Brin’s new novel Existence for a ZDNet review earlier this week, I quickly realised that it was part of that sub-genre of science fiction that I like to think of as 'futurist fiction'.
Often set in the near future, futurist fiction is an "if this goes on" extrapolation of current trends, where an author tries to understand the impact of a social or technological change on society.
That means they're important books: they’re social fictions that try to explore the ramifications of trends on society, and at the same time design fictions that give us pointers to the world we're building.
In that way they're fictional works akin to the scenarios built by futurologists, surfing a trendline into tomorrow and drawing us into a world that's more maybe than not.
Perhaps the best known works are four novels by John Brunner, collectively known as the Club Of Rome Quartet.
Inspired by the influential report Limits to Growth and the work of various late 1960s futurists, including Alvin Tofler's still relevant Futureshock, the four dystopic novels look at four different trends, jumping them 40 years or so into the future.
The Sheep Look Up explored the shape of a polluted world, while The Jagged Orbit was the story of a world struggling with ubiquitous violence. Stand on Zanzibar, the best known novel in the sequence, is a multithreaded journey through an overcrowded world, while The Shockwave Rider, in its tale of an information saturated future, gave birth to the language of the computer security industry.
Brunner’s novels aren't that 1970's future – our today. They're an out-of-focus kaleidoscopic view of worlds that might have been, futurological predictions dramatised and made more personal. But they're not the world we live in, even if we can see aspects of Brunner's fictions in our cities and on our networks.
Closer to today come books by authors like Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross, Vernor Vinge, and of course David Brin with both Existence and his 1990 novel Earth.
While Bruce Sterling’s Islands In The Net is showing its age, it was one of the first novels to try and explore the effects of networking and globalisation on governments and businesses. We may laugh at its use of modems, but Sterling’s slowly balkanising corporatised 21st century is close to the world we live, and the issues of data mobility and security at the heart of the novel are increasingly important.
The same is true of Sterling's Distraction, a story of a near future political campaign, drenched in the language of social media and the complexities of politics in a networked society – a networked society his short story Maneki Neko explored further, with the roots of Anonymous in its computationally-mediated conspiracy of altruism.
One of the things fascinating about Sterling is how aware he is of the role of fictions in futurology, working as part of the scenario-focused Global Business Network and stepping between art and academia. Sterling has recently written at length about the idea of design fiction, a way of exploring the effects of design on society, and on architecture.
Charles Stross has written at length about the problems of writing near future science fiction, where the non-linearities in the trends that inspire fictions can leave a book out of date before it reaches the shelves.
His near future crime novels, Halting State and Rule 34, are sandwiched between today and tomorrow, trying to understand the effects of current trends in computing and networking on crime and detection in a Scotland a decade or so away. Together with Vinge’s Rainbows End they make intriguing case studies into the effects on society of ubiquitous networking, embedded computing, and pervasive machine learning. Similarly Warren Ellis’ serial graphic novel Transmetropolitan explores the wilder edges of tomorrow, through the eyes of a perpetual journalist, a Hunter Thompsonesque journalist.
So why are these books important?
As technologists we need to be more than a technocratic elite, focused only on our machines and code. We may be working on what Donald Fagen's song IGY called "A just machine to make big decisions, programmed by fellows with compassion and vision", but we often miss both the compassion and the vision. It is futurist novels like these that help us understand the possible impact of our technologies, putting us in situations where we can empathise with the inhabitants of those possible worlds.
They're books that need to sit on our desks next to our O'Reilly books and our copies of Inc and Wired, helping guide our road into tomorrow.
And the futurist fiction on my desk today? It's currently Paolo Bacigalupi's climate change dystopia The Drowned Cities. The future doesn't always have to be optimistic...