Let me tell you a little story.
Nearly seventy years ago, two erstwhile allies, at the end of a planet-spanning war, found themselves bitter rivals, and entered into a struggle to see which could develop the military and economic means to rule that world. Dividing the technological corpse of their former mutual enemy between them, they used these tools and ideas to forge ever more terrible weapons. Soon, their contest focused on a particular goal, both of symbolic and harsh military value – which would be the first to have their citizens walk on the face of the planet’s major satellite, and return safely.
And in less than twenty-five years, one outpaced the other so far that, not once but six times, they were able to have a pair of their own walk on that moon and return home unscathed.
Almost twenty more years passed, and one of the empires collapsed. The other, beset by other economic, military, and spiritual troubles, drastically curtailed their space-faring ways, never more sending their kind beyond low orbits of the planet, and leaving the depths of the heavens to be explored by robotic vessels.
Fast forward to the present, and a few of these creatures banded together, and with monies they had earned from technologies that had not even been a fantasy when that last global war had finished, founded multiple companies to return to space, not as conquistadors, but as captains of industry. First more cunning robots, then more of the creatures themselves, would return to that moon, and move out to explore and exploit the other planets of their star, and ultimately, the rest of the universe.
Not a bad tale, eh? Wait – this isn’t fiction – it’s history.
Alan Kay once said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” But the second-best way to predict the future is to write science fiction. Hard, nuts-and-bolts science fiction. By starting with a technological premise, and logically extending it within the boundaries of science and engineering as we know them, or as we could plausibly extend them, we give ourselves the ability to sketch a future (if not the future) and explore how humanity will deal with the challenges and opportunities presented.
And wouldn’t you know it – the wild speculations of the science-fiction authors of one time become the models for hard-headed engineering in the next time. Gene Roddenberry’s flip-top communicators from the original Star Trek became our first-generation cell phones; his “tricorders” became our modern smartphones. Rovers on Mars, or mining asteroids, stop being just the fantastic dreams of authors, and become the exotic but real workdays of people whose imaginations are fueled and informed by reading sci-fi.
So to predict the future, we must invent it. And to invent it, to know what we can and should do, we read. And wonder.