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21st Century Science Fiction
by Joshua Darlington on 09/16/12 01:03:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


20th century science fiction is based on obsolete technology.  This is an introduction to tech trends for new 21st Science Fiction. 

Radical abundance and Material Agility (3D printing, self-replicating robots, space resources, claytronics, and utility fog).

The average early 21st century American has the same amount of material wealth as a 15th century king. With the rapid development of 3D printing, material wealth is about to explode.  In 2012, 3D printers are being used for houses, airplane parts, human organs, pharmaceuticals, and food.  The average late 21st century human could have the material wealth of an early 21st century billionaire.

As 3D printers become a consumer home appliance like a standard laser printer, one could expect factories, supply chains, centralized manufacturing, centralized wealth, and consumer driven mass advertising culture to become obsolete.  

The 3D printer revolution becomes even more radical when self-replication is added.  One of the biggest goals in 3D printing is to be able to print out more 3D printers.  This makes 3D printers a gateway to self-replicating robots, which allows for the explosive industrial capacity of the individual.  

3D printers and self-replication become even more radical when you put them in space. A single self-replicating robot would be able to transform an asteroid belt into a domestic habitat.  

To be truly topical, 21st century science fiction will need to explore new motivations and conflicts that are not resource dependent.  Sexual selection and competitive nesting would suggest that humans have an insatiable need for wealth displays.  Is this dynamic linear?
Let's go one step beyond radical abundance.  Imagine the liquid metal technology of Terminator 2 applied to all objects.  

Check this video on "Car Design via Claytronics Technology."

In 2012, this technology is already being developed under the name claytronics.   It's basically the idea of intelligent particles that can be assembled into multiple objects.  An even more radical technology is also being developed called utility fog.  It's the idea that the particles can be anchor independent.  Essentially it would allow a user to summon objects out of the air.

If you apply this technology to warfare it gets extremely interesting.  If you fire a projectile at a claytronic object it can open a hole and let it pass through without taking any damage.  A weapons platform could use complexity as camouflage by breaking into a million particles if attacked. A weapon could be delivered into a combat theater as dust floating in the wind. Combat will increasingly resemble weather patterns with pressure waves used shape the battlefield.  Defensive patterns will resemble bait balls (planets or suns) to limit surface area.

Here is an animated model of bait ball dynamics

21st century science fiction will need to explore the relationship between identity and physicality.  What are new forms of nanopollution?  What does a substrate independent virus look like?

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Christer Kaitila
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Brilliant! Please write more! What are some other trends in future sci fi that you predict? (and are you planning to write a book or game?)

Joshua Darlington
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Thanks! It's cool to get featured on one of my favorite web pages.

I will drop a few more future sci fi posts over the next couple weeks, including a look at the future of games. In the mean time, check my twitter feed for cool tech stories: @VisnryExcllence.

I like novels but my heart is in new narrative forms like games, chatbots, and IF.

I'm writing for an indy space conquest game out of Finland called "Bello Galactica." It's 20th century styled space opera but they let me play around with cool ideas.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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what is even more relevant or interesting when you take into account all these technologies: 3D Printing, renewable energies, hydroponic or aeroponic farming, and others is that this means that accessibility to food, shelter and more is going to increase to the point where there isn't any poverty anymore for anybody.

What this also means, is that the capitalist free market system will become obsolete itself. How can you make profit from something that is abundant and available for all? Take this thought one step further and it becomes clear that money itself will become obsolete, after all, if everything is abundant, there isn't any need to buy anything anymore. Will the establishment sit by and let this happen? Rationally, they should, after all, the world would be a better place. But in my experience, people are irrational and cling to their wealth, afraid of change. You can see instances of this for example where mining corporations (ab)use their connections to governments to make life harder for the renewable energy lobby, simply because they see them as a business threat, not recognizing that this is a better way to generate energy in the first place. Look at the electric car, which was already invented a hundred years ago, but was kicked out of the market by the oil companies who championed a fuel based automobile. These are some truly relevant issues that a science fiction story could tackle.

Another factor that will lead to the ousting of the money system is the advent of omnipresent automation.
People are losing their jobs to machines, which is a phenomenon that is called technical unemployment. With unemployment, buying power decreases, yet our productivity will skyrocket with automation. Something's gotta give.

I'd like a game or movie or any work of science fiction that delves deeper into these thought-processes the same way that Deus Ex Human Revolution highlighted the subject matter of biomechnical engineering and human augmentation.

k s
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Have you seen the documentary Zeitgeist: moving forward, it sounds like you might find it most interesting.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Also I'd like to say that in science fiction, there is so much focus on how war will be fought in the future. What we should really ask ourselves though is: will there be war in the future at all? Will at some point people decide that it is futile to fight each other? That's so much more interesting than imagining all the new guns and bombs we could create with new technologies.

Joshua Darlington
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Cool comments.

Toby Grierson
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Interestingly, it may be going down now. The largest war in the world right now is actually the Mexican drug conflict. In the US, violent crime is also down decade after decade.

Joshua Darlington
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People that study violence report that as humans are domesticated, they are less likely to kill each other.

However, my personal gut feeling says that human blood lust comes from our hunting instinct, so an end to resource competition may not be enough to end violence. We may need to wait until our homeostasis and metabolism decouples from biophagia. Or it may never end. From a systems perspective, war may be something like a forrest fire creating churn.

Andy Mussell
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You seem to be aiming at some of the themes addressed by Iain M. Banks in his Culture series:

The books I've read in the series tend to focus on interactions between The Culture and other civilizations/species, but I know his book "The Player of Games" takes a stab at depicting what a post-scarcity advanced society with some of the technologies you describe would look like.

Adam Rebika
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One can put in question the accuracy of their predictions, but they are a goldmine when it comes to sci-fi inspiration.

Nick Harris
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"We may need to wait until our homeostasis and metabolism decouples from biophagia."


Do you mean when we finally get around to transferring our consciousness into robots?