For nearly three years, I’ve edited Future Tense—a section on Slate that looks at cutting-edge technologies and their implications for society and policy. (Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University; in addition to the channel on Slate, we also host live events, primarily in Washington, D.C.) We cover everything from surveillance to how social media affects interpersonal relationships to mind uploading and genetic engineering. Needless to say, science fiction can be the perfect lens through which to examine the ethical, social, and political consequences of these sorts of technologies.
Everyone loves to talk about 1984 or Minority Report when discussing new technologies. However, early in my Future Tense tenure, I realized that nearly every piece writers (including me) were filing included reference to one or the other, so now both titles are on a yellow-light list: If you want to mention either one, you have to earn it. (Another phrase I try to keep off of Future Tense: “It sounds like science fiction, but … ”)
Instead, here are some newish sci-fi books that I think can help us tease out the tricky issues that get unboxed with each new technology—and also help us think about the future in general. I prefer so-called “soft” sci-fi to the hard stuff, so this list is heavy on novels that make the technology part of the story, instead of the story itself.
The Circle, by Dave Eggers: Let me make it clear—I didn’t enjoy this book. I think the writing is stilted, the characters detestable, the plot “twists” predictable. However, it is a superb jumping-off point for discussing transparency, the rather sinister “what do you have to hide?” attitude, and the way large tech firms become as (or more) powerful than nation-states.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan: The delightful Mr. Penumbra is a good foil for The Circle, in that it discusses the potential, and limitations, of using Big Data to solve life’s riddles.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood: All three of the books in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy are fascinating, but the first is the best. Among other things, Oryx and Crake explores genetic engineering, synthetic biology, the segregation of tech workers from the rest of society (the “pleeblands,” the elite call them), climate change, industrial sabotage, and more. The futuristic food she describes will turn your stomach—especially when you read about “ChickieNobs”—but more upsetting is the way her characters accept their horrifying society as a given.
The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters: OK, there isn’t very much new technology here. But this good, old-fashioned detective story takes the standard apocalypse story and removes the explosions, creating an end-of-the-world scenario that feels frighteningly realistic: It’s set as Earth waits for an asteroid that could wipe out life. If you watched the footage of the Russian meteor over and over, it’s a must-read. (So is the sequel.)
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers: You may not have heard of this 2012 book, but it’s one of my favorites. Reproductive technologies—cloning, genetic screening of fetuses, extension of fertility—are among the most fascinating, tricky topics covered by Future Tense. In The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Rogers explores a world in which a disease kills off every woman who gets pregnant. It’s a bit Children of Men, but with more of a focus on the ethically unsettling science and technology that could contribute to or treat such a situation.