Sunday, September 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #259: Soonish by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

Pop-science is all about dreams -- how everything is going to be wonderful and perfect once we have flying cars, or beamed power, or can start mining He3 on the Moon. Some of the dreams may be nightmares, about how those slavering Reds are far ahead of us technologically and are going to murder us all while we sleep, but they're mostly positive.

The future is supposed to be better than the past, after all.

And so pop-science will never die out, as long as there's still optimism about the future and still scientists doing weird things that might turn into consumer goods someday.

What I have for you today is a big fat slab of fairly-new pop-science optimism. Soonish examines almost a dozen things that might happen, sometime in the next generation, that, as the subtitle puts it, could "improve and/or ruin everything." It's from working scientist Dr. Kelly Weinersmith and her husband, web cartoonist Zach. (Who provides at least the comics panels interspersed throughout, probably much of the humor, and maybe more than that.)

I recently grumbled about "monkeys in cans" while writing about a SFnal graphic novel -- this was the other reason for that grumble. The Weinersmiths' very first chapter is "Cheap Access to Space," and I'm afraid they mean making it easy for gravity-requiring, easily-damaged-by-radiation humans to get into space. This mostly for the usual Grand Destiny of Man! reasons, and ignoring that there are some useful things you can mine or manufacture or do in space, but vanishingly few that require monkeys to do them.

That, I'm afraid, sets the tone for the rest of Soonish: it's all very wide-eyed about things that quite likely would be more-or-less horrible if and when they actually happen (programmable matter! molecular production of engineered molecules! brain-computer interfaces!) Oh, sure, there are potentially good uses for everything they discuss in this book -- letting random people create any molecules they want, even anthrax and Ebola, would be fun for a little while -- but the dangers, which they cover briefly in a quick note at the end of each chapter, are vastly worse and much more likely.

This is inevitable, of course, in any nonfiction book about cutting-edge science: the only people who really know it well (and so will talk at length to book writers) are the people doing the research, and they're always convinced that what they're doing is worthwhile and meaningful. (Like all of us.) Unless a writer happens to luck into a field with several competing options, leading to scientists who all gleefully backstab each other to promote their own approaches, it's all pretty collegial and utopian.

A writer would have to deliberately seek out negative sources for each positive source, and who wants to spend so much time being that much of a downer? Besides, outside of politics, happy always sells better than horrible.

If you don't mind a heaping helping of Pollyanna in your futurism, Soonish is entertaining and even enlightening: the Weinersmiths got a lot of people doing interesting stuff (which may or may not pan out) to talk to them, and they're pretty good at explaining it all in layman's terms. But there is a hell of a lot more "ruin" in any of these ideas than the Weinersmiths are going to tell you about.

No comments:

Post a Comment