Designing the Future

Setting a story in the future is like deciding that the cast don't have human faces.

What do I mean by this? One of the biggest drawing challenges is the human face, because we are all incredibly familiar with it. We have cells in our brains devoted solely to reading facial expressions and identifying the intent of other human beings. So the smallest error in drawing a face will look wrong, and immediately pop us out of the story. Its hard to "listen" to a comic character if one of their eyes is bigger than the other, or their nose is in the wrong place. Making everyone non-human would mean that you don't have to worry about these problems. Instead you would have to design a consistent look for your characters from scratch, and find new ways for them to emote.

Similarly, setting a strip in the future means you don't need to worry about getting the details of the present day world wrong. If I set out to base a story in the default superhero setting of the modern day United States, I'd have to make sure that the street signs looked right, the cars drove on the wrong side of the road (from my Aussie perspective), the cars would have to be the right models, and so on. I'd probably get things wrong that don't matter to me, but would pop the reader out of the story. I've certainly seen authors do that when depicting my old home of Scotland or my new home of Australia.

I'd also have to decide what to do with current political questions. If I placed Universe Gun in the 21st C, I'd have to deal with issues like Russia's current wave of homophobia, the worldwide "War on Drugs" and accompanying incarceration epidemic, the potential ecological catastrophes facing us and our blindness to it. I could choose to ignore these issues completely in the name of light entertainment, but that in itself is a political choice to endorse the status quo. It's also hard to ignore politics if you're writing about the Life Star and Ms. Amazing, and planetary change in a science fiction setting. It would be far too likely that my strip would turn into a bitter tirade against the injustices of the world.

So for these reasons, the idea of setting a story in the future was pretty appealing. I get to make a lot of things up, which I love to do. I can take selective potshots at our current world in allegorical terms, but keep the story as the primary focus. And I have to depict a world that has some kind of internal consistency. Its a world that's had a big injection of magic from the Life Star, in the sense of Arthur C. Clarke's famous quote that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And on top of that, 1600 years have passed. Here are a couple of the technologies I've looked at - I'll cover more in a future blog.

Nanotechnology

I let this one in in all its glory. A "DrexBox" for preparing food from a number of downloaded recipes is a standard household item in the Universe Gun world. This is named after real-world scientist Eric Drexler, who first hypothesised a device like a microwave where you put grass in, press the button, and take out the beef steak. After all, as he observed, that is what a cow does! So in the 37th C, I decided that manufacturing is pretty much all carried out in this manner.


DrexBoxes vary from the simple meal maker that you can see Princess Amtora's mother use on page 1 to industrial fabricators like the one pictured above. I designed a standard nano-tech cloud effect to use for them, and a sound effect for the printing process, seen in the top image of this column. From a story point of view, information and matter are now somewhat interchangeable. I'll be playing with that idea more thoroughly later.
I decide that Carbon Fullerite (a real thing today)has become a standard construction material, much lighter and stronger than steel. I've picked a pale green colour for it purely for aesthetic reasons, and see it as a kind of 37th C bakelite, the poo-brown cheap plastic of the 1950s.


If you see this pale green colour in my strip, it means something's a bit cheap and functional, but very light, strong and tough. I also picked up the awesome word Buckypaper for sheets of ultra-durable carbon fibre make from C60 Buckyballs, named after the geodesic dome designs of futurist Buckminster Fuller. These are all real concepts, by the way, and we're likely to see them within our lifetimes.

We're already able to manufacture Buckypaper, and are working on the details to make it commercially viable.
It marks a big shift from using relatively rare materials like iron for heavy construction, to simply arranging carbon, one of the most common atoms on our planet. We've created food from nanotechnology with the world's first lab grown burger. It's currently expensive, but with refinement could become a much more affordable alternative to real meat when you consider its reduced land use, carbon footprint, and ethical advantages. This is also a reminder that nanotechnology will probably have a largely biological component, using grown enzymes rather than manufactured tiny robot flies that the term evokes.

Artificial Intelligence

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This one caused me a bit of trouble. The Great Database on Mars has to be unique and powerful for the story to work. It's full story is told in Chapter 7, but I've already let out on page 2 that its an uploaded human mind that has evolved into its current state. So, why has no-one else followed it into cyberspace? I had this great idea for "ancestor worship", where Martians could go and talk to their ancestors in cyberspace for guidance, with each generation living in a simulation of their own time, getting more and more detached from physical reality. But, that didn't really mesh with the Database being unique.
I read The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil last year and was shocked at how pedestrian my own ideas suddenly seemed! This is the head technologist at Google talking about what he thinks we'll see in the real world in the next few decades, and how once we spin up an AI as powerful as a human brain, all other problems will become irrelevant as we can get this AI to solve them for us. Its heady stuff - here he's describing a real world change in this century that outstrips what I'm imagining 1600 years from now, with the magical insertion of the Life Star into the mix. I take Kurzweil's ideas with a pinch of salt, but he's given me a few ideas to roll into Universe Gun later.
Simple AIs exist for mechanical jobs, such as the Taxibots that pilot flying cars, or the Martian cleaning robot seen on page 7. They can move around independently, and engage in verbal communication with humans, but high level decision making is limited. The exceptions would be when the Great Database "sleeves up" and inhabits one of these bodies by remote control, or a human takes remote control of a robot body, with it's own reflexes and internal programming handling the basic motor tasks.

Once again, these ideas are all likely to be realised this century. We have walking bipedal robots like Sarcos, and all-terrain quadrupeds such as DARPA's Big Dog. We routinely talk to AIs/robots now on our phones now. Self driving cars are a subject of ongoing research.
We're taking some very tentative first steps towards replicating a human mind, and either sideloading it (copying a living functioning brain into a computer model), or gradually replacing a working human brain bit by bit until it is wholly artifical, at which point it may become amenable to all sorts of operations like copying and backup. We've observed memories forming in mice using sophisticated non-invasive brain scanning techniques. The ultra-rich are already throwing money at projects to achieve immortality. There are huge engineering issues to overcome, and still debate on whether a human intelligence can be simulated or moved to an artifical substrate. From a fiction-writing point of view, there are some very interesting questions that can be explored.

I haven't even scratched how recent medical advances have fed into my view of a fictional 37th C. Its enough to say for now that that's where I think the most exciting and revolutionary science is happening right now. And I could easily fill a column on the real world history of the concept of Orgone, and how I've taken it and run with it in nearly every bit of superhero fiction that I've written.

See you in seven, pseudo-scientific ones!

Dr Mike 2000, 31 Jan 2014