Technology outstrips writers’ imagination. Except when it doesn’t
by Lev Tsitrin
The brouhaha over a student athlete’s USA Today‘s op-ed, edited to remove the word “male” as too offensive to a “transgender” runner who beat the author of the op-ed at every turn, triggered in me a reflection on how real-life technology outstrips the wildest imagination.
Reading old books today shows how tame the imagination of even the best science fiction writers could be. Clifford Simak in his “Ring Around the Sun” imagined the future in which mutating humans discovered the distinct pockets of time in which parallel instances of the Earth existed, on which the humanity settled its excess population — yet when time came for book’s trapped protagonist to make a desperate phone call from Chicago to New York, he had to contact a human operator to get connected. Simak’s imagination was first-rate (the book is an absorbing read) — yet he could not even begin to imagine our present communication technology.
Or how about an episode from a book by Stanislav Lem, a world-famous Polish science fiction writer, in which an astronaut, trapped by a malfunctioning piece of equipment in his inter-galactic spaceship, fixes that device by using as a ladder a pile of really thick galactic atlases taken out of the ship’s library? Good as his imagination was, it did not occur to Lem that long before the intergalactic travel, information would be stored not in printed volumes, but in minuscule microchips.
Why did I recall passages in old, and by now long-forgotten, books? One thought triggers another; they served as a foil to a minor episode from an old book that instantly came to mind when I read of that athlete’s travails. In a great Czech satire in on World War I by Jaroslav Hasek titled Good Soldier Svejk the protagonist finds himself, for a short while, as a patient a mental institution, one of his fellow-patients being a pregnant gentleman who kept inviting others to a christening.
The book was written a century ago; yet what a change a hundred years make! One has to admit that Hasek anticipated future well when satirizing patriotism as a form of insanity — which is how it is being perceived in certain circles today (Svejk got instantly diagnosed as insane when, upon entering the room in which draft commission sat, he greeted the portrait of the emperor with, “Long live the Emperor! We shall prevail!”). But as to the pregnant gentleman, Hasek was not particularly prescient. To be sure, gentlemen still don’t bear babies — but saying so is no longer polite. In Hasek’s time, it was uncontroversial that such gentleman belonged in a mental institution. Nowadays, this is not clear at all, and doctors would be much more cautious with a diagnosis, I’d guess, given that certain gentlemen see themselves as ladies, and compete against ladies in sports. This progress, unanticipated by Hasek, did not yet reach its fruition in christening of babies born of such gentlemen, but it did affect the medical — and certainly, the teaching, and the journalistic, professions. The doctor who consigned the pregnant gentleman to a mental institution would be, nowadays, likely sued out of his license, and universally shunned as a bigot.
Apparently, Hasek relied too much on what yet another, very old book said: “male and female He created them.” Not so fast! At least, not in sports!
Like other good writers, there are turns of events that Hasek did not imagine, proving yet again the limits to artistic imagination.
That shows the power of progress.
Or does it?