1997: The Year in "Wha?"

Wil McCarthy

22 July 98

(Note: This column was written as a science retrospective for the 1997 Nebula Awards anthology.)

For all of us who grew up reading science fiction set in the 1990s, I'm afraid the year 1997 will always sound like the future, no matter how far it recedes into the past. And if you could somehow fax 1997's headlines back 20 years, most of them would probably sound just about right; by 1977 modems and computer networks had begun to penetrate popular culture, and stories like John Brunner's "THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER" and D.F. Jones' "COLOSSUS" trilogy (and the 1969 movie thereof) had broached the idea of some sort of global Internet. Too, the death of the Apollo program had finally sunk in enough that we were no longer expecting lunar domes and manned Mars missions by milennium's end. Really, the speculations and cutting-edge science of 1977 look very much like the technical mundanities of today.

Trouble is, today's cutting edge has gone peculiar on us. More and more scientific breakthroughs are "stunning" and "amazing" and way, way too abstract for their implications to make sense. Oh, sure, Dolly the sheep proved that mammals could be cloned. And yeah, we had the ongoing debate about life in Martian meteors (my vote: nope), the launch of the (unmanned) Cassini probe to Saturn, the debut of Honda Motor Corporation's "P2" humanoid robot, which walks, climbs stairs, and moves its arms better than C3P0 ever could, and the ongoing silliness on Mir, humanity's first genuine Space Lemon. That one is actually a pretty fine story, full of drama and intrigue and comically malfunctioning spacebots, but like the others it's an old story, with elements dating back to well before the Second World War. Nothing futuristic about that!

No, the actual breakthroughs of 1997 carried headlines like "Distant Origin of Gamma Ray Bursts Confirmed" and "Iron-Breathing Bacteria Found in Boiling Rock 9000 Feet Down!" Um, yeah. Cool. My personal favorite was the announcement that space, long thought to be "isotropic" or uniform in all directions, seems in fact to have a "preferred axis," at least as measured by the polarization of light over very large distances. I don't think anyone can tell you what that really means. It's not that these discoveries aren't interesting -- they are -- or that they're not important -- they are. The problem is that they're slippery and large, offering little foothold to the imagination.

Teleportation was a nice lull, a breakthrough any child could understand, but even here we were beset with strangeness: only single atoms were sent, and not very far, and the scientists sending them kept muttering about "quantum entanglement" and "transmission of information rather than mass-energy." Had they, instead of teleporting atom A, in fact destroyed or disrupted it, and then forced some hapless atom B to disguise itself in A's quantum clothing? My advice is, nobody ride on this thing until we get a clear explanation.

The "Year 2000 Bug" is a neat bit of black humor that would have gone down well in any 1977 SF novel, but SF seems to have missed the boat here; Y2K is already a "current event," and in a few more years, for better or worse, it'll be history.

My vote for the most practical science bite of 1997? It's a humble one that got barely any notice: the addition of blue to the family of light-emitting diodes, which had previously made do with yellow, red, and green. This deceptively simple advancement will pave the way for denser CDs, near-immortal light bulbs, and TV screens the size of postage stamps. Or will it? Technology has a funny way of sliding sideways on us, yielding something other -- something stranger -- than we naively expect. Only you, the reader, looking back on 1997 from some future vantage, can know the answer for sure.

See last quarter's rant.

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