When it comes to cool SF technologies, as an engineer I’ve always geeked out over the “Big Dumb Objects” of SF. Ringworlds, Dyson spheres, moon-sized generational starships…it’s the same sort of excitement over mechanical and intellectual achievement that brought tears to my eyes whenever I watched a space shuttle launch. And unlike some of my scientist friends, I’m not the nitpicky sort who sits around complaining, “The Ringworld is unstable!” I’m more interested in the ramifications of futuristic technological marvels than the details of their physics. (This is why I’m an engineer and not a scientist…I like to figure out practical applications rather than abstract theories!)
But it’s not just the big stuff I love. It’s so much fun when an author tosses off references to cool technologies that aren’t the main point of the story, but are neat ideas with a solid grounding in ordinary physics. For example, I loved the deployable sensor arrays in Dave Trowbridge & Sherwood Smith’s Exordium series, where array elements can be positioned at distances great enough from the ship’s position that visible light and other EM radiation originating several days in the past can be observed. (In other words, if a starship comes across wreckage from a recent space battle, the sensors can be deployed so that the original battle can be recorded and watched by the ship’s crew to find out what happened.)
Much as I enjoy the dystopic, cautionary tales so prevalent in SF these days, I have to say I miss the exuberance of SF from the 80s (and earlier). I know there are still authors today who write SF in which technology doesn’t inevitably lead to oppression and disaster, but it feels like they’ve been kind of rare on the ground since cyberpunk made bleak and gritty futures cool. I’d love to read more books like Peter Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star/Judas Unchained duology, which was packed full of neat sf-nal concepts while portraying a future civilization that felt realistically complex without being utterly depressing.
I liked Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star for another reason: there’s a scene in the opening chapters that did a stellar job of capturing the way technology advances in sudden leaps that rarely come in the direction people expect. (Like how in 2011 we have the internet rather than flying cars!) I won’t spoil the scene for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but I thought it was beautifully done.
So: anybody have any suggestions for more recent SF books that have a celebratory attitude toward human innovation, rather than a jaundiced one?