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Frank Catalano

I have seen the future. And it wears goggles and Victorian clothing.

At least, that’s the immediate impression you might get after visiting Norwescon 34, which was held this past weekend near SeaTac airport. More than 3,500 attendees sold out the 2011 iteration of the long-running regional science-fiction and fantasy convention, in which “steampunk” (a sub-genre about advanced technology in a slightly different 19th century) appeared to be a prevalent choice of those dressing in character.

But I was attending Norwescon not to admire the select few who wore finely detailed costumes, but to speak on and listen to several panels to get a feel for what the future, not an alternate past, might hold. While science fiction writers can be notoriously bad at predicting the future (and they’ll admit, despite the occasional success, that literary predictions often make use of the “put a thousand monkeys at a thousand keyboards and one will produce Shakespeare” factor), they still tend to be better than many self-proclaimed “futurists” who frequently lack an imaginative spark in their linear thinking.

So what thoughtful nuggets were produced in lieu of Easter eggs? It turned out efforts were actively underway at the convention to not just speculate about the future, but create it.

The future of publishing. One session gave an update on The Mongoliad, a serialized historical adventure novel from seven writers, including well-known authors Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson. Launched last fall, the installments – including text, video and images – are delivered via the web, by iPhone/iPad app, and soon by Android and Kindle apps. “We don’t believe people are reading less. We believe they are reading less at home,” explains managing author Mark Teppo.

A sampling of the nerdiness up for discussion at the Norwescon science-fiction and fantasy convention in SeaTac. (Photo by nonsequiturlass via Flickr.)

The Mongoliad, effectively, mixes Dickensian serial fiction timing with mobile technology and a television-like group writing process. The goal? To return some of the immediacy and excitement to now-static novels, and deliver the result directly from the creators to the audience. The narrative design also allows readers to contribute elements that, if good enough, will become part of the official story. All for $10 per year, about the price of a paperback.

Ultimately, The Mongoliad is not all about technology, but story. “At its heart, “ explains Stephenson, the “epic novel” set in 1241 came about when they were thinking, “how can we get a knight and a Samurai fighting each other? Because that would be cool.”

The future of science. The University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering used Norwescon 34 to launch The Tomorrow Project Seattle, soliciting short fiction, comics or short screenplays based directly on research being conducted by the UW and Intel. And not squishy, easy science. The research and emerging tech from which stories have to directly extrapolate include work in “synthetic biology, computer security, robotics, DNA sequencing and bio/chemical sensing, minute architecture, ray tracing/virtual reality and computer vision.” Writers traditionally call this “hard” science fiction, but not usually because it’s difficult.

The seven topics are illustrated by seven videos on the Tomorrow Project Seattle website. Submissions are due by June 15th, and those that pass muster with an editorial board focused on how well they design the future will wind up in a digital anthology that will include an original story by author Cory Doctorow.

Amid all this creation of and speculation about the future, there was no shortage of commentary on the current state of technology. Special guest of honor Jim Butcher, best known for the Dresden Files urban fantasy novels, talked about his attempt to work a BlackBerry-like device, concluding, “Never get a phone that’s smarter than you.”

But perhaps the most telling comment about how sideways predictions can go came during a session discussing the writing of the late Philip K. Dick, author of the reality-bending works that became the basis for movies such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau. Dick’s absurdist notions of 40 years ago may seem very appropriate now that, as panelist and writer Michael Swanwick noted, “We live in a world where Coca-Cola machines talk back to you.”

It’s also an example of the kind of fantastic blindsiding that can give pause to those who think that because they understand the present of tech, they’ll be equally accurate about its future.

[Photo by Nonsequiturlass via Flickr.]

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