In his 2005 novel Accelerando, science fiction author and futurist Charles Stross wrote a collection of stories about the accelerating pace of change in the modern world: Inspired by his experience as a coder at a 30%-annual-growth-rate financial startup during the dotcom boom, he set out to capture what happens when technological progress builds upon itself, so that the future seems to approach more quickly every year.
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This year, it seems, the future caught up with him.
As Stross wrote in his blog earlier this month, he had been planning to author a third book in his Halting State trilogy, whose story centered on crime and espionage carried out in a massive multiplayer game’s virtual world. His problem: reality had become stranger than science fiction. As revealed in classified documents leaked by intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, employees of the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ spy agency infiltrated virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life as recently as 2009, recruiting informants and patrolling for terrorists who might use the worlds as hidden channels for communication or money laundering.
When real-life intelligence agencies are using virtual Orc avatars to fight Al Qaeda, science fiction seems redundant. Stross writes:
At this point, I’m clutching my head. “Halting State” wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?)…I’m throwing in the towel.
In many ways, 2013 felt like a year where Stross’s phenomenon of “accelerando” brought our notion of the future rushing into the present ahead of schedule, again and again. From augmented reality headsets to cryptocurrency to 3D-printed guns, the ingredients of cyberpunk and dystopian worlds are stepping out of novels and films and directly into headlines.
Here are my picks for the stories from this year that most blurred that line between science fiction and non-fiction. Add your own in comments below.
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