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Shift in science fiction might prove its saviour

In a recent interview, Peter Thiel, one of America's foremost technology investors, said science fiction is dying.

The first outsider to invest in Facebook – thereby making himself a fortune – and a staunch sceptic of universities, which he thinks stifle creative talent, he's an unusual source of literary wisdom, even though he has named various parts of his venture capital business after Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings.

The rubric on the home page of his company, Founders Fund, hints at his jaundiced, if not necessarily wrong, perspective: "We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters." Put like that, you can see why he finds modern gizmos disappointing. Only 10 days ago, there was a fanfare for a new mobile phone that can survive immersion in water for half an hour. Useful perhaps if you're in a sinking ship, but hardly essential if your call can wait until you're out of the shower. And then we were told about the latest very smart TV, which detects whoever has walked into the room, and beams out programmes according to that person's preferences. Are these going to change the world? Will they reboot the economy? More importantly, are they the stuff of a classic sci-fi plot?

In the light of such things, maybe it's not surprising that Thiel considers the modern technological imagination trivial and limited compared to the visionary, no-holds-barred work done in the mid-20th century, such as space exploration, that to his mind held out the hope, or even assurance, of a brighter future for humankind.

As evidence of the slowdown of truly useful invention, he points to the decline of science fiction. You might think this an unlikely barometer of scientific evolution, but Thiel believes its days are numbered, thanks to the moribundity of innovation around us. "Today, science fiction is basically dystopian," he says. "It's technology that doesn't work; it's technology that kills people. It's not technology that makes things better."

Certainly, a quick skim of the recent sci-fi bestsellers shows apocalypse is the main theme, be it the mooted end of Iain M Banks's utopian society, The Culture, or the gradual demise of planet earth as seen in Margaret Atwood's Oryx And Crake series.

The irony, however, is that as sci-fi deals more with current earthly and all-too-real preoccupations, and less with fabulous technologies and hypothetical worlds, the genre is growing more popular with those of us who know nothing about science, and never want to.

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