The Christian Science Monitor

Future present? How science fiction sees our world in 2050.

Source: Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Just over two years ago, when science fiction writer Mary Robinette Kowal took part in a strategic task force looking into a Department of Next at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, it didn’t take long for her to realize why she’d been asked to attend.

Faced with flat attendance and the pressure to remain relevant in an entertainment-saturated world, the museum was looking to inject a sense of urgency into its mission. The board wanted to reposition the 84-year-old institution as “a futurist and provocateur,” as president and CEO David Mosena put it at the time. Exhibits moving forward should include plausible futurescapes and a narrative shape to how human beings might live. 

“And one of the things that happened during these massive brainstorming sessions was that people would keep saying things like, ‘We don’t think anyone has really thought through the ramifications of what would happen if you tried to colonize another planet, having to set out in a ship that would involve people living on it for generations before they got there,’” says Ms. Kowal, a four-time winner of the Hugo Award, science fiction’s top prize. 

Some 50 thinkers participated in the museum’s task force, including scientists, business leaders, and a few other science fiction writers. “I told them, that’s called a ‘generation ship,’ and I can give you a reading list of people who’ve imagined that,” says Ms. Kowal, whose own short story “For Want of a Nail” did so in 2011. 

On the cusp of this new year, 2020, the Monitor invited Ms. Kowal and a number of contemporary science fiction writers to take part in our own version of a Department of Next, asking them a simple, open-ended question: What will life be like in 2050?

Their visions vary from cargo liners that will float down from space to move your furniture, to smart robots that might make it unnecessary for people to work, to buildings embedded with crops in a new network of global

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