Why our sci-fi dreams of the future of medicine are indistinguishable from magic.
Empire Strikes back screenshot
If we could implore the future-gods to deliver us the medical tech of tomorrow, today, it'd be a pretty straightforward ask: we'd want machines that program us into perfect health, pronto. At least, the health care technology we roll out in our most popular science fiction is about that complicated: A techno-wand instantly diagnoses your disease. A hospital bed-tube immediately puts your body back together. A super-vaccine cures what ails you.
The bulk of pop sci-fi's take on health care boils down to a simple ethos: In the future, we'll be able to hit a button, fix the body—with lasers, scanners, or robots, whatever—and get on with it. Our future medical technologies are almost utopian by default.
Star Trek, the progenitor of so many of those utopian tech ideals—instant food from a replicator, instant entertainment from the holodeck—offers, as per usual, a perfect example. The medical tricorder—instant diagnosis—is maybe the most influential piece of fictional health technology ever put to screen. The 90s-era cellphone-shaped device takes comprehensive, on-the-spot health readings of a person's vitals; it's all there, a complete, real-time ticker of human vital signs. (True, it doesn't always work, and there are elusive, undiagnosable diseases propelling a number of episodes, but then again, they only claim the redshirts.)
The tricoder has remained so appealing a concept that modern tech companies are still pursuing a real-world version of the self-diagnostic device. In 2012, a $10 million X Prize was announced at CES for a functioning medical tricorder. A year later, a startup, explicitly influenced by the tricorder, promising its own variant, the Scanadu Scout, set a $100,000 crowdfunding goal on Indiegogo.
TIME describes it: "A hockey puck-shaped object that can apparently measure your temperature, heart rate, oximetry (blood oxygenation), run an electrocardiogram, gauge heart rate variability, clock pulse wave transit time (related to blood pressure), perform a urine analysis and calculate a metric Scanadu refers to (vaguely) as 'stress.' All you have to do to get these readings, urine analysis notwithstanding, is hold the Scout against your forehead for a few seconds."
The Scout ultimately pulled in $1.6 million from crowdfunders—at least one indicator of how eager we are, either for unambiguous DIY medical readouts, or a future as uncomplicated as Star Trek's—but was met with mixed reviews when it was finally released earlier this year.
A step up from the tricorder is the other best-known sci-fi medical innovation: full-body healing tube. Get in, get healed, get out. Mechanical arms and amniotic fluids and nanotech of unnamed variety will repair your bodily wounds.
Body-tube incubators have graced any number of films, TV shows, and books, and operates according to various timelines, but is always pretty effective: Luke Skywalker, suspended in fluids with an oxygen mask on after his skirmish with the Banta; Leeloo in Fifth Element, actually getting reanimated into perfect health from a scrap of DNA by some human 3D printer; and, most recently, Elysium's only-available-in-orbit instant-healing MRI machines.
Though the film was deeply flawed, Elysium argued that even if we do ever manage to build such miraculous body-fixing technology, it will probably only be available to the rich (the availability of the machines drive the plot of the film, with disadvantaged migrants sneaking into to Elysium to heal their sick). Building the perfect, life-preserving health care of the future is as much a political project as a technological one; Elysium ends with the arrival of high-tech universal health care clinics on a once-spoiled Earth.
There are of course plenty of nuanced takes on medical tech in speculative fiction, too; consider the memory-wiping therapy in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which actually sort of foreshadows what real-world optogenetics researchers are looking into now, and the DNA-organized society of Gattaca that at least reflects some of the experiments with biometrics today's governments are pursuing.
The assisted-living bot of Robot and Frank offers a realistic glimpse of what end-of-life care may look like soon (so, for that matter, does a short story we published on Terraform, The Counselor). And the dystopian implications of organ harvesting are examined in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Larry Niven's A Gift from Earth.
Sill, chances are, in a given future fiction, at least our most widescreen mythologies, we'll gloss right over how health care works—in our star treks and wars, machines just make people better, stat. It speaks to our general squeamishness towards medical matters, maybe, our eagerness to get beyond the body and into the more escapist elements of our fictions. The longer we linger on the fragility of the flesh, after all, the longer we're reminded that we're probably not going to be around to see any of these future visions come to pass: that the ultimate problem of the future—how our body will survive it—remains shrouded in delusions of grandeur, high tech or otherwise.
That's why, unlike so many of the other technologies dreamt long in advance by science fictional minds—the submarine, the iPad, the robotics—sci-fi medicine really does seem to resemble Arthur C. Clarke's infamous adage that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Because that's the techno-utopian dream, just like the medieval dream—fix the body, in a flash, like a magic spell.