Most popular science fiction is still not all that ambitious in what it expects the audience to accept. The basics, such as assumptions that space will be explored by large spaceships, and that faster-than-light travel will be achieved before human near-immortality, are given. Yet, neither is a probable outcome within current trends of technological progress, and thus represent an unwillingness to challenge many basic assumptions about our technology and existence.
Reality can be far more exotic than the science fiction of earlier generations, because not only are the wrong trends extrapolated in science fiction, but linear, rather than exponential, thinking is applied.
People are working to build a functioning space elevator by 2018 - just 12 years from now. It would consist of a carbon nanotube ribbon that extends into space to carry 100 tons up at a time, to a height of at least 65 miles or higher. NASA has a long-term goal of extending an elevator all the way up to 62,000 miles in height, or one-fourth of the distance to the Moon.
Beyond absurd, you say?
Material strength, at least, is not going to be a problem. Carbon Nanotubes can form superstrong materials that can be strong enough and light enough to handle this. Nanotubes were priced at $230,000 per pound in 2000, but the price is dropping exponentially, and even a 65-mile ribbon would not be tremendously expensive by 2018.
My opinion on whether this goal is possible? It is difficult, and 2018 might be a decade too soon, even if it does succeed. But a voyage to the Moon would have appeared difficult to Thomas Jefferson, and the accelerating rate of progress continues to shorten the interval between major innovations. They already advanced from 300m to 1600m in just a few months. What if they got to, say, 10 miles by 2016? Would people take notice?
This will be a fun one to watch over the next few years. Stay tuned for updates.