A Response to Neal Stephenson’s Call to Innovation Among SF Writers

A few days ago, a talk by Neal Stephenson (author of the newly-released REAMDE) was posted online. Stephenson recalls how both he and his parents have seen tremendous scientific developments: planes, cars, television, nuclear weapons, space travel. He notes that science fiction authors similarly wrote about about worlds were even more fantastic inventions were commonplace, such as Asimov’s robots, Heinlien’s rockets, and Gibson’s cyberspace. Such stories fired the imaginations of scientists and engineers, creating a virtuous cycle of innovation.

But Stephenson goes on to lament that much SF has taken on a darker, more ambiguous, more skeptical tone in contrast to the optimism of SF’s golden age. Stephenson notes that with the advent of the information age, managers now have access to tremendous amounts of data. Possessing an illusion of near-perfect information, managers no longer have any appetite for risk. So instead of great projects, managers tinker at the edges (this is doubly true when the manager might face the wrath of angry minority shareholders, Stephenson argues). He cites his home of Seattle, where a light rail project has been abandoned in favor of creating bike lanes. Therefore, Stephenson calls upon SF writers to once again think big and inspire their readers to drive innovation.

I don’t know if I completely agree with Stephenson. With the death of Steve Jobs on everyone’s minds, we should all see that innovation is not dead. Although he bemoans the death of the Space Shuttle and the lack of colonies on Mars, manned space travel is not dead. Look at Virgin Galactic or Space X. And yet those are arguably vanity projects of very wealthy men that may one day turn a profit, but only after a fortune has been consumed developing them. It is probably easier for one person to push for a risky endeavor than a large corporation. Particularly when the wealthy men are of an age that they would also miss the great innovations of the 20th century. How do you inspire today’s young to study engineering, to be risky managers, to take on big projects?

Not too long ago, I posted about why I suspect dystopian novels are so popular, especially among young readers. I focused on the increasing number of young and unemployed, decreasing opportunities, increasing social divide, fewer social safety nets, and the rising prices of necessary goods. My theory was that fiction follows society, whereas Stephenson argues that fiction can lead society. I suppose there is some truth to both theories. If one thinks of art as holding a mirror up to society, then two possibilities can occur. Someone can see what they expect to see (this is akin to my theory). Alternatively, someone can react to what they see and change their behavior (Stephenson’s theory).

If I can take this already overburdened metaphor one step further, picture this: you look into the mirror every morning, and things are getting worse, but so slowly you don’t notice them (the rise of dystopian fiction). One day, you notice things are so bad, that you hit rock bottom and decide to make changes (call this Stephenson’s speech). You start eating better, sleeping more, and working out. You notice positive changes in the mirror, so you redouble your efforts and keep seeing positive changes (a new SF golden age that drives innovation). Maybe Stephenson was onto something after all.

What do you think of Stephenson’s speech? What do you think of fiction’s relationship to society? Can a new SF golden age inspire a new wave of innovation?

Grab Bag of Miscellany

First off, let me thank everyone who saw my comment on Bruce Schneir’s blog and checked out my site. I hope you liked what you found, and I hope you keep coming back.

Second, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that my work project continues, and it’s keeping me super busy. So, the posting will be light. The good news is that the project has a deadline of tomorrow evening, so normal scheduling should return on Friday (and if you dislike my posts, I guess I have only bad news for you, but thanks for visiting anyway).

Third, because I hate to send you away with nothing, I have some goodies for you. As I wrote about yesterday, Asimov was a great writer not only because he was able to think creatively about technology, but also because his writing displayed his empathy. It seems like I may have been on to something because renowned author Ben Bova also wrote something similar about his own writing on the Clarion Foundation’s blog (yes, it posted yesterday, but I swear I didn’t read it until this morning).

And just in case Ben Bova isn’t enough, to tide you over during my long absence, I also point you toward this: a biography of Philip K. Dick on hilowbrow.com. It’s long enough that you may just finish it by the time I get back. Enjoy.

Science Fiction & Predicting the Future

Today Bruce Schneier posted a snippet of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short story, “Let’s Get Together.” Schneier notes that Asimov predicted security theater 55 years ago. Here’s the clip:

“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”

The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”

At its heart, science fiction is about extrapolating the future of a technology, and, more importantly, describing the effects of that technology on society. I think most non-sci-fi fans only see the first part of that equation–the ray guns and space ships–not the people firing those guns or living aboard those ships.

So it should not come as a surprise that people focus on technology when they look back on older science fiction pieces to see which authors correctly predicted the future. We compare our cell phones to Captain Kirk’s communicator, or we ask where our jetpacks and flying cars are, for example. But as Arthur C. Clarke said in 1964, prediction is a mug’s game: either your predictions sound reasonable (and so they will turn out to be too safe and conservative), or your predictions are so laughably outrageous that they will be ignored (and yet you will likely be correct).

Instead, we should look back at Asimov’s piece and marvel not as his accuracy of predicting technology, such as the use of x-ray machines in public places. We should marvel at Asimov’s ability to understand humanity, to understand our desires and our fears. As I recently posted, great writers will deal just as effectively with internal conflict as they do with physical dangers and whiz-bang devices.

That’s what made Asimov a great writer, and it’s the humanity, not the gadgetry, that makes science fiction great.