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?