Science fiction has often predicted scientific advances, but what happens when scientists and sci-fi authors collaborate on visions of the future?
The modern science fiction landscape is clogged with dystopian fantasies: the battles of The Hunger Games, the eerie rent-a-human business of Dollhouse, the zombies of the Walking Dead, the (admittedly visionary) cyberpunk novels of William Gibson. At the same time, the rosy 1950s visions of a future with moon colonies and flying cars are nowhere close to reality. It almost seems as though science fiction writers–and the general public–have given up on the future as a happy, technologically enhanced place to be.
Humanity’s lack of a positive vision for the future can be blamed in part on an engineering culture that’s more focused on incrementalism (and VC funding) than big ideas. But maybe science fiction writers should share some of the blame. That’s the idea that came out of a conversation in 2011 between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University.
Stephenson was giving a talk on stage at a conference, lamenting the proliferation of apocalyptic books and movies and complaining that humanity has lost its ambition to do big things. Crow’s response, according to Ed Finn, the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU: “Maybe it’s all your fault. Maybe it’s the science fiction writers that should help us dream better dreams.”
In an article in the World Policy Journal, Stephenson lays out the problem with sci-fi today:
Speaking broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone. I myself have tended to write a lot about hackers–trickster archetypes who exploit the arcane capabilities of complex systems devised by faceless others.
Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.
If science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create new things–Stephenson believes it can–then more visionary, realistic sci-fi stories can help create a better future.
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