Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Innovation Starvation?

I came across an interesting article by the novelist Neal Stephenson today. It's on the World Policy Institute's Website.

In arguing that modern culture is failing to innovate big scientific ideas for the future, Stephenson considers the role that science fiction writers might play in encouraging scientific advancement.

For example, he mentions two ways the SF writers may have influence:

"1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious. 

2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers."

He makes some interesting points. Leaves me hankering for a big, hopeful, bold novel of a future that we can aspired to. I like dystopian fiction as much as anyone, but... it might be nice to find a way to feel positive about a possible future - and challenged to achieve it.

You can read Stepheson's piece HERE.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Jamey Stegmaier said...

I'd really enjoy reading a novel set in a future where most things work out for the best. A big, hopeful novel, as you say. Why doesn't this exist? I've enjoyed my fair share of dystopian fiction lately, but why is the world always in trouble and why is there always some organization that runs everyone's lives? Surely there must be a novel out there about a future that is largely good and is populated by people who still have free will.

2:15 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Agreed. I have to admit that Mr. Stephenson has kicked my head... in a good way. It's got me wondering if I'll write some proper SF at some point. It may be that in the future - looking back - our fascination with dystopian stories seems... quaint and... shortsighted.

I'm not saying I feel that way now. The future is daunting, and I think public policy is horribly discouraging about in many ways, But...

But this. My wife basically can't read sf because so much of it is about dismal futures. That's a problem. It makes great sense to me that sf should also be about inspiring futures. Maybe, if it was, we'd have a better chance of getting there.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Jamey Stegmaier said...

There's hints of Neil Degrasse Tyson in what you're saying about sf inspiring positive futures. I definitely agree.

I think the tricky parts--in terms of storytelling--are conflict and discovery. Many sci-fi or dystopian novels derive their overarching conflict from (a) a utopian world that turns out to have sinister and bad underpinnings (Brave New World) or (b) a dreadful world that turns out to have ever-widening glimmers of hope (The Hunger Games). The elements of discovery are there too. I would almost say that they're inherent to futuristic fiction.

I did think of one exception, but it doesn't take place on Earth: A book called "Old Man's War." (I apologize if it was you or someone on the blog who referred me to that book--I've forgotten who recommended it to me a few months ago). It's a fantastic novel, and the future is full of hope. There's still conflict, but it's not all that different from conflicts we experience in the present day. So perhaps it is possible to pull off a novel with an inspiring future--one that your wife can read. :)

6:04 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Old Man's War is a lot of fun. I enjoyed it, and John's a great guy, too.

You're right that there's lots of feel-good futuristic stuff in it. Surely, getting a complete body reboot in your old age - jumping back to your sexual prime - would be nice...

I do think the fact that it's not really earth-based makes it a little different than what Stephenson might be looking for. Also, it's a war book. It's cool to get that new body, but getting it so that you can spend your life at war with aliens does take away some of the shine.

It's funny that so much of far-future space opera - which often has fantastic, positive technology - has to happen off earth. I'm thinking Peter F Hamilton and Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds. It's a little like it's hardwired that there may be an incredible, space-traveling future out there, but it's taken as a given that before it happens we're going to destroy earth - or make it a backwater that nobody wants to live on anymore.

On the other hand, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series kinda fits the ambitious future bill. That mostly takes place on Mars, sure, but earth is recognizably modern day. There's enhanced technology on earth, but there's also a massive effort and investment in settling Mars. Feels kinda old school. I liked it...

9:14 AM  
Blogger Jamey Stegmaier said...

It looks like Kim Stanley Robinson has a new book called "2312" coming out in a few months--I'll check out his Mars series by then.

Although, I still think you're onto something that a bright future could take place on Earth (opposed to outer space or another planet), and perhaps the mere act of reading about such a future will inspire the scientists of tomorrow to do something about it.

Also, very cool that you get to say things like, "John's a great guy." Well done, sir. :)

4:26 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

You wanna know how great? Step back in time to the day after I won the John W Campbell Award...

I'm in the convention center, riding down a long, long escalator, wearing my new tiara. I see John and family opposite me, riding up. John yells, "Hey, you owe the Scalzi voting block! It's thanks to us that you won!"

He wasn't exaggerating either. I just squeaked to a win by a couple of votes. So, yeah, I guess I do still owe them...

11:40 AM  
Blogger Jamey Stegmaier said...

That's awesome! Very cool that you got the Scalzi vote. That should be a term in the literary world: The Scalzi Vote. You either have it or you don't.

11:21 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

He's a good guy to have on your side, that's for sure...

9:42 AM  

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