Sci-Fi Writers Urge Strapped Researchers to Keep Dreaming

Haylee Bolinger, Arizona State U.

A tower 20 kilometers tall is contemplated in a new book of tech-positive stories.
October 13, 2014

It’s a conservative, incremental time in science these days. Grants are elusive. Many researchers say that, to win financing, they have to almost know the results of their experiment before they conduct it. Forget moonshots; they just want to make it to next year with a full salary.

Despite those headwinds, a group of science-fiction authors and researchers met this month to give a glad yell of support to those engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs with big dreams. It’s time to aim higher, they said—much higher.

The day was a roadshow, held here at the National Academies’ Keck Center for a new book: Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. An anthology of techno-optimistic science-fiction stories, the book is a product of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, founded in 2012 to foster collaboration among writers, artists, and scientists.

The center spun out of an encounter between Neal Stephenson, the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, and Michael M. Crow, Arizona State’s president. Mr. Stephenson, who grew up watching the Gemini and Apollo missions, had gone public with a complaint: Society has grown risk averse, reluctant to dream big. Mr. Crow turned the lament around: Maybe science-fiction writers weren’t doing enough to inspire these dreams.

It was a pitch that hearkened back to a progressive view of the sciences that has long been out of fashion not just in academe, but also in science fiction. Dystopia is dominant. In novel after novel, humans have found infinite ways, enabled by technology, to fall prey to our basest impulses. Long gone are the dreams of Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. Long gone, too, are the fans: Today’s readers seem to prefer fantasy over science fiction: vampires, werewolves, and wizards over Mars colonists and robot butlers.

Mr. Stephenson took the bait, and alongside the center’s director, Ed Finn, and Kathryn Cramer, a science-fiction author, he charged 16 authors, including luminaries like Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, to write stories of the near future that avoided "hyperspace, holocaust, and hackers." (Namely, implausible scientific advances, dystopias, and ragtag groups finding new uses for existing technology.) His own story describes the erection of a 20-kilometer-high steel tower above the Nevada desert. Drones and 3D printers come up frequently in the book.

Accessible Tech

A few lessons emerged from the book, Mr. Stephenson said at the National Academies. First, "dystopia has its defenders," he said. Look no further than 1984, which has been highly productive for society as a warning of what government surveillance could look like. Second, he said, the hacker narrative proved unkillable. More often than not, the stories’ innovations came from outsiders, not institutions.

"That's all well and good, but I'll just point out that that's not where most actual innovation really occurs. It tends to occur in giant corporations and big government-funded labs," Mr. Stephenson said. Even in an optimistic book, he noted, "we're no longer looking toward big institutions as places where big creative technical thinking can occur." He had no answer why that was the case.

It was noteworthy, then, that some of the bigger ideas of the day came from government employees. Thomas Kalil, a deputy director in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, made a pitch for mini-Apollo programs like NASA’s mission to chart every potential hazardous asteroid. "This is something we have to worry about," he said. "It's not just science fiction."

Meanwhile, Daniel Kaufman, a director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, wanted to make technical knowledge less of an elite system.

"What if you could just talk to a computer and tell it what you want? We could articulate it at a high level and have it write its own code," he said. It would be revolutionary. "What if you didn't just have a robot babysitter"—the premise of one story—"but you could program your robot babysitter? And it could reflect your ideas and your mores?"

Often, talk veered from positive futures to present worries. Barton Gellman, a Washington Post reporter known for his coverage of Edward Snowden's leaks, sat on one panel. "We're inside this one-way mirror," he said, referring to the surveillance state. What does science fiction say to do about that?

It depends who’s writing. One contributor to Hieroglyph, David Brin, has argued that surveillance technology is getting so cheap that its spread can’t be stopped; instead we should ensure that everyone has access, to equalize its power. Another author, Peter Watts, argues that this presumes an equality of risk; in nature, when a bigger animal begins stalking a smaller animal, the smaller animal runs away.

Over all, the relationship between science and science fiction remains mysterious. Certainly, many nascent scientists read it. But rare is the author who anticipated a discovery, writes Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State, in the book's foreword: "The imagination of the natural world far exceeds that of even the most gifted science-fiction writer."

There are small pockets of direct innovation, though, added the chief scientist of NASA, Ellen Stofan. For example, right now on the International Space Station there’s a floating robotic orb directly inspired by Luke Skywalker’s dueling partner in Star Wars. (The spheres are used to test the best algorithms for zero-gravity movement and docking.)

As it happened, even Mr. Stephenson had revised his views, after writing a "hard science" novel, including a dive into ways to escape the planet's atmosphere.

"What I found out pretty quickly is that so many brilliant people have been thinking about that exact problem for so long that it's almost a waste of time," he said. There’s a zoo of ideas out there, many decades old. "It's less a problem of coming up with cool ideas, more a problem of how do you push those ideas forward."

In other words, it’s about money.

Correction (10/20/2014, 2:42 p.m.): An earlier version of this article gave the impression that Ed Finn was the sole editor of Hieroglyph. The anthology was in fact edited by Mr. Finn and Kathryn Cramer, a science-fiction author. The article has been updated to reflect their shared role.