Introduction: Of science fiction and its uses

Posted on Monday, April 30, 2018

Author: Jean-Louis Trudel

ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Historian

There is a car in space, as in an old science fiction movie on its way to beyond Mars orbit, its dashboard emblazoned with the injunction "Don't panic" from a classic science fiction saga by Douglas Adams.  Elon Musk's publicity stunt is therefore a meeting of real technology (the new Falcon Heavy rocket), science fiction (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and space fantasy (Tesla roadsters are not made to fly through vacuum).  Musk himself avers that science fiction stories were among his earliest inspirations.

As the Institute's newest writer in residence, I intend to explore in this blog the relationship between science, society, policy, and science fiction, starting from the postulate that science fiction is at the very least a frequent vehicle for the expression of our society's conceptions of science and technology, and of the world shaped by them.  

This should not come as a surprising revelation, of course.  One of the forebears of science fiction is the French conte philosophique pioneered by Voltaire.  Science fiction in that vein has long offered morality tales as well as social commentary, as a species of folk sociology.  Utopias going back to Plato, More, and Bacon are less pointed about contemporary shortcomings, but the changes they suggest speak volumes about the things needing to be changed.

In a recent essay, writer Annalee Newitz drew the lines connecting current science fiction and fantasy with economic concerns and even fears prompted by the progress of automation.  However, I will explore in the coming months a stronger claim, that science fiction drives scientific advancement and technological innovation, not just the fashioning of cautionary fables for the tech enthusiasts or thought-experiments for the imaginatively blinkered.

The usual interpretation is that science is an input and science fiction an output.  Yet, the relationship between science and science fiction is not as straightforward as the one between scientific research and popularization.  Science fiction storytellers may start with actual science, but where they end up is anybody's guess.  While many scientists cite landmark works of popular science as a formative influence, others will refer to early infatuations with science fiction.  Even the most celebrated works of popular science, such as Sagan's Cosmos, in fact, pale in comparison with the public reach of science fiction blockbusters, such as Cameron's Avatar or the Star Trek franchise.

As a result, the relationship is far less unidirectional.  Science fiction draws from science, technology, and ideas about the future, but, in turn, science fiction may influence the evolution of future technology, thus shaping society at one remove.  The examples of technologies envisioned by science fiction before they became commonplace are legion.  While science fiction did not always originate these ideas, its movies, television series, and publications provided a resonance chamber that exposed them to many more people. 

As a science fiction writer and historian, I've been working at the interface between science and society for many years.  Ever since Hiroshima and the concomitant argument made by Vannevar Bush for large-scale state backing of scientific research, science fiction has been recognized as an ingredient of knowledge societies, with readers and fans numbered among the scientists, engineers, and workers at Los Alamos, at Cape Canaveral or, more recently, in Silicon Valley.  However, a causal link between the popularity of science fiction in a given time and place and technological innovation or the vitality of scientific research is hard to document or demonstrate.  After Hiroshima, a member of the Federation of Atomic Scientists proposed a more sociological rationale for the usefulness of science fiction, crediting its authors “not (…) because their fevered imaginings have pointed the way for research, but because they have sold a substantial bloc of the American people the idea that scientists can do almost anything”. (Albert I. Berger, “Nuclear Energy:  Science Fiction’s Metaphor of Power”, Science Fiction Studies 18, July 1979).  Science fiction may therefore be merely part of a set of feedback loops within a broader knowledge ecology.  Such a back and forth is nicely illustrated in the case of energy in a recent analysis by historian Iwan Rhys Morus.

However, the possibility that science fiction might also be a means to the end of acting on the innovation ecosystem has proven increasingly seductive in recent decades.  In 1999, the European Space Agency turned to science fiction writers and experts as part of its “Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction” initiative, aiming to “to review the past and present science-fiction literature, artwork and films in order to identify and assess innovative technologies and concepts described therein which could possibly be developed further for space applications.”  In 2017, in Innovation, Between Science and Science Fiction, Thomas Michaud examined a number of cases where science fiction became a resource for innovation, including the increasingly obvious interest of Chinese state and private actors for the promotion of science fiction. 
 
Indeed, we do not need to look far afield for evidence of such Chinese interest.  Last year, Ottawa writer Derek Kunsken was one of several international science fiction writers invited to the 4th International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu, with Chinese technology and media giant Tencent as a sponsor.  Selected conference participants, including Kunsken, were also invited afterwards to Hangzhou (China’s Silicon Valley) to learn about technological development at Ant Financial (an Alibaba spin-off) to foster a meeting of minds with the company’s engineers, in the hope that the writers might later author science fiction inspired by the company’s use of artificial intelligence.

As writer in residence at the Institute, I will offer a series of posts exploring such issues and cases in greater depth.  Is science fiction merely an adjunct to the resonance chamber I mentioned above, also comprising popular science, media reports, and blue sky projects?  Or does it offer something unique?  Stories incorporate novel technologies and breakthrough scientific discoveries within a different, more or less fully realized world, furnished with characters and socio-political details.  The combination makes for greater verisimilitude than a more factual economic or technical scenario.  Such an immersion can be profoundly convincing and stimulating, narrowing the gap between reality and possibility.

Does science fiction sometimes exaggerate the negatives?  Of course.  Does it sometimes exaggerate the positives?  Of course, though perhaps less frequently nowadays.  Yet, gross simplifications may be what is needed to communicate new ideas.  At the very least, stories may crystallize concerns and views of the future to turn them into topics for new conversations.  If we grant them greater power and influence, on the other hand, it will make sense to ask why some national cultures of innovation ignore the contributions of science fiction and who gets to emphasize which stories are told.

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