June 5, 2012

World-Bettering Example 1

    Less Dystopia, Please

        I've said it before and I'll say it again: one of the roles I think speculative fiction can play in society is to help make the world a better place.  Another thing I'm always going on about is my dislike of unrelieved doom and gloom in fiction.  Of course it's always nice to find someone who agrees with me, and in this case I've found (somewhat unexpectedly) science fiction superstar Neal Stephenson.  Stephenson has been arguing that recent science fiction is too much about nihilism and apocalypse.  This is a bad thing because such negative scenarios aren't inspiring, and without the inspiration of imaginary hopeful futures, people (by which he means specifically scientists) will be less likely to work toward solutions to the problems of today.
        Admittedly, the only book of Stephenson's that I've ever read is Snow Crash (recommended to me by D because of the linguistics connection).  The world as depicted in Snow Crash is hardly "The Jetsons," and indeed philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 that "the problem with Snow Crash is… that it isn't inspirational."  But perhaps it was criticisms like this that turned Stephenson's thoughts to the lack of hopeful sci-fi visions of the future.  According to a recent article in Smithsonian, Stephenson went to a futurist conference in 2011 and found that the audience was blaming sci-fi authors for the slow pace of real-life technological innovation.
        Smithsonian cites Denise Caruso of Carnegie Mellon University as saying that "science fiction helps [scientists] think about how the work they're doing might eventually turn out."  And that "worldbuilding, she says, helps people anticipate how innovations might be used for good or ill in daily life."
        Neal Stephenson's response is the Hieroglyph project, intended to inspire writers to inspire scientists.  He hopes that if writers start infusing sci-fi with more optimism, "young engineers and scientists will absorb ideas from the stories and think, 'If I start working on this right now, by the time I retire it might exist.'"
        Will it work?  Who knows, but I'm all for it!  Stay tuned for some concrete examples of fictional inspiration in the next couple of posts.
        You can read Smithsonian's entire article here.

[Pictures: The World that Was, wood block print by Fritz Eichenberg, c 1975-9.]


Pax said...

The late sociologist Elise Boulding used to conduct workshops to envision a positive future. Participants then worked backwards towards the present, noting what steps might enable the hopeful world to emerge. Sci-fi writers could work in this direction instead of offering the apparent worst case scenarios that are all too easy to imagine.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Yes. The important thing for this, I think, is to write stories that are thoughtful about how new technologies can be good or bad - but how if we make the right choices and proceed with some moral compass then we need not give up in despair but can, indeed, improve life for all of us. I agree with Boulding that envisioning possibilities is crucial.