In an article in the World Policy Journal, noted SF writer Neal Stephenson says we are experiencing ‘Innovation Starvation’:
This summer, at the age of 51—not even old—I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad. I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself . . . Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.
Stephenson goes on to describe a futurist conference he attended in 2011 where scientists and engineers told him Science Fiction had a role in this.
. . . The audience at Future Tense was more confident than I that science fiction [SF] had relevance—even utility—in addressing the problem. I heard two theories as to why:
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 . . .
And that it was the Science Fiction writers who had dropped the ball!
“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow. . . He refers, of course, to SF writers. The scientists and engineers, he seems to be saying, are ready and looking for things to do. Time for the SF writers to start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense.
Stephenson intends to address the issue via what he calls the Hieroglyph project, “An effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age.”
Of course there is plenty of criticism of the Stephenson article. While Analee Newitz of the Smithsonian is generally supportive, others think his focus on Getting Big Stuff Done is rubbish. And, even if the goal of the Hieroglyph project is a right and proper, can it actually succeed? Wouldn’t it take more than an SF anthology (even one filled with stories by big names) to shift engineering and scientific dollars into the kinds of Big Stuff he is talking about? Even accepting that Stephenson’s article is mostly hyperbole intended to provoke discussion, the idea that he (with the help of his friends) can have that kind of effect by writing a book seems like braggadocio and hubris.
Isn’t it more likely that the shoe is on the other foot? That the current crop of SF writers is more affected by contemporary cultural attitudes than the other way around? That the entertainment focus on apocalyptic visions and nihilism is a result of demand, not supply?
Moreover, accelerating change, the very factor leading to a possible Technological Singularity event within the next generation or two, is driven more by Small Things like shrinking computer chips than it is by Big Things like space stations. In fact, assuming a Technological Singularity does occur, it seems likely any attempt at creating a spaceborne civilization of humans (as we know them) will run out of time even if we made it a priority right now.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project goes forward. Will it just be a flash-in-the-pan book or will it have a more enduring effect on cultural attitudes towards science?