Actually that’s an understatement. Science fiction writers have an intimate and important relationship not just with the future but also with the human condition.
Ask yourself this; in what other profession do people have such freedom to speculate, not just about the future, science and technology, but about its impact on humanity and the world about us and our place in that world?
‘Oh sure,’ you may say, ‘but that goes for scientists and politicians and people too.’
Except I don’t think it does. Science is a brutal business and very political. It’s very hard to be the person who overturns accepted thinking.
Fred Hoyle springs to mind. He paid a huge professional price for suggesting that life on earth might have extra-terrestrial origins. Or Eric Laithwaite, an engineer who played a key role in the development of maglev technology but who was pilloried for positing that gyroscopes might weigh less under certain circumstances, raising the possibility of gyroscopic anti-grav.
Or more recently the Danish climate-sceptic Bjørn Lomborg was savaged for questioning the consensus, while Mark Lynas and George Monbiot came under fire for backing nuclear as a stop-gap to deal with global warming. I don’t agree with Lomborg, and I’d take issue with Lynas & Monbiot, but we need to be able to have a debate and so long as people don’t disguise having a vested interest (links to or funding from etc) and argue honestly and in good faith then we should tolerate dissent and difference.
But the reality is that the stock of scientists and politicians and many other professionals often falls, rather than rises, when they think outside the box. Apparently we don’t really like them straying too far from the comforting and familiar nor getting too far ahead of the pack.
Writers, on the other had, and none more so than fantasy and sci-fi writers, don’t just have latitude to think outside the box, it’s a pre-requesite that they do. Indeed the more imaginative, creative and perceptive their ideas, the more respect they garner. The ability to imagine the future’s every possible permutation is a core requirement.
I was always struck, reading philosophy (with theology) at university, how readily philosophers ventured into the realms of science fiction to test various ideas. Where does identity reside? Before you know it your asking yourself, if you take all Dave’s thoughts and memories and transfer them to another brain and body, who is the real Dave? One could quite readily argue that The Matrix was an exploration of some of the issues raised by Berkeleian Esse est Percipi and his argument that objects exist unobserved because they continue to exist in the mind of God.
So writers have not just the freedom to think original thoughts but there’s an expectation that they should. That in turn provides a fertile repository of ideas that are later plundered by scientists and business people.
I worked for a while with a small Swedish team whose idea of building an online knowledge market was at least partly inspired by Charles Stross and they called their company Mancx after Stross’s protagonist Manfred Macx.
Then there are famous examples such as Arthur C. Clarke’s communications satellite, the hypo-spray in Star Trek and countless others.
So today, as the first of a new year, seems an apposite oe on which to publish this discussion from the summer, recorded alongside the one I published a few months back with the same three contributors; Charles, Ken McLeod and Ann Vandermeer.
With them I explore the releationship between SF and future tech, indulge in a little crystal ball gazing and generally have fun. I hope you enjoy this. Thanks to all three for their thoughts.