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Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Science fiction, double feature ... - Jennifer Rohn & Neal Stephenson, 18 August 2012

Ken MacLeod at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2012

A sunny Saturday afternoon (18 August, 5-6 pm) saw the Scottish Power Theatre tent filled almost to capacity for the Wellcome Trust Event 'Putting the Cult into Culture', a discussion on science fiction and science in fiction. Chaired by Forum Writer in Residence, Pippa Goldschmidt, the discussion featured best-selling SF writer and tech guru Neal Stephenson, with cell biologist, novelist and LabLit editor Jennifer Rohn.

Rohn began by explaining that lab lit, as distinct from science fiction, is fiction about scientists and scientific practice in the real world, historical or present-day, rather than in imagined or future worlds. The number of novels that fit this description is suprisingly small - she knew of about 120 in English, which is not a lot to show for the four centuries (more or less) in which science and the novel have flourished in the English-speaking world.

Scientists, she went on, are 'not trusted messengers'. Their views on controversial topics, even within their own specialty, are seen as just their opinion. By showing scientists as human beings, and showing their daily work realistically, lab lit could help to overcome popular suspicion and incomprehension of what scientists are up to. It could also, of course, be of value and enjoyment to scientists and science students to see their world and way of life reflected in literature, and these are among lab lit's most avid readers.

Neal Stephenson looked at the topic from a different angle: the role of science fiction as a stimulus to scientific and technological advance, not just in attracting young people to study or work in these fields (as it evidently does) but in inspiring scientists and engineers with visions of what they could do. Here, he argued, science fiction writers have been falling down on the job: instead of envisioning big projects such as space exploration or robotics - as their forebears in the 1920s-1950s did - they have wallowed in dystopian gloom. Thus they are partly responsible for the lack of major technological innovations which are sorely needed in such areas as energy supply. Heinlein's rockets and Asimov's robots gave engineers something to shoot for. We should try to do at least as well, or better. Stephenson has presented this view at conferences, and set up a website, Hieroglyph, to open a new dialogue between SF and technology.

A lively discussion followed, in which I didn't get a word in edgeways, which is probably just as well because I wouldn't have been polite. At a Genomics Forum-sponsored event at the 2006 Book Festival, SF writer Charlie Stross provocatively said that SF is the literary wing of a totalitarian movement that never got a mound of skulls to call its own: Technocracy. I've found this a useful quip for resisting attempts to impose an agenda on the genre - including, I have to say, that of 'public understanding of/engagement with science'.

Stephenson, in my view, has got the problem exactly backwards. There's no shortage of grand visions of technically practicable and/or boldly innovative projects, in SF and in the imaginations of engineers and scientists themselves. The reasons why they're not implemented, or even seriously proposed, are social, economic, and political. We need - in the first instance - to understand these obstacles, rather than present yet more shiny visions of what could be done if they were overcome. Needless to say, opinions as to what the obstacles are will differ. For one example of such an analysis, I'd point to David Graeber's recent stimulating if perhaps over-stated polemical essay Of Flying Cars and the Falling Rate of Profit.

A bit of dystopian gloom is just what we need. Sheer dismay at where we're going could yet drag us out of the rut.


  1. I also meant to say that what I've read of Neal's own fiction belies his prescription: for example, the social and political and philosophical speculations in Snow Crash are a far more inspiring legacy and effect of the book than the fact that the Metaverse - the virtual reality imagined in it - provided a vision for the creators of Second Life to work towards.

    Likewise with Cryptonomicon: the sharp social observations and the conservative/libertarian cultural critique and the entertaining infodumps are what live in the mind long after the plot McGuffins and software specs have been forgotten.

  2. "The reasons why they're not implemented, or even seriously proposed, are social, economic, and political."


    The problem is Thatcherism/Reaganomics/neoliberalism. Between the end of WWII and the right turn circa 1980 there was a level of optimism about what governments could accomplish if they just *did* things, rather than leaving everything to the private sector.

    Examples include space travel and Concorde, as well as smaller-scale projects like the BBC Micro.

    Now a lot of these "big science" and "big technology" projects have two characteristics in common: they require large amounts of money, and they are sometimes not directly monetizable. For these two reasons the only institution that can really do Big Tech is the government, but the notion of government doing things is deeply unfashionable (at least in the UK and the US.

    ISTR Stephenson pointed to China as an example of a place where they still do Big Tech, and contrasting it with America. Again the reason is ideological: the Chinese oligarch class still have enough confidence in their own ability to build things, unlike American oligarchs, who mainly only care about money.

  3. Thanks Thomas, and sorry you had to post this twice.

    Stephenson was a bit disparaging of Chinese big engineering - he said they're just doing the same things the US did decades ago, not innovating. I don't think that's entirely true, but time will tell.