Science Fiction As Vision


Over at the Atlantic (and later in Mashable), Robinson Meyer made the interesting – indeed challenging statement – that the idea of making things in Science Fiction a reality was limiting. He was specifically discussing the Google X lab, which was profiled by John Gertner of Fast Company – and there they want every project to have a a component that resembled Science Fiction.

Which frankly, sounds pretty cool, but Robinson had issues with this idea:

  • SF means we tend think in whole, complete systems as opposed to the assembled work of many actors and influences.
  • We miss that some change – such as social – is incremental, and SF’s inheritance includes some limited and reactionary elements.
  • There is virtue in incrementalization.

So this got me thinking about the role of SF in envisioning and building the future. I think he has a point in that thinking about things “Science Fictionally” can be limiting. But I don’t think the problem is Science Fictional thinking per se – it’s the state of SF today and in our culture.

I’m All For The Vision

First off, I actually am a big believer that goodSF can inspire people. It provides something to reach for because there’s something in it that reaches us. I’ve been inspired by SF works throughout my life and frankly that interest has gotten me where I am now. It still does in many ways, though ironically the most I’ve been inspired by have been an unfinished piece of my own and a friend’s novel when I edited it.

Good SF extrapolates on technology, people, impact, and frankly things we want that are really cool. It provides something we connect to, and really good SF let’s us almost feel how we can get there, the kind of faith that burns bright enough to light our way.

There is, in a way, an irrational, visionary component to good SF.

I wish there was more of it and it was widespread.

It’s Not A Vision When We’ve Seen It All Before

A good decade ago SF stopped interesting me except as mild entertainment. Real life was more science fictional, and a lot of SF bored me or weren’t inspiring. There’s not many times I can read about Generic Space Marine Twelve, Space Opera Rebaked, or Pretentious Posturing Idea Version X. I did have a bit of a weakness for the Doing Weird Stuff For Fun type novels, and admittedly still do, but that’s a different things.

Some things didn’t have a vision, they were just media tropes. Others didn’t have anything to reach for. Reality was changing so fast it was living SF.

In time, I’m pleased to say that editing experience opened me up to more SF so I’m hoping to find things to re-inspire me. But my experience doesn’t seem to be merely personal to judge by my observations and conversations.

A lot of SF is action adventure or another genre dressed up in SF cosplay. Or it’s repetitious work that seems awful familiar. Or it’s within a given existing media world that is homogenized. Or it may be good but there’s nothing to reach for.

So, I think we kind of have an SF crisis where there’s not a lot to inspire us and make us think at least that’s widespread and a noteable part of the whole body of work.

So issue one; I think our SF is kind of weak. However . . .

It’s Also An Attitude

I don’t think as a culture we demand good SF (one could argue we demand little period). I’m not going to play the whole “things were better in X” day game, but I think SF has become comoddified to the point where it merely meets certain demands and follows certain tropes. It’s all marketing and what sells, and there’s rarely a vision.

We don’t demand a vision.  We’ve just got commodities.

However, a problem with the commodification of SF is not just as a media, but also because SF has inspired our commodities.

We really are living in an SF age. We’ve got communication devices and computers straight out of Star Trek the Next Generation. We’ll get our mobile cars one day so we can enjoy traffic jams where the AI gets annoyed so we don’t have to. We’re working on artificial meat.

We’ve got a lot of SF rigt now – but it’s products and consumerism. We found we can buy the future now. That, I believe, has led us to be less imaginative because the future takes work – and figuring you can buy something isn’t exactly inspiring.

So SF suffers from a double-sided blast of consumerism.

We Do Have An Incrementalism Problem

I do think we have an incrementalism problem – the flip side of a lack of vision. Yes, I’m saying we not only have a lack of vision, we have a lack of getting there.

First, I think the consumerist approaches to SF have made people less patient and less appreciative of incremental necessity. We just wait for someone to build or buy something – people will scratch our itch for us (and startup culture which is about scratching itch may ironically play into this). Or we get distracted by something here.

Secondly, I think the consumerist approach to SF in design removes incrementalism in the story. There’s a lot of assumptions, a lot of tropes – or the incrementalism is kind of crappy and not really that scientific. I miss the parts of stories where real science mixed with fiction – or in short those Building Stuff scenes. Hell, I found those making-stuff scenes in Iron Man rather refreshing and that wasn’t a pinnacle of SF.

Third, we miss incrementalism as we’re swimming in it.

The internet was a giant pile of code that exploded, providing a foundation that now allows people to do things at hyper speed.  It’s an incremental creation that’s like air to modern socieity.

3D printing promises to change everything, but it’s built on a lot of other technologies from years past.

Someone can publish a book on their own fast and easy, change the world, and do it in their spare time because so much technology has come together to allow it.  A decade ago they’d have less options.

We’re up to our armpits in empowering technology, the legacy of many creations, and we can do more faster than we ever imagined. It means, I think, we don’t take the value of incrementalism seriously because we can do so much with what’s there now. We forget the years, decades, and centuries it took us to get here.

Thus I don’t think that an SF vision ignores incrementalism.  We have a culture problem missing that sometimes things are built on other things and it takes effort. I am concerned that forgetting incrementalism entirely may keep us from doing he hard work to make visions real.

(Though if one looks at the Google X article, it seems that some people do appreciate the hard work that a vision brings, and for me that’s the point).

So again, the problem can be us and our culture. In fact, to close this out, I think there is one thing missing from SF vision-bringing.

And that, ironically, is us.

Our Vision For Us

Finally, one thing I do think missing from a lot of SF – and in our culture in general – is a positive vision for how we can evolve. Sure, you can find some, but I haven’t seen anything as universal as the famous Star Trek vision of a united earth, for instance.  I think that had a big influence on people.

But the thing is that to change the world, to realize many dreams, we have to change. Not in the bad dude-uploaded-to-a-computer B movie or the usual Science Goes Bad Person Becomes monster stories. Those are tropes. Something for us to reach for to become.

Maybe something is out there, but I haven’t seen it – I find my visions in the writings of philosophers and psychologists and the like.

We’re the missing factor in a lot of SF. The vision for what we can be, the real question of what we can become – and to have such ideas spread far enough to make a lot of us think.

And human change is really hard. There’s aeons of guides to hacking the human mind, which shows there’s been an awful lot to do.

Be it our culture or what we can be, the problem with “our” SF vision is often us.

Like so much, it starts with us.


So, I’m all for SF visions – and visions in general. I don’t think they’re bad, I think they’re quite good, it’s just we have some cultural issues that limit their power and limit them. But I can understand why someone might write off “SF Visions” – they’re just wrong and not digging deep enough.

Who knows, there may be something out there – or something to come – to inspire me. I’m looking forward to it.

. . . and going farther.

Leona Wisoker gave me this idea to create intelligent dialogue among blogs. So I’m tapping three friends to see if they want to give their own impressions of the role of SF in culture and invention. That’ll new

Ewen Cluney
Tony Yao

Feel free to comment, add, subtract, or save the world guys . . . and if you want in, just post your ideas and let me know . . .

– Steven Savage