August 21, 2016

Slice of PIE: Does Science Fiction STILL Drive the Future?

Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City this past August 2016 (to which I was invited and had a friend pay my membership! [Thanks, Paul!] but was unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #1066. The link is provided below…

Does SF Still Affect How We Think About the Future? Does SF continue to inspire young scientists and technologists today? Who is writing the SF that will shape the future? Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Michael Swanwick, Cynthia Ward, Adam-Troy Castro(M)

Michael Swanwick: Famous, etc., etc., but no technology or science background.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden: Famous as well, etc., etc., but no technology or science background.
Cynthia Ward: Famous, etc., etc., but no technology or science background. (She writes biotechnology, so she must have at least a layperson’s database…)
Adam-Troy Castro: Famous, etc., etc., but no technology or science background.

All of these people write about the impact of science on individuals and society, but none of them has had direct experience with education (except as recipients of diplomas, degrees, and certificates delineating the levels of education each has achieved.) None of them are classroom teachers of young people (at least not according to the online information I have seen), and all of them are writers or editors more-or-less full time.

I can only assume then, that their knowledge of the affect science fiction is having on the future is anecdotal.

Nothing wrong with that…however…with the plethora of SF writers available at the MidAmeriCon, it would seem that finding individuals who could comment from direct experience would have been relatively easy. David Brin was there, as well as Gregory Benford, James Cambias (whose degree would have made him an excellent panelist on this subject), Jeffrey Carver taught SF writing to middle school students and might have given him insight as well…

*sigh* Perhaps it was simple logistics.

However, as a science teacher, I might be able to answer this question fairly simply by saying: “No, science fiction doesn’t inspire young scientists and technologists today.”

The reason I say that is that despite the fact that young adults READ more than us old folks do (, what they read may NOT be science fiction that INSPIRES. More often than not, it's SF of a dystopian future bereft of hope...or a future.

This is happening just as scientific research is moving away from massive companies like Bell Labs and Microsoft. For us oldsters, the day of the "workshop inventor" is coming back --- with a decidedly 21st Century twist. According to Richard A. Lovett in the July/August 2016 issue, “Part of the ‘new-skunk-works’ [an experimental laboratory or department of a company or institution, typically smaller than, and independent of, its main research division] mindset is the ability to work on things with smaller teams and smaller budgets than would ever have been possible in the past…it also realizes that brilliant minds are at their most brilliant when motivated…[and] challenged enough [for] people who just might be capable of pulling them off…It’s a startlingly inexpensive way to push the frontier of science and engineering…Instead of arguing if there’s a problem, it’s based on pooling our brains to find solutions, maybe even before there’s another X Prize to encourage it.” (ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT)

A few books that are fairly recent whose fundamental basis is either science or technology: MORTAL ENGINES (Philip Reeve); THE WHITE MOUNTAINS (John Christopher); THE SUMMER PRINCE (Alaya Dawn Johnson); CINDER (Marissa Meyer); A WRINKLE IN TIME (Madeleine L’Engle); LIFE AS WE KNEW IT (Susan Beth Pfeffer); and even SHIP BREAKER (Paolo Bacigalupi). Too many of the others wallow in teen-slaughtering dystopias to inspire any teen to a life of science and technology.

I’ve attempted to “right the wrong” in my book EMERALD OF EARTH, but the publisher is so small, and the fact that it is only an electronic book (flying in the face of the fact that teenagers prefer to “really” read paper books ( -- my theory on this is that they prefer paper books to ebooks because a book is pretty much the only thing a person under the age of eighteen can outright own. Ownership is a powerful motivator and nothing is more powerful than owning the gateway to another world.) has kept it from having any kind of appreciable effect on the world of adolescent literature.

Books for TODAY'S young adults that inspire the same kind of techno-awe as Heinlein's ROCKET SHIP GALILEO are few and far between...At any rate, I hope the discussion was deep, and I hope it inspired writers to write work that will ultimately inspire young people to consider the sciences and technology as careers.

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