Is science innovation driven by science fiction?

Arizona State University recently opened its new Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together scientists and science fiction authors. From the NYTimes:

Its first projects include a collaboration with the chip maker Intel, which has created a Tomorrow Project to generate “science-based” conversations about the future. The center will collaborate with (cyberpunk author Neal) Stephenson’s online science fiction journal, Hieroglyph, also based at Arizona State, whose mission is to help foster a “moon shot” culture to promote ambitious ideas for scientific and technological projects.

The novelist has been working with an Arizona State structural engineer, Keith Hjelmstad, on an idea that sounds like science fiction: a 12-mile tower to launch vehicles into space. Another author, Cory Doctorow, is working with Kip Hodges, the university’s director of earth and space exploration, on a story idea about sending 3-D printers to the moon to begin manufacturing things from moon dust.

As others have before, Neal Stephenson bemoaned the dystopian visions of the future generated by today’s science fiction writers. Ambitious science and technology endeavors are a thing of the past, he said at a technology conference, and American society has lost the vision to make great leaps into the future.

ASU President Dr. Michael Crow thought that the fault, to some extent, lay with the creators and fans of science fiction for failing to think ambitiously and optimistically about the future.

Is it up to SF writers to inspire scientists, or is it the other way around? Has science failed to give us something to hope for? Or is it, as some have contended, that writers are unable to keep up with the lightning fast pace of technological change and it’s just too difficult to create a realistic and positive vision of the future?

J.L. Hilton is the author of the Stellarnet Series published by Carina Press, including Stellarnet Rebel (January 2012) and Stellarnet Prince (November 2012). Her artwork is featured in the books Steampunk Style Jewelry and 1000 Steampunk Creations. Visit her at JLHilton.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and deviantART.

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2 comments

  1. I find this subject fascinating. It reminds me of that “documentary” about how William Shatner changed the world. 🙂 Scientists follow ideas where ever they come from – authors or otherwise – but it is surprising in a way how these authors are acting in a more direct way as inspiration.

  2. I agree. A fascinating subject. and it occurs to me now that while I agree with Neal Stephenson, I think that it’s not necessarily the job of science fiction writers to be optimistic. There is still a validity in a story that exposes social issues in a not-so-uplifting way. There are trends in fiction (stating the obvious), and I think what we’re seeing in today’s SF may have more to do with the social and economic realities of now than it does of science of the future.

    But in a way, science is about hope. It’s the job of a scientist to look at the future, assuming there will actually be a future. To imagine something BETTER. Otherwise, why participate in science at all? It’s about improvement, better ways, more efficiency, learning. All very hopeful goals.

    As far as inspiring, I see articles about inspiration on both sides, so I think it’s going both ways. And will continue to do so.

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