The Burden of Science Fiction

I want to start this post by acknowledging the weight of it's title. It's a heavy concept to ponder as a writer, that Science Fiction has a world burden. We're used to being the dreamers, the "what if" engine of our generation. But if you really look at what I just wrote, you've already accepted the mantle I'm proposing, without even feeling that weight pass to you.

The ability to dream IS the burden. If you have the ability to invent, to bring something into the world which did not exist the moment before, then you should already feel a compelling urge to do so. Most people that I would identify as "Content Creators" do so, or at least began to do so, for the joy that arises from a pure act of creation. Only later does the fulfillment come from the enjoyment it brings others, and the monetary rewards follow that. It's the process, and there's really no way around it. If you try to shortcut the process by skipping the intermediary steps, say, to create something that will make you wealthy, without taking any real joy in it, that wealth will most likely be either nonexistent, or short-lived. If you try to make things that you yourself don't care for, but believe that others will, it will also become less likely to succeed.

Even when a creator ends up making something that they later grow to despise or regret, during the creation process they still enjoyed it. The lead singer of Oasis, Liam Gallagher, grew to despise their hit song "Wonderwall", because people enjoyed it so much that was all they wanted to hear from the band. That song created a shadow that rendered much of their later work inconsequential, because it was so good. Creating a song must be an awful amount of work, and you would assume that if he hated it from the start, it never would have escaped the attic of his mind.

 Like much of the country, I'm looking forward to tonight's premiere of COSMOS, brought back through the combined efforts of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan, and Seth Macfarlane (Yes, that Seth Macfarlane). To gear up for it, I sat down and watched Neil's Lecture at the Library of Congress, a deeply passionate presentation meant to inspire our nations Congressmen and women to increase funding to NASA. (Embedded to your right) He gave many compelling reasons why, and even called out society's motivations for not doing so earlier. I've heard most of his argument before, and agree with him, but the premise that inspired this post on science fiction was the one regarding a governments responsibility to spur the dreams of a nation, to make the "long bets"
in funding that private industry just can't justify.

 He argues that private (at least companies controlled by a balance sheet) industry cannot invest heavily in research that might pay off for 50 years when their competitors are investing in things that will pay off before their next quarterly report. No business can stay competitive that way. He (correctly, I believe) posits that governments are the only entities with both the resources and longevity to see these sorts of investments through. He goes on to draw parallels between Faraday and the modern electrical grid, between the inception of quantum theory and it's relationship to modern technology.

The following excerpt is very illuminating- At some point, someone came to Faraday and asked him, "Is this what we pay you to do, to pass wires around magnetic coils on your desktop?"

And do you want to know Faraday's response?  "I'm not sure what sort of benefit this research will bring, but I'm sure you will tax it."

And he was right. Everyone pays taxes on their electrical bill, everyone pays taxes on generators, and everyone pays taxes on products with electric motors. It's that kind of foresight which our country lacks right now among people with power. There are always going to be dreamers, and it's not only important that the dreamers have a direct line of communication to "decision makers". Often, it's enough just to inspire those who will do the research that will bring about these advancements. That is what COSMOS is about, and that is what science fiction is about. COSMOS is about presenting what we know, and inspiring people to find the answers that we don't know.

Science Fiction is about presenting possibilities, about setting a bar out there in the rarefied air of research done to advance understanding, knowing that the practical applications will come later. As William Gibson, an incredibly influential science fiction author, wrote-"The street finds a use for things." We've become a nation of short sighted, spoiled children. I don't say that as an insult, just as a frame of reference. We want to see the benefits NOW, and it's been that way long enough for children raised in that environment to become politicians. Even now, if someone announces an impressive scientific breakthrough, a large portion of the response publicly is, "I don't want to hear about that, just tell me when I can buy one."

That's why the recent "HUVr" hoax video was so effective.(Again, embedded below to your right) Our generation has wanted that product so badly for so long, we were willing to overlook our previously singed fingers to believe it. It looked close enough to real that our desires overrode our pragmatism.

That is the power of dreams. If 11,000,000 views in five days are to be believed, there is still a need for dreams. Not every dream can pay off, but I will make you a guarantee-One day, an actual hoverboard will exist. It will be made, and it will be sold, because people will buy it. It will drive it's own micro-economy, because it has always looked like so damn much fun to ride. Owning one will never put food on your plate, it will never allow you to overcome an illness (unless that illness involves a lack of mobility), but it will exist because it has captured the imagination of generations of science fiction fans.

Just like the burden I spoke of in the first paragraph, I've managed to sneak the endpoint of my argument under your nose, probably while you were busy watching the hoverboard video above. Science Fiction matters, perhaps more so than any other genre, because it doesn't outline the past, or another potential present. It explores the possibility of the future.

It does so with no regard for budgets, and no regards for the research necessary to bring it to reality. It takes no more effort to write about life in the future than it does to write about the culture of a foreign country, but the potential benefits are much greater, in my opinion, because if something you've dreamed up inspires a reader to become a scientist, even if it's subconsciously just to bring about your fanciful inventions (hoverboards, faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, etc), then you have indirectly made the world a better place, and your contribution will send ripples forward through time, like a "creationary butterfly effect" that will inspire new creations based upon the creation you inspired.

 Now, thinking about it in that context will make it a heavy burden indeed, but I'd like to remind you that all that is required of you to bring these things about is to do what you're already doing. Dream, imagine, and write it down in compelling stories that make people wish they were there. None of us can know what repercussions our thoughts and lives may have moving forward, but so long as you are doing the thing that inspires you, it can't help but inspire others.

 As science fiction authors, we occupy one of the few angles where we can create ideas like this and not be constrained by what we believe to be impossible. We're not bound by budgets, political consequences, or even the burden of inventing the inner workings of our creations. We don't need to understand how things work, we don't have to figure out how to pay for them, or even convince others that it's worthwhile. We can create, purely and joyfully, and send our creations into the world, trusting and hoping that they will one day find their ways into the hands of a scientist, or someone that will one day become one, and that one day they will have been inspired to create that technology.

 That's my dream, and if you've chosen to write science fiction along with me, I feel pretty confident that is your dream as well. So continue dreaming, do your part in bringing tomorrow twenty four hours closer to today.