Mebust: Fiction is the future: Imaginative literature enhances science

The next time you hear someone question the usefulness of getting a degree in English, confront them with this riddle: What do the submarine, the cell phone, nuclear fission, QuickTime media player and the rocket ship all have in common? The inventors of all of these revolutionary items give credit to science fiction writers for coming up with the ideas.

American writer Neal Stephenson attended the Future Tense conference in 2011. He spoke about modern society’s inability to execute on “the big stuff,” such as manned space flight. After Stephenson’s speech, Arizona State University President Michael Crow informed Stephenson that science fiction writers were actually the ones who have been “slacking off.”

Crow’s point argued that those behind the great technological advancements of the late 20th century benefited from a Golden Age of science fiction—one that imagined new inventions and optimistically detailed the possibilities of technology and science. After these inventions started to appear in the real world, science fiction writers grew alarmed by what they saw and switched to writing dark stories about the dangers such technologies represented. Since science fiction took pessimistic turn, we have failed to execute on “the big stuff.”

It is hard to deny that science fiction plays a role in inspiring the next generation of scientists and innovators. What may be less obvious, however, is the wide range of other functions the genre serves. Science fiction offers scientists and technologists a chance to step back and assess some of the consequences their work could have on society. Good literature offers the reader the chance to reflect on a complex situation from multiple perspectives. The best science fiction is nuanced and insightful. Given the ecological disasters our world is currently facing, it’s clear that this kind of holistic consideration of new technologies is essential to a sustainable future.

Science fiction is already being used to help steer technological development. Many companies make use of a technique known as “design fiction” to evaluate the effects of a project before they invest in it. Intel futurist Brian David Johnson has developed a new method of this type of planning that incorporates elements from the science fiction genre.

Science fiction also educates people. People naturally understand stories—they don’t naturally understand formulas or instruction manuals. Science and technology have become so complex that the majority of people that are supposed to benefit from these fields don’t have a chance of really understanding them. Increasing sophistication has given rise to another demand science fiction must fill—making real science accessible and interesting to people.

Science fiction should be taught seriously in high schools and colleges across the country. To do otherwise would be to ignore one of the reasons that our world is the way it is and to deny an important connection between the arts and the sciences. Contrary to what some believe, the arts and sciences are constantly in dialogue and each has something to offer the other.

Science fiction has the power to inspire and caution, to inform and delight. By writing and reading it, we can create a better world together.