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Science Fiction: Is It Technology’s Reporter or Muse?

Does science fiction lead the direction of technology? Kevin J. Anderson, well-known writer, shares his insights.

By John Blyler, editor

Most chip designers and other technical professionals enjoy reading a good science fiction story. Such tales give us pause to consider how our technological innovations might affect the world around us – be it in the present or distance future. But have you ever wondered about the seemingly symbiotic relationship between sci-fi writers and the technical community? Sci-Fi writers typically incorporate today’s technology into their stories. But today’s engineers – especially the upcoming generation of engineers – are also affected by the creations of the sci-fi community.

I discussed this paradox in a recent interview with Kevin J. Anderson, one of the world’s most prominent sci-fi writers.  His response, edited to fit within this column, confirms the often forgotten relationship between those who create technology and those whose vision helps spur future innovations. What follows are Kevin’s insights into this relationship. — JB

[KJA] I spent 13 years as a technical writer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is one of the premier research labs in the country. While there, I was surrounded by leading edge technology. Perhaps more importantly, I was surrounded by scientific geniuses and crack-pot scientists and just plain regular guys who worked with incredible technology day-in and day-out.

But I’ve been out of that life and writing full time for about 10 years now. To keep my self abreast of the latest technical developments, I read both science-related and technology books and magazines. Still, in order to write believable science fiction, it’s important for me to portray the scientist characters as real people instead of the clichéd egg heads that a lot of sci-fi uses. This is not difficult, since I’ve known so many of them from my technical background.

In the 40s and 50s, sci-fi really focused on the new technology as the center stage event. Technology was the star, be it the new effect that someone discovered or the high-tech gadget they built in the laboratory. I don’t think readers today are all that interested in reading a story about a gadget. They want to have realistic characters and a good plot. I’ve always been far more interested in the second wave, where you have a new technology that changes the world – whether it’s a time machine, faster than light travel, infinite energy supply… pull any worn out sci-fi idea out of your hat.

To me, it’s far more interesting to tell a story about the consequences of a new technology. What happens to society and to people after you’ve got instantaneous travel to the planets? What happens to people once you’ve created a time machine that can only go back four days into the past, instead of 300 years.  I’ve written several stories about such things; take the time machine that can only go back 24 hours or 3 days. There is an enormous amount of things that could be done in that short time span. Think about it: you could prevent plane crashes! Or you could play the stock market. Or perhaps stop a terrorist attack. How about changing the results of an election? All of these changes would potentially have an immediate impact on your life. Yet, no one would actually notice the chance, since it occurred within a short time frame like 24 hours.

I like technology. But the point of a good sci-fi story is not to enable somebody to go out into their workshop and build something. It’s not like Popular Science or a blue-print magazine where the writer provides them with a map or step-by-step instructions on how to do something. Instead, a good sci-fi story might get someone thinking within the lines of their special expertise. There are several real-world examples of the idea from a science fiction story leading to the creation of a new technology or application. Didn’t the tricorder from the Star Trek TV series serve as inspiration for the Apple Newton, which turned into the everyday Palmpilots and PDAs that we all now carry around? And I understand that the guy who invented the nuclear submarine was a huge fan of Julies Verne.

It is a startling process. A science fiction idea is thrown out there to be read by somebody with the expertise to turn it – or a derivate idea – into reality. Our job as sci-fi writers is to create realistic scenarios – or at least ones we convince ourselves are realistic – and throw them out there for inspection. Hopefully, somebody else, like your smart readers (at Chip Design), will read the story. The idea will take hold and they’ll think, “that’s a cool story,” but how could I really do that? So science fiction can help serve as the inspiration for new technologies, as well as inspiring the next generation of young folks to get into engineering and science.

 

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