Samuel R. Delany is a grand master of science fiction. Literally. The Science Fiction Writers of America association named him a Grand Master for lifetime achievement. He’s a gay, African American author who writes fearlessly about sex and race… and the future.
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Is it still possible to have a hopeful future vision? Ed Finn directs the Center for Science and the Imagination in Arizona. He says it’s time to change the stories we tell about science. The Center’s Heiroglyph Project pairs sci fi writers with scientists to dream up the next big science project.
Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the "Mars" trilogy, "2312," and "Shaman," has been called our greatest living science fiction writer AND one of the greatest political novelists. He writes post-capitalist page-turners set in the far future and the distant past. We talk with him about the politics of science and the imagination.
Gavin Rothery, concept designer and VFX supervisor for the 2009 film Moon joins us this week to share his adventures working in this industry, and his upcoming short film The Last Man. We dive deeply into what the crucial aspects of good filmmaking are, and we explore the strengths and flaws of some of the biggest Hollywood films in recent years.
Our conversation was so epic this week we had to cut it in half, so stay tuned for Part 2 next Monday!
It’s easy to look back at old science fiction and see it as silly. But there are important ideas embedded in those stories that influenced scientists and the way technology developed. Take the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans La Lune or A Trip to the Moon, based on a story by Jules Verne. This 1902 silent movie blasts scientists to the moon in a giant cannon. Claire Evans, editor of the recently rebooted Omni magazine, says Verne was on to something. “He just extrapolated from the technology around him,” she says. “A massive shotgun barrel shoots people into space. That’s not what happened in the real world” of rocketry, but “that essential gesture is correct.”
“A successful science fiction story — or novel, or film — allows its readers to become comfortable with the future, with radical new technologies and ideas before they become commonplace,” she says. “It softens the edge of change.”
Science fiction continued to inspire, even predict, real-world developments. H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, imagined the first atomic bomb in a 1913 short story titled “The World Set Free.” Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also a mathematician who proposed the first geostationary satellite in a 1945 scientific technical paper. Astrophysicist and science fiction author David Brin remembers, “There was a period during the space race when suddenly science fiction authors were very much in vogue — when they were on the platforms next to Walter Cronkite and talking about the future of civilization and where we were going to go next.”
But as society became more cynical, so did science fiction. In the 1980s, writers imagined addictive digital fantasy worlds long before the web existed. “Cyber-punk was the first science fiction movement to really understand that science and technology weren’t separate from us,” Evans explains. Or as the science fiction writer Frederik Pohl once said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam.”
What does today’s sci-fi mean for our real-life future? Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson argues that it’s time to get over our love of dystopia. A class at MIT searches sci-fi classics for technologies they can invent right now, although maybe they shouldn’t. Geoengineers take a tip from Carl Sagan – who saw a green future for Mars – to see if we can save Earth. And we meet some scientists who think that if we ever want to see the stars, we’d better start building the starship.
For a couple of generations, it’s been a truism that good science fiction is grim science fiction. Technology is out of control, democracy is failing, the environment ruined. Think Hunger Games, Minority Report, The Matrix, and Blade Runner, all the way back to 1984. But science fiction writer and astrophysicist David Brin believes we’ve gotten too fond of these bummers. “It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says: ‘Civilization is garbage. Our institutions never will be helpful. Your neighbors are all useless sheep,’” he laments. “’Now enjoy a couple of characters running around shooting things and having adventures in the middle of a dystopia.’”
Dystopias are bad? That’s heresy for science fiction. But a few people are starting to agree with him, like Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. A few years ago, Stephenson was on a panel discussion with Arizona State University President Michael Crow, and Stephenson started complaining that there were no big scientific projects to inspire people these days. Crow shot back, “You’re the ones slacking off!” In Crow’s view, it was the writers who weren’t pulling their weight, supplying the motivating visions for science and technology.
From that discussion, Crow and Stephenson have collaborated on The Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU. And Stephenson founded a group called Project Hieroglyph, which recruits science fiction authors to write more optimistically about the future. “I guess I had never given science fiction writers enough credit of being leaders of innovation,” Stephenson says. The writers who contribute to Project Hieroglyph don’t have to consult with scientists or engineers, but doing so “shows they’re on the right track.” Stephenson says. Only three rules: no hyperspace, no holocausts and no hackers. Coming from Stephenson, the bard of hackers, that’s quite a challenge.
MIT’s Media Lab makes a strong claim to being the place where the future is designed. A class called Science Fiction to Science Fabrication, taught by researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner, makes that connection direct by using science fiction as an inspiration for real-world inventions.
Sci-fi is full of imagined technologies, some plausible (killer robots), some far-out (time-traveling DeLoreans). Students in this class mine the work of authors like Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J. G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury, and William Gibson for ideas, such as an empathy testing machine like the one used to identify androids in Blade Runner.
But most science fiction writers aren’t advocating that we build their technologies; they’re asking how we would use, or misuse, them. That’s exactly why Brueckner and Novy decided to put science fiction in front of the students at the MIT Media Lab. “Reading science fiction is kind of like ethics class for inventors,” says Brueckner. Traditionally, technology schools ask ‘how do we build it?’ This class asks a different question: ‘should we?’
Novy adds, “With the ability of any technology or application to go viral over the planet in 24 hours, I think it is even more important to think about what you’re doing before you release it into the wild.”
Robin Ince and Brian Cox are joined by comedian Ross Noble and evolutionary psychologists Keith Jensen and Katie Slocombe to discuss whether humans are uniquely unique?
Bury your dead in a Zeppelin and call your interplanetary accountant—it’s time for our annual read of the Hugo Award nominees. We cover this year’s award nominees, plus the “retro Hugos” from 1939, both of which will be awarded in August in London. Also, someone defends Mira Grant.
04:45: Best Novel
41:18: Retro Hugos from 1939
58:41: 2014 Short Fiction
1:33:24: All the other categories
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