Can science fiction really, realistically help build better futures? It’s trying to (yet again!)

Gautham Shenoy June 30, 2017 6 min

Yes, personal jetpacks and flying cars are not (fully) here just yet, but that’s not to say sci-fi has not influenced the world around us. No, don’t worry, I’m not going to reel off examples about Verne’s submarines, Star Trek communicators, the user interface in Minority Report etc. Or the utilitarian role of sci-fi — because if you’ve been following this column, you’ve already read the case for why India needs to read more sci-fi for example, or how and why start-ups, large corporations and even the US marine corps are bigly into sci-fi.

Because science fiction is not just about entertainment; good science fiction is also about influence and inspiration. Yes, even the dystopias (a story for another day).

Today we move past dystopian visions and hope for a positive future.  

Today we move past dystopian visions and hope for a positive future. Today is all about techno-optimism and better futures, one that even you can play a role in helping build (more on this in a bit). And it’s all thanks to XPRIZE, the big daddy of incentivised prizes whose mind-boggling competitions try to solve great challenges by pushing competitors to turn what sounds like science fiction into science fact and technological reality. But this time, in a departure from tradition, XPRIZE has put the science fiction first, backing it before the science. After all, you can only design a better future by first imagining what those possible futures may look like. And who better to turn to than the people who have had practical experience in imagining new worlds and realities? Yes, SF writers.

ANA Flight 008 passes through a temporary wrinkle in the space-time continuum. Via: XPRIZE

At 4:58am on June 28th, 2017, the passengers on board ANA Flight 008, en route from Tokyo to San Francisco, are cruising at an altitude of 37,000 feet, approximately 1,500 nautical miles off the West Coast of the United States. A small bump, otherwise noted as a barely perceptible bout of turbulence, passes Flight 008 through a temporary wrinkle in the local region of space-time. What these passengers will soon find out as they descend into SFO is that the wrinkle has transported them 20 years in the future, and the year is now 2037.

That’s the starting point for a spanking-new sci-fi digital and interactive anthology of really short stories about the world in 2037 (and its science and technology) that we will get to experience via narratives by the passengers of Flight 008 – as imagined by an all-star line-up of science fiction authors. There’s Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Larry Niven, John Clute, Ken MacLeod, Madeline Ashby, Cory Doctorow, Andy Weir, Charlie Jane Anders, Paolo Bacigalupi, Karl Schoreder, Daniel H. Wilson, Nnedi Okorafor, Ernest Cline, Hannu Rajaniemi, Robert J. Sawyer, M.R. Carey, Veronica Roth… the list goes on; it also includes sci-fi filmmakers and screenwriters like Darren Aronofsky and David Goyer. The collection of writers collectively holds 13 doctorates, 44 Hugo Awards, 28 Nebula Awards, 35 Locus Awards, 10 John W. Campbell Awards, six Arthur C. Clarke Awards, six British Science Fiction Association Awards, and one Academy Award. Phew.

On a related note, if the idea of a sci-fi anthology that seeks to inspire innovation sounds familiar, it’s probably because we’ve already had a look at Neil Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project that aims to do the same. And as with Hieroglyph, the writers here too have a much larger role to play than just writing. Writing is merely the start.

Top left: Art by Sebastien Hue for Gregory Benford’s story ‘A Surprise Beginning’. Top Right: Art by David Demaret for Mike Resnick’s ‘A New Reality’. Bottom Left: Art by: Priscilla Kim for Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘A Passing Sickness’. Bottom Right: art by: Daria Kirpach for Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘Iterations’. All images via : XPRIZE

So we have Paolo Bacigalupi writing about the guy from Seat 25G who ends up getting a brain implant. Daniel H. Wilson (13F) gives us a very human peek into what a ‘smart home’ could be. Meanwhile Charlie Jane Anders (33F) tells the tale of a person trapped in – of all places – a bathroom! Madeline Ashby’s story is about the passenger in Seat 19D who attends an AI Contest in 2037. It features an original poem by Margaret Atwood and a lovely ending.

In all, 22 of the stories – including those by Bruce Sterling, Gregory Benford, Charles Nancy Kress, Hugh Howey – are already up for reading at Seat14C.com, with more to be added at regular intervals until August 25, 2017.

Which is where you, dear reader, come in. The story of the passenger in seat 14C is yet to be told, and it could be you!

A screenshot from the Seat14C site that shows the schematic and passenger manifest of ANA Flight 008 that shows Seat 14C as ‘reserved for you’ i.e. the winner of the winner of the competition. Via: XPRIZE

Yes, this is also a short story competition. And you have till August 25 to submit your sci-fi story and if it blends technology, creativity and culture with ‘a unique vision of the future’, you could be the winner not just of the usual spoils (like a trip to foreign location, in this case Japan, stay in a star hotel, camera etc) but also a seat on and an Honorary Membership to the XPRIZE Science Fiction Advisory Council!

A council that includes all of the writers and artists mentioned above (and more) who’ve been tasked with a mission to help accelerate positive change. As mentioned before, their contribution goes beyond just submitting stories and includes assisting XPRIZE in the creation of digital “futures” roadmaps across a variety of domains, from ‘Planet & Environment’ and ‘Energy & Resources’ to ‘Health & Wellbeing’ and ‘Space & New Frontiers’.

These roadmaps aren’t meant to be static — they are dynamic, interactive narratives that identify the ideal catalysts, drivers and mechanisms that overcome current challenges and achieve a preferred future state. Or states. And you could be a part of all this. Go ahead, submit an entry.

It’s usually at this point that I bid you farewell until next time, but not this week. Because we’ve got news to share!

As of tomorrow, New Worlds Weekly completes a year (yes, you just read NWW Edition No. 52) and what better way – we thought – to celebrate it than with you?!

In a case of very pleasant coincidences, Basu’s Turbulence also involves the strange experiences of people on an airplane that undergoes an uncanny turbulence   

Yes, dear readers, you’re all cordially invited to the very first NWW Sci-Fi meetup on Saturday, July 8, at Bookworm Bookstore on Church Street in Bengaluru, where we’ll go all geeky about SF in the company of fellow sci-fi fans and Samit Basu, the best-selling author of the GameWorld Trilogy and Turbulence.

Of course, it wouldn’t have escaped you that in a case of very pleasant coincidences, Basu’s Turbulence also involves the strange experiences of people on an airplane that undergoes an uncanny turbulence (the passengers of BA flight 142 from London to Delhi get off the plane not into the future as in the XPRIZE anthology, but with unique superpowers!).

There will also be a fun – and very short — quiz on sci-fi based on NWW editions from that past, the winner of which will walk away with a very cool prize. That’s apart from the FactorDaily goodies we’re going to be gifting our fellow geeks. So mark your calendar, set a reminder and do join us at Bookworm Bookstore on July 8. I’m really looking forward to it, and you being there. And now I will sign off.

Live long and prosper!