“If I could, I would open, right here in Bangalore, a big bookstore dedicated only to science fiction,” said the distinguished, elderly scientist to the crowd gathered at Bookworm bookstore for the release of the science fiction novel The Living Labyrinth, co-authored by him. “I want to do that so more people can read science fiction, so Bangalore will have better engineers,” he added.
Good science fiction — scientifically rigorous, rich in technical detail, where the laws of physics are vital to the story, where the vision of the future is fleshed out in a human context without losing out on cultural or sociological impact — is important for society. Not just for scientists and makers, but for everyone.
The gentleman in question was none other than Tim Poston, multi-disciplinary scientist and mathematician who firmly believes that reading science fiction can lead to a better tomorrow, and that science fiction can help engineers, startups, business leaders, entrepreneurs and ideators be more creative and ambitious. And that isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound at first.
Read this illuminating anecdote author Neil Gaiman recounts in his collection of nonfiction essays, The View from the Cheap Seats:
“A few years ago, in 2007, I went to China for the first-ever, I believe, state-sponsored science fiction convention, and at some point I remember talking to a party official who was there and I said, ‘Up until now I have read in Locus [a prominent scifi & fantasy magazine] that your lot disapprove of science fiction and you disapprove of science fiction conventions and these things have not been deliberately encouraged. What’s changed? Why did you permit this thing? Why are we here?’ And he said, ‘Oh you know for years, we’ve been making wonderful things. We make your iPods. We make phones. We make them better than anybody else, but we don’t come up with any of these ideas. So we went on a tour of America talking to people at Microsoft, at Google, at Apple, and we asked them a lot of questions about themselves, just the people working there. And we discovered they all read science fiction… so we think maybe it’s a good thing.”
That’s what Tim Poston was getting at, and he did relate this incident as well. And in the decade that has followed since that 2007 state-sponsored scifi convention, China has definitely started creating and not just making. It would be incredulous and silly to claim that all of it is due to the Chinese reading more scifi (no sir!), but as we’ve seen earlier in this column, there’s definitely some kind of a feedback loop between science fiction and technological fact. And to expand its scope, it goes beyond just being inspired by Star Trek communicators to create cellphone technology.
So perhaps that is the way ahead for us as well. Get the government to sponsor a science fiction convention. Go a step further, and include science fiction in school syllabi perhaps? Because I’ve often heard it said that Indians are very good at solving problems, but not as good at spotting the next big problem and coming up with solutions to it. We’re trying to ‘Make in India’, and that’s a good thing, but shouldn’t the larger goal be to create in India?
Not that it doesn’t happen today, but consistently, with a bigger global impact and not just for domestic use? The next big product, the next big startup with a truly original idea. Because to minds exposed to the literature of ideas that is science fiction, there is no saying what passage, technology or vision of the future can spark a revelation or insight.
Take the case of Ben Narasin, who started fashionmall.com in 1993. In a recent article, he spoke of how a single science fiction paperback helped him understand how the then newly born web would evolve, and how that made all the difference. The book in question was Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, a part of whose cover is the lead image above, showing the protagonist Hiro Protagonist (yes, that’s his name) about to enter the ‘metaverse’, a future iteration of the internet.
In a recent article, he spoke of how a single science fiction paperback helped him understand how the then newly born web would evolve
According to Facebook data scientist Dean Eckles, product managers at Facebook were required to read Snow Crash