Infinite Imagination

According to JJ Abrams’ TED talk, “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.”  He said that at times, he started thinking that mystery is more important than imagination.  Also according to JJ, creativity and filmmaking is now “democratized” due to the availability of technology to every aspiring filmmaker. This is true about writing as well.

Well, to put this in the context of monkeys and kittens, I think this has to do with curiosity.  I think people are biologically constructed to be curious, and that using our imagination is as natural and essential as eating and drinking.  As we are living in a world where current science and technology is as “magical” as that which was posed by science fiction writers in the 1930’s and 40’s (some very “off” and some amazingly right-on), I think what we need to write about is any place or any thing that our imaginations – to which there is no limit – can take us.

Along those lines, Crossed Genres magazine is sponsoring a Science In My Fiction Contest, with an entry period of April 1 to June 30.  The premise of the contest is that entrants must write a science fiction story featuring a science or technology advance that occurred during the past year.  As I learned during some of my alarming “panel” experiences in recent years, it is not exactly de rigueur for science fiction writers to be “up” on current technologies or scientific research.  For example, scientists have made significant advances in emulating the behavior of neurons in the brain using “memristors” or nano chips (this was in seeking to emulate the workings of a cat’s brain).  Desalinization technology, which is of great interest to water-poor areas of the world, has also recently been advanced to a practical, usable level.

Very briefly, how does one make stories out of such information?  We ought to have learned by now that science fiction writers of the past may have been very right about technology and scientific advances, but where they were weakest, in many ways, was in the human response to, and use of such technologies.  For example, I cannot think of any early depictions of computing, communications, or entertainment technology where it was not portrayed in a hierarchical manner – i.e. most of these early (and continuing) societies divided the tech between the “haves” and the “have nots” and did not account for the global adoption that we see today – the global penetration of the internet, cell phones, broadcast technologies, etc.  What we see today is the technological explosion not bringing a “singularity” (sorry, Kurzweil!  Be happy with the $$, OK?), but bringing people separated by physical distance closer together.  So far as I know, they are still “people.”  As to the availability of data, look at what Hans Rosling was able to do with population and mortality data – a little different from the marching dystopias, is it not?

But again, how to make stories out of such information?  Well, first, ask who the science or technology means the most to.  Who has the most to gain, or to lose?  That is the start of all good stories.



Infinite Imagination — 8 Comments

  1. I think the trap is when we become so enamored of “what a cool gadget” or “a stunning discovery” that we stop digging for what really makes a story. Stories have emotional shape; chat about technology may be interesting, but it’s flat.

  2. I’m sure you’re right, Deborah. Having just finished taxes, I feel strongly that I would like to explore alternate universes and other dimensions. Any of them.

  3. Amy, I agree with all your eloquent points. I don’t think we’ll have a Singularity — certainly not the way most transhumorists envision it. There have already been “singularities” during human evolution: for example, acquiring language or symbolic writing past logographs.

    As a practicing scientist who’s also a writer, I consider science both a rigorous discipline and a romantic quest (in the old sense of the adjective). I think SF has shortchanged itself by mostly ditching the exploring mindset that goes with science. More on this topic:

    SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

    Here’s the opening of that article, to give you a flavor:

    “Eleven years ago, Harvard Alumni Magazine asked me why I wrote The Biology of Star Trek despite my lack of tenure. My answer was The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. In it, I described how science fiction can make science attractive and accessible, how it can fire up the dreams of the young and lead them to become scientists or, at least, explorers who aren’t content with canned answers.”

    I have the pleasure and privilege to be one of the judges in the Crossed Genres contest. I can hardly wait to see the submissions!

  4. Hi Athena – a great article!! Great thoughts, and you are absolutely right. Despite all the evidence and multifarious statements of real scientists and engineers worldwide – that they were inspired to their discoveries and creations by the science fiction stories they read or saw, it is a sad truth that many people who are viewed as “science fiction writers” seem to have lost interest in real science of today, or have negative viewpoints on science, even as they denigrate other human pursuits, such as spirituality or lucrative commercial ventures. I think it’s just that most are out of date, and possibly, that they do not have the background or capacity to understand the implications of current scientific work. It’s true that no one person can encompass every branch of science – at least for me, I find I must specialize. While I read physics papers for “fun,” I simply do not have the grasp of the full implications of the math to write a lot of speculation in that area.

    It is very bad fortune to write or talk about what one is working on before it is finished, but after several weeks of struggle to find current science that was ringing a bell with me . . . see the above . . . instantly, I was inspired. And also a rare occurrence, I think I have a very good title, which is “Replicat.” As Jim Blaylock told me once about a story, “Amy, you’re the only writer I know who could have a sentient spaceship that does not fall in love with its human crew member, and does not have a cat onboard.” Goin’ a different direction with it than what most would think . . .

  5. Hi Athena – oh gosh, I don’t know – I probably shouldn’t have mentioned anything I was working on as it is terrible bad luck . . .

    Dr. B – I bet I know him. Pretty well.

  6. No, Amy, not bad luck! As for Dr. B, he represents a whole group all too visible (and audible) in the SF/F community and other self-labeled “progressive” groups. So you probably know several.

  7. I want to recommend to anyone reading that they check out (TED) for many interesting video talks in a variety of scientific areas, although of course skewed toward my particular interests in bioscience – there are quite a few in robotics and artificial intelligence as well. TED asks its speakers at its well-attended, influential conferences to give the 16-minute speech of their life, and there are also shorter 6-minute speeches. 16 minutes is quite long enough, and it’s interesting to see who really focuses, and who does not (while interesting, I don’t think JJ Abrams hit one out of the park with his speech). I am punchy, overwhelmed and exhausted right now, but beginning to see that I do think a certain way, and not inimicably to science at all. How funny that you have noticed these trends, Athena (another way to put it might be “some people seem to think total morons are smart”). I really want to see you continue to pursue exciting science fictional stories because the mind of a genuine scientist is irreplaceable.