Friday, November 29, 2013

Why SF Turned Dark & Engineering Wimped Out

Neal Stephenson, thought provoking as always, speaks at the Association for Science and Technology Centers. Here are my main takeaways:

Why has science fiction shifted from optimistic, idealistic stories from 50 years ago, to dark, dystopian stories that dominate the genre today? The shift seems to have occurred in the late 70's with Star Wars (still idealistic, but a gritty and broken-down futuristic world) and Alien (an industrialized, militaristic world). But I think this reflects the cultural change of the 60's. In the 50's there was a stronger emphasis on ideal norms. The cultural revolution of the 60's exposed a lot of the pretense.

The pretense didn't go away, but a layer of pretense was lifted away, and contemporary society is a little more honest about the real norms. In fact, we've become quite jaded, especially when you look at politics. Part of this might also be blamed on Watergate and cameras bringing the horrors of the Vietnam war into the public awareness.

But, Stephenson points out, the "built" environment has only changed superficially since the 70's, compared to the changes between 1900 & 1970's.

The helpfulness of SF to engineering comes from the shared understanding that the engineering team has through the SF that they all have read. This saves time and resources in communicating the vision, because the SF writer has already shared the vision, or some portion of it, some version of it, and the engineers are all on the same page.

The Hieroglyph anthology was designed to use near-future technology to write about tech that might be attainable within the lifetime of an engineering student today.

Why isn't society taking on big projects in the physical world like we used to? Stephenson believes the financial world is what is holding us back, and a modern aversion to risk and trying new things, and our leaders.

I'm not sure I buy this aversion to risk theory. American society, in particular, has become much more dependent, and accepting of, debt as a way of life. There is a vocal movement opposing public debt, but the common use of debt is far greater today than it was prior to the late 70's (when American Express and others started offering charge cards and credit cards).

I think the lack of big engineering projects has more to do with the partisanship of contemporary politics. Stephenson does say he thinks that it has to do with leadership today, and perhaps this is what he's referring to. Taking a political stance on a major engineering project can be politically risky, and the finances of the project can be used to illustrate that risk. However, George W. Bush tried to push for a mission to Mars, with a Moon Station as an interim step. However, this didn't really catch on. Again, this may boil down to partisanship, and also to Americans' suspicion of government, which grew out of the 60's cultural changes, the Vietnam War, and Watergate.

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