Allan Steele’s Arkwright has inspired me with a new vision of the genre and its purpose, at least insofar as Amazing Stories’ development is concerned.
Arkwright concerns early science fiction fans cum authors, agents and editors who put into practice what real fandom only dreamed of, a dedicated effort to improve the future through creativity and technology. The focus in the story was star flight, but the general concept can be extended to just about anything.
Early fandom strongly believed that science fiction could be used as a tool to guide humanity into a better future. The genre itself certainly provided enough impetus for that, but fandom did not follow through by providing funding or a political movement that would encourage greater society to engage with those concepts and new technologies on anything more than a peripheral basis.
Science Fiction, the literature, is now generally regarded as a tool for investigation and reflection upon our current circumstances, able to take more leeway with controversial issues owing to being able to place events in non-threatening times and places.
Science Fiction is also still regarded as somewhat prognosticory, at least in the sense that it can show us future consequences of real-time events, Bradbury’s futures we want to avoid.
We also know that Science Fiction has been deeply influential upon our technologies and society as a whole: you can practically draw a direct line from Astounding Stories to NASA’s Moon landing, and the present day tales of people inspired by science fiction to create tech, from medical tricorders to flying planes, would fill several volumes.
There is only one thing missing in the above equation: a focused and intentional effort to use science fiction literature to directly influence the course our futures take.
What is needed are good, solid extrapolations that demonstrate the utility, benefits and positive outcomes that would result from the implementation of certain technologies, social structures, political philosophies, educational systems and more.
By way of example, I’ve been thinking a lot about health care lately. Under cost pressure, the medical field hasbeen pushing technology and capabilities further down the chain as it were; stronger medications are available over the counter, we now have nurses and doctors assistants who can diagnose and prescribe and technologies for the home/personal setting keep on rolling out. This has, over time, made medical technologies far more accessible to the individual. You can’t quite give yourself an appendectomy, but we’re getting close.
What would result if good, engaging SF stories demonstrated the advantages of taking this trend to its logical conclusion? Is the “autodoc” a real possibility? (I say yes, considering we already have toilets capable of analyzing urine and feces.) With such a technology available to all, health care cost issues become an entirely different animal. What would the consequences be? Would it be possible to provide such technology to everyone (be it in the home, local clinics, traveling…). Could fiction inspire an X Prize or a Manhattan style project IF the benefits could be made appealing enough? How will insurance companies be addressed? Is there a way to let them down easily? What positive outcome will there be for doctors?
We know that when enough people read something and are inspired by it, actions will be taken. After Stranger in a Strange Land was published, everyone wanted a waterbed. We now have them (unpatenable owing to Heinlein’s detailed description). That’s a very minor example. Kennedy could have directed the moon shot by fiat. He chose to inspire through words and nearly everyone wanted that moon shot.
Science Fiction has the ability to make people ask themselves “why don’t I have that? why can’t I do that? Why is it taking so long to accomplish this thing when it seems so logically possible and advantageous!?” Science Fiction has the ability to show us what it would be like to live in a better future, AND to want to live there.
If there is a focal point, Science Fiction can be deliberately used as a tool to shape and inspire a better future. Good Science Fiction authors have the ability to not only imagine that future, but to present it in an engaging, exciting and entertaining way. Gernsback’s sugar-coating come full circle.
We have a tool that has been demonstrated to be effective for nearly a century. It’s proven. It works. SF inspires readers. Readers realize those inspirations in the real world, Science Fiction takes that new reality and builds upon it again.
Up till now though, this has been a haphazard, catch-as-catch-can enterprise. Media is fond of saying “It’s not science fiction anymore”, and, while they largely use that as a pejorative, what they are really saying is “this thing used to be Science Fiction, but because Science Fiction inspired scientists and engineers and philanthropists, it has become reality…and you really ought to be thanking Science Fiction”. I want fiction that will make people say “It’s not science fiction anymore because of science fiction!”
I want to use Amazing Stories and the fiction it publishes to take that haphazard approach and focus it, to deliberately take on the task of identifying where we ought to be going and inspiring others to help us get there. Positive stories that focus on realizing the kind of future that we have all come to envision and desire.
We should have “:autodocs”; we should be colonizing the high frontier and other, suitable planets. We should be able to provide housing, clean water, adequate food and educational opportunity to everyone across the globe. We should not be allowing the control of the flow of money, or information or technologies to hamper the individual; environmental issues are addressable. Indeed, we have seen nothing but an unending success story when people are inspired to focus and act.
I’m going to spend some time researching and consulting with the goal of developing a top ten list of future things we either should have already or ought to and want to have in the near term future, and then I’m going to be asking folks to put on their writer hats and do what they do best.