May 2012 Archives

May 23, 2012

Are SF writers "slacking off"?

SF Signal has a mind meld posted today entitled "Is SF Still The "Big Idea" Genre?" which posits the question:

"Are SF writers "slacking off" or is science fiction still the genre of "big ideas"? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?"

Here's my take on the question.

First of all  really dislike the question as to whether SF writers are "slacking off". Who says Science Fiction writers have to do any one thing? The question implies that it's not Science Fiction if there aren't big ideas in the story. That is clearly not true. Science Fiction is a whole swathe of styles and stories and its writers are not beholden to Hard SF or Big Ideas SF.

However if you want Big Ideas then there are plenty of writers producing those sort of novels. Read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy from a few years ago for a template of how to colonise Mars, or Paul McAuley's Quiet War series for a template of how to colonise the Solar System. And the ideas don't have to be classic Hard SF in space, Adam Roberts' By Light Alone uses the idea of surviving on only water and photosynthesis via genetically engineered hair to examine the gap between poor and rich. These are all Big Ideas. There'll be plenty more too, you just have to look.

Having discussed Big Ideas however, I'd now like to talk about small ideas.

Small ideas make the future. Small things, little changes, pivots in our possible lives. Big ideas are the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, all flash and SFX yet often empty of character and soul. The big ideas get the publicity, whilst the indie small ideas languish unnoticed yet change our world forever.

Big ideas can provide inspiration, but I think the whole "Arthur C. Clarke invented satellites" thing is given too much precedence.

I question whether it's Science Fiction's job to provide ideas for Scientists and Engineers, they're very capable of thinking of their own big ideas. SF can provide a spark maybe, some inspiration, but in reality Science can be long winded and tedious and slow. I know from my own experience. Take the LHC: big, shiny, headline grabbing, seemingly impossible feat of engineering. Could a SF story have inspired the LHC? It took years of work, thousands of people. It was a slow, slow crawl. Whilst I was analysing data from a running LEP collider my friend Steve was working on a radiation hardened optical link for the LHC. Years before the LHC was turned on Steve spent three years hunched over a small circuit board, fighting electronics. SF can't prepare you for that. Shouldn't.

Another example of small things changing everything. In software development recently the whole way of working collaboratively has been shaken up by two small things. Firstly a version control system called Git. Linus Torvalds (he of Linux fame) wrote it. It's small, visually unspectacular (command line driven) and does the most boring of things, versions your code. Secondly a website called Github. Its aim was to make using git easier and more social. It's now a social hub for open source. With these two things, small things, the way that software is developed today has been changed forever. People entering the software industry now will never have known it another way. It's easy to collaborate, share, open source your code, make great things with low friction. It takes away the pain we used to endure.

Small things making big differences.

I don't want to sound pessimistic, big ideas have their place, I love them, I love audacious ideas and thinking beyond now, I'm just not convinced about Science Fiction leading Science.

May 16, 2012

Death Star 99% Perfect T-Shirt