I am still pinching myself.
The good folks from the Edinburgh Book Festival have invited me to get up on stage with one of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, to discuss the importance of science fiction on science fact. The event is one of the ‘Science Meets Fiction’ series being sponsored by The Wellcome Trust.
I still recall my 25-year-old self being blown off my lab stool by Snowcrash, Stephenson’s third novel, which I devoured during incubations while slaving away over my one megabase of manual radioactive sequencing in graduate school in Seattle. After being introduced to my first ‘lab lit‘ novel, Cantor’s Dilemma by Carl Djerassi, around the same time, I hunted around and discovered that Stephenson had already written in that genre with Zodiac – a wonderful but little-known story about a pain-in-the-ass ecoterrorist chemist that I adore to this day. Since then I’ve read almost everything he’s written, including what I think might be his most ambitious, Anathem (my Nature review is available here).
The topic of my discussion with Mr Stephenson is an interesting one. I’m most well-known for my views on what science can offer fiction; what fiction can offer science is in some ways a more complex and intriguing proposition, touching as it does on the inspiring and firing of young imaginations. Although I currently champion the realism of the lab lit genre, it’s a little known biographical fact that for my entire childhood and adolescence I read pretty much nothing else but science fiction. I enjoyed all the greats, from Asimov to Zelazny, and my father subscribed to the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction, which I worshipped from cover to cover. Our family spent many evenings in the Seventies in front of the television watching Star Trek, Space 1999, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers and the like. I once wrote a book review of Have Space Suit – Will travel for a fifth grade English assignment, and the teacher marched me to the school library and made me show him the book, assuming that with a title like that, I must have made it up.
What has science fiction done for science? There are a lot of examples, of course. I still remember reading Robert Heinlein’s Friday, and being entranced by his description of sitting down in front of a computer and being able to search for any piece of knowledge in the universe. I now recognize this plot device as being indistinguishable from the internet and Google, but back then, I was so excited by Heinlein’s idea that, when I took my first computer classes in high school (black screen, glowing green block text, an entirely self-contained experience imprisoned by the few programmes contained within), I was bitterly disappointed with reality. Did Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Page or Sergey Brin read Heinlein? I have no idea. But the corpus of classic science fiction is filled with examples of fictional technology that eventually became fact.
I’d be delighted if you could attend this event in Edinburgh, which takes place during the height of Festival proper. The details are below. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your favorite examples of science fictional notions that inspired real-life science or scientists of the future.
Jennifer Rohn and Neal Stephenson
Saturday 18 August
5:00pm – 6:00pm
ScottishPower Studio Theatre
£10.00, £8.00 concessions