In which fantasy informs reality – and saves the planet

The discussion about what fiction can do for science is best encapsulated by the often heard, emblematic plea: Where’s my bloody jetpack, then?

Okay, so the technorati may still be earthbound on Segways while they wait for the price of a Virgin Galactic trip to dip below the stratosphere, but that doesn’t mean that we all don’t secretly hope that science fiction’s most amazing promises will one day come to light. Very recently, I shared a public platform with novelist and futurist Neal Stephenson in a discussion at the Edinburgh Book Festival (adroitly moderated by LabLit regular Pippa Goldschmit), talking about what science can do for fiction.


It was a jam-packed tent in Charlotte Gardens, and the audience was vocal, passionate and articulate. Stephenson kicked off with an interesting anecdote about how science fiction can almost be like market research – he was once approached by a bunch of engineers interested in one of the technologies he’d invented in a novel. Apparently they were using his premise as a catalyst to brainstorm all sorts of real-life technology. Science fiction, in that way, almost gives you permission to speculate about things that you’d be laughed out of the Senior Common Room for entertaining otherwise. And in fact, in one of the essays in Stephenson’s new book, a collection called Some Remarks, he states that science fiction has functioned as a “loophole” for academics to be able to escape the “strict and cruelly enforced” rules of academic publishing:

And indeed there have been any number of hard science fiction professors who have donned the motley, taken up the pen, and written more or less successful works of hard science fiction as a way of dodging those two terrible strictures against popularization/simplification, and synoptic pulling-together-of-diverse-strands.

The conversation that sunny afternoon ranged far and wide, including a ruthless examination of scientist characters in fiction. One audience member lamented that the boffins in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus were almost too human, in that they were complete emotional wrecks – we’ve come a long way from Mr Spock, essentially, and that wasn’t a good thing. But Stephenson countered: although Spock was a revelation in his day, isn’t it a sort of progress that scientist characters have evolved beyond that paragon of logic and objectivity?

Although my basic position is that true portrayals of the scientific process – the good, the bad and the ugly – can function as a PR tool to humanize scientists and make their message more trustworthy, Stephenson produced a rather surprising view: enough with the dystopia already. As long as science fiction’s most popular modus operandi remains “it can all go horribly wrong”, he contended, we’re never going to get anywhere with rolling up our sleeves and fixing the world’s many problems with science and technology. It’s hard to write an engaging plot without some skulduggery, though, so focusing on the negativity of science – its ethical trespasses, its mistakes, its cover-ups, its ten-foot mutant lab rat escapees – may be a lot easier for a writer of fiction than penning something all sweetness and light. But I think he may have a point.


Following the event, I had the thrilling experience of sharing a book-signing table with Stephenson. His line was very long – and less demographically diverse – compared with mine, but it was a fascinating insight into the minds of his many hard-core fans (who, in their thirty or so seconds on the spot, rattled off biographies like “Reading Snow Crash inspired me to go into medieval literature”). Afterwards in the Author’s Yurt, Stephenson told me that before that day, he’d never really thought about just how few scientist characters there were in literature – it was ludicrous, he marveled, that we could name almost all of them in one hour-long discussion. The lab lit rarity problem I sketched at the beginning of the event, he said, articulated something that he’d been subconsciously aware of for some time but had never quite surfaced until that moment, and that it was a cause worth fighting for.

I couldn’t have hoped for a more ringing endorsement.


(All photos by Richard P. Grant)

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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10 Responses to In which fantasy informs reality – and saves the planet

  1. Grant says:

    Good to see your book on the shelves in the photo! (I looked for it when I was in London, but had no luck.)

    More on topic, I guess it’s easy to fall for focusing on technologies and whatnot than portray scientists and the scientific process, especially if futurist settings are your thing. Perhaps there’s a split here between works of a more escapist nature and ones that explore relationships or philosophical (etc.) questions in more ‘normal’ settings? I would have thought the difference less negative v. “sweetness and light”, but escapist leanings or leaning to exploring ‘normal’ lives – ? (Maybe I’m writing too late at night to try start on this!)

    Out of my own interest, in the context of “there have been any number of hard science fiction professors who have donned the motley, taken up the pen,” did Gregory Benford’s name come up?

  2. rpg says:

    I think it did, actually. But ‘Henry Gee’ didn’t…

  3. Greg Benford was the first name NS mentioned during the discussion!

  4. Grant says:


    You poking at someone there…?


    Maybe he’s too obviously the person to name! I have to admit he partly came to mind as I’d like to track down his Galactic Centre series, which (embarrassingly) I haven’t read. In y defence it’s partly as the local library doesn’t hold it. (I’ve read some of his later stuff; bit hard to find as they aren’t on the public shelves – you have to get the librarians to haul them out of the basement stock!)

    Anyone 🙂 ,

    Anyone here read ‘Bowl of Heaven’?

  5. rpg says:

    Nope, free advertising for his new trilogy–in case you hadn’t heard about it yet.

  6. chall says:

    Sounds like a great time and an interesting discussion. I realise now that I didn’t say Congrats and wow! when you wrote the post about being selected for the event.

    I thought about the Prometheus scientists and wondered if that was a kick towards “you can be a scientist and still have a faith to believe in” debate since it’s been a lot about that lately over here in the US. Or it’s just a move from “cold evil scientists” to “emotional wreck evil scientists”?

  7. Sounds like it was an excellent event – glad you found time to post about it.

    Stephenson’s story of being approached about a technology he “invented” brings to mind the NASA Holodeck story – which I have no source for other than a story I saw on a science news show some years ago. Apparently astronauts training with D-3 simulators requested that the NASA folks superimpose a large grid like the one we see when the holodeck first appears in Star Trek: The Next Generation, to help them visualize where things were. Sci-fi feeding Sci-real again. 🙂

  8. cromercrox says:

    I think it did, actually. But ‘Henry Gee’ didn’t…

    Dr Gee wishes it to be known that his appeal is somewhat selective.

    But sitting THIS CLOSE to Neal Stephenson. YOU AREI AM NOT WORTHY. Though I was standing next to him at SciFoo in 2007 when he was telling an hilarious anecdote about Jehovah’s Witnesses that these margins are too small to contain.

  9. I’m embarrassed to confess that I haven’t actually got round to seeing Prometheus yet. But am keenly anticipating dissecting these emotional wrecks personally!

    I’d not heard the Holodeck story, Winty – thanks for sharing.

  10. Bah. “3-D”, of course.

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