And Now for Something Completely Different
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote that “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” And for most people, she is right, even though the hardcore Issues reader might not be happy about it. We value the dispassionate logic of intellectual discourse, the relentless building of argument on the sturdy foundation of evidence. We discount the cheap appeal to emotion and the pathos of individual cases. We relish the opportunity to remind our readers and listeners that data is not the plural of anecdote. And if the anecdote is fictional, I mean, is it even worth considering?
Well, yes, unless we think the world is run by the characters on “The Big Bang.” Thankfully, we have not entrusted our well-being to the control of eggheads or technocrats. The wisdom of democracy is to recognize that we cannot put all our trust in bloodlines or academic credentials. What we now call the wisdom of crowds—or the advantage of index mutual funds—is the recognition that elites and specialists are not infallible, that the world is too complex for any individual or small group to comprehend completely. There is some collective wisdom that comes from diversity of experience and ways of understanding that experience.
The most powerful and persistent way of making sense of the human experience is fiction. Whereas the vast majority of scientific literature eventually loses its value as later research reveals its errors and limitations, we are still reading and learning from Homer and Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare, Austen and Woolf. This is not to say that all knowledge and wisdom can be found in fiction, but it is a recognition that we would be foolish to ignore the insights of the imagination and the perennial wisdom that can be revealed by focusing on individual characters in specific circumstances.
A significant amount of recent and contemporary fiction gives considerable attention to science and technology. This includes a large group of fine writers who are identified primarily as science fiction writers: H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson. Though often dismissed as a homogenous and undistinguished subgenre, these writers deal with a wide diversity of subjects ranging across the physical and social sciences and personas that stretch from technological Pollyannas to dystopian Cassandras. Another large group of celebrated authors—Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, and many others—primarily for work not related to science have written works that can be classified as science fiction.
All of these writers have used their fiction to explore questions that are relevant to policymakers, and all have reached broader audiences and touched them more deeply than the analytic articles we publish in Issues. As editors we asked ourselves: Why should we let other publications have all the fun? More important, why should we ignore the ways that these writers influence our collective attitudes toward science and technology?
The obvious answer is that we shouldn’t, and we won’t. This edition includes the first of what we hope will be a long lineage of stimulating science fiction stories. We are particularly pleased that our first venture into fiction was written by Gregory Benford, who is not only a respected science fiction writer but has also taught astronomy and physics at the University of California. Read it now.