In the Spring 2014 Issues, we published our first science fiction story. Physicist Gregory Benford’s story “Eagle” explored how radical environmentalists might respond to the launch of a geoengineering project to limit climate change. The success of that story opened our eyes to the potential of science fiction writers to provide a useful perspective on the policy questions discussed in our standard analytic articles. We decided to stage a contest with prizes for science fiction stories—appropriate for policy audiences.
The first step in the contest called for prospective writers to submit a 250-word description of the story they wanted to submit. In our optimistic moments we dreamed of receiving a few dozen proposals. Wrong. We found ourselves buried in 130 submissions that promised a dizzying array of approaches to a rich mix of topics. We struggled to whittle the list down to the 14 semifinalists that we asked to submit full stories.
When the stories arrived, we were surprised again. Writing an intriguing proposal is much easier than producing a well-written and engaging story. We thought we would be lucky to find one or two publishable pieces, but the quality of the writing was consistently first-rate. If anything, the stories were better than the proposals. After reading all the entries, Jason Lloyd, Dan Sarewitz, and I realized that picking winners would not be easy. We read them all again determined to identify our favorites. There was no consensus. No single story emerged as a favorite, and our individual top-five lists had little overlap. Almost every semifinalist made it onto at least one list.
After considerable discussion, we arrived at a list of five stories that we agreed we had to publish, plus two honorable mentions that could have ended up in the top five on a different day. The five stories that will appear in successive editions of Issues are:
- Claudia Casser, “Heirs of the Body”
- Kelle Dhein, “The Fictional Age”
- Kristen Koopman, “You’re a Mile Away and You Have Their Shoes”
- Chris Merchant, “Mapo Tofu with Spicy Cucumber Side”
- Josh Trapani, “Pythia of Science”
The honorable mentions, which we will post on our website, are:
- Mike Di Paola, “Who Are We?”
- M. Richard Eley, “Hot Dogs and Corn Flakes”
The winners will each receive $1,500, and the honorable mentions $250. We were not able to rank the five winners, so they will appear in random order. In this issue you will find Josh Trapani’s “Pythia of Science” batting lead-off for the winners.
We did not know the identities of the authors when we were judging the articles, and what we learned we did finally unmask them also surprised and pleased us. Yes, there were some professional fiction writers, but also a journalist, a scientist, a policy wonk, and a long-time corporate lawyer.
I know from my conversations with Issues readers that many of you have long been science fiction fans and will welcome these stories with open arms. But many of you severe left-brainers are shaking your heads at the waste of pages that could be devoted to clear, cold reasoned argument. I mean, really. The art was bad enough, but at least much of it is immediately pleasing to the eye. To reassure you, I confess that I have never been a science fiction fan. Over the years I have ignored the readers who have suggested publishing science fiction. Now I see that I was wrong. I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed these stories, and I think you will be too if you give them a chance.
A better-informed case for the virtues of scifi has been made by two MIT Media Lab researchers Dan Novy and Sophia Brueckner, who developed a course entitled “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication,” which the students have renamed “Pulp to Prototype.” In a September 2013 email interview with Rebecca J. Rosen in The Atlantic, they cite examples of how scifi has played a role in inspiring in ways small (the inventor of the taser traces its source back to Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle) and large (Winston Churchill’s scifi-stimulated wish for a death ray led indirectly to the development of radar, which might have been more useful).
They cite work at MIT in biomechatronics, tangible media, and fluid interfaces that mirrors popular themes in scifi, and find the precursors of immersive environments in the work of Ray Bradbury and Neal Stephenson. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? apparently includes enough gadget ideas to provide student projects for an entire engineering school—in addition to providing the basis for the film Blade Runner.
But for Novy and Brueckner the most important contribution is not to provide project ideas but to encourage technologists to think more deeply about the implications of these technologies. Novy describes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a “Gothic biopunk cautionary tale about the repercussions of man using technology and science to ‘play God’.” Although he believes that people sometimes use the potential dark side of new technology as a rationale for opposing all new developments, he nevertheless thinks that technologists need to keep these possibilities in mind and to follow development paths intended to minimize possible dangers. Science fiction can serve as an inexpensive product launch that enables us to see how a technology will be used by a variety of people and institutions.
Brueckner adds that the scifi thought experiment makes it possible to redirect a technology before it’s too late. As she says, “Once any sort of technology has users, it becomes extremely difficult to change it—even if you know it should or must be changed.” When she worked in software development in Silicon Valley, she found that her colleagues rarely asked themselves critical questions about how their work might be used. From her perspective, “reading science fiction is like an ethics class for inventors, and engineers and designers should be trying to think like science fiction authors when they approach their own work.”
But you shouldn’t read science fiction because it’s nutritious. Read it because it’s delicious. It’s fiction, an act of imagination. Appreciate the individual characters, the structure of scenes, the way that dialogue can reveal more than exposition. Get lost in it. Enjoy yourself.