Speaking before a packed lecture theater at MIT yesterday, Neal Stephenson worried that the gloomy outlook prevalent in modern science fiction may be undermining the genre’s ability to inspire engineers and scientists. Describing himself as a “pessimist trying to turn himself into an optimist,” and acknowledging that some of his own work has contributed to the dystopian trend, he added “if every depiction of the future is grim…then it doesn’t create much of an incentive to building the future.”

Consequently, Stephenson is trying to make a literary course correction…

Well, since he ruined it for everybody, I suppose it would be his job to fix it too.

Imagine being that influential. What a burden!

Source

UPDATE: Just to be clear, this is a cynical blog post pointing out that NS’s lack of personal humility is annoying.

Comments

  1. #1 Nemo
    April 21, 2012

    I don’t see where he’s saying anything like that.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    April 21, 2012

    It’s not very subtle. Gloomy science fiction has ruined the way everybody thinks. Therefore I will write less gloomy science fiction and thus save the world. There are two major assumptions here: 1) That science fiction influences how future technology people think and 2) that if NS changes how he writes that science fiction will be transformed.

  3. #3 Nemo
    April 21, 2012

    There are countless testimonies to the effect that science fiction influences people to go into science and engineering careers, and directly inspires invention. You’re not seriously denying this, are you?

    As for Stephenson’s place in this, all he said was that he’d contributed to it (i.e., written dystopian SF). And his goal is “creating an anthology of plausibly optimistic science fiction”, i.e., a book. Not reforming all of SF.

    I personally haven’t read his work, but I know that he’s a very popular author. So yes, whatever he does is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the field.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    April 21, 2012

    No, I am not denying that science fiction has a large effect. Nor am I denying his role.

    If I was his mother, though, I’d have a talk with him.

  5. #5 dogmaticahos
    April 22, 2012

    Unless there’s more to his comments than what’s in this little blurb…you’re definitely reading too much into it.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    April 22, 2012

    … well, there is a link.

  7. #7 Mike Olson
    April 22, 2012

    The link doesn’t appear to provide any reason for the conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. He maybe rather egocentric. I would point out that a lot of folks see “Snow Crash,” as being very influential in the development of computer graphics and systems. I would question his own assessment that his novels are gloomy. After having read the, “Windup Girl,” which had great tech but dark conclusions, as well as other spec fiction in the “cyber punk,” category I’d call Stephenson a ray of sunshine…comparatively speaking.

  8. #8 Stephanie Z
    April 22, 2012

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. Have you commenters read Stephenson’s essay. “Oh, we’ve forgotten how to do science.” Uh-huh. “Then in the 50s and 60s we started looking at the potential downsides of technology.” Tell it to Mary Shelley. “Corporations have too much control.” Yes, well, the solution to that is not writing a story–unless your story gets people involved in politics.

    Yes, science fiction has sometimes shown the way. It has sometimes inspired. You know who did most of that? Writers churning out short stories for the pulps. Writers who were concentrating on telling stories. It wasn’t the brain trusts that people have occasionally put together to try to make SF move the world forward. Remember Sigma?

  9. #9 Eric the Leaf
    April 22, 2012

    I’ve read Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem. All seriously fantastical, and Anathem is way, way out there. Difficult to wade through, but way out of control.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    April 22, 2012

    My favorite is still The Big U. That could be because I know/knew at least two of the individuals on whom characters were based.

  11. #11 Jose
    April 23, 2012

    Science Fiction has painted dystopian visions of the future dating back to HG Well’s time.

    The prevailing trend however is that we’ll develop super powerful technology Real Soon Now. With the notable exception of non sentient computing reality has underperformed compared to Science Fiction. Science Fiction tends to be overly pessimistic when it comes to humans abilities to resolve political and cultural problems without creating absurd dystopias.

  12. #12 Mike Olson
    April 23, 2012

    Have to admit it, “The Big U,” is either my favorite or second favorite. I read it in college and it just kind of hit me.

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    April 23, 2012

    Were you at Boston University by any chance?

  14. #14 Mike Olson
    April 23, 2012

    No, I was at Western Illinois University. Honestly, at the time, I past it up a couple of times, but it kept kind of nagging at me. Finally I bought it, liked it and could never really put me finger on the reason. I loaned the book to a friend who thought it was okay, but for 16 years I never met another person who had read it and it was that same span of time before I read another book by Stephenson. I guess in 1984 it just seemed to capture a lot of how I saw people acting in college. Frankly, I was no Casmir Radon but I thought his perceptions were accurate and I felt kind of ashamed for not setting my own personal bar a bit higher.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    April 24, 2012

    One of the college kids is probably partly modeled after a good friend of mine; NS was the boyfriend of his RA at a dorm at BU, and that was at the time of an incident that may or may not have involved a piece of furniture, a window, and a drop of several stories.

    Also, of course, the one armed University President is the one and only John Silber, President of BU.

    And Big Red is this: http://www.bostonspastime.com/citgo.html

  16. #16 Vince Whirlwind
    April 26, 2012

    This is a bit like people who care for the environment and compost their organic waste instead of throwing it in the bin, who buy a smaller car to burn less petrol, who buy organic food, etc….
    They think they are part of a problem so they take some personal responsibility about it.
    I have no idea what NS is like as a person, but I’ve enjoyed quite a number of his books (quite liked Anathem – his latest, REAMDE, seems to just be a bid for a movie project), and the personal voice that comes out of his books does indicate he is a person with opinions…

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