The Power of Positive Sci-Fi


Friday, July 18, 2014

Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity.' Sandra Bullock in Gravity. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

For a couple of generations, it’s been a truism that good science fiction is grim science fiction. Technology is out of control, democracy is failing, the environment ruined. Think Hunger Games, Minority Report, The Matrix, and Blade Runner, all the way back to 1984. But science fiction writer and astrophysicist David Brin believes we’ve gotten too fond of these bummers. “It’s so easy to make money with a tale that says: ‘Civilization is garbage. Our institutions never will be helpful. Your neighbors are all useless sheep,’” he laments. “’Now enjoy a couple of characters running around shooting things and having adventures in the middle of a dystopia.’”

Dystopias are bad?  That’s heresy for science fiction.  But a few people are starting to agree with him, like Neal Stephenson, the author of Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash.  A few years ago, Stephenson was on a panel discussion with Arizona State University President Michael Crow, and Stephenson started complaining that there were no big scientific projects to inspire people these days. Crow shot back, “You’re the ones slacking off!” In Crow’s view, it was the writers who weren’t pulling their weight, supplying the motivating visions for science and technology. 

From that discussion, Crow and Stephenson have collaborated on The Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU. And Stephenson founded a group called Project Hieroglyph, which recruits science fiction authors to write more optimistically about the future. “I guess I had never given science fiction writers enough credit of being leaders of innovation,” Stephenson says. The writers who contribute to Project Hieroglyph don’t have to consult with scientists or engineers, but doing so “shows they’re on the right track.” Stephenson says. Only three rules: no hyperspace, no holocausts and no hackers. Coming from Stephenson, the bard of hackers, that’s quite a challenge.

    Music Playlist
  1. Infinite Probability Drive
    Artist: Jody Talbot
    Album: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Original Soundtrack)
    Label: Hollywood Records
  2. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
    Artist: The Flaming Lips
    Album: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
    Label: Warner Brothers
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Tiangong
    Artist: Steven Price
    Album: Gravity: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
    Label: WaterTower Music
    Purchase: Amazon


David Brin, Chris Hadfield and Neal Stephenson

Produced by:

Eric Molinsky

Comments [10]


I guess you've never heard of Star Trek?

Sep. 05 2014 03:21 AM
Bruce Swanton from Santa Fe

Hmmm. I had thought this was the segment at the end of which Kurt invited listeners to submit new visions for the space program. I have a nice tricky little one, but have no idea how to submit it.


Aug. 08 2014 03:14 PM
David from Europe

A bright future is nice and all, but without mayor conflict of interest in a novel it just gets boring. And no one want to read a boring book with a perfect world in it. I mean what is the novel going to be about. A perfect world with good people? BORING!

Jul. 27 2014 06:26 AM
john newman from carlisle pa

I very much enjoyed your program regarding the relationship between science fiction and technology.

I do however disagree with your reference to the movie "Gravity" as being technically accurate . It contains many factual errors. A comprehensive review of these errors can be foumd on the web site IMDB dot com- look for the review entitled "A crime of the utmost gravity" written by username "nysalesman" who I would conclude has an aeronautical backgroumd.

Marooned, 2001 Space Oddesey, and Apollo 13 were far more technically correct.

Jul. 26 2014 12:22 AM
Dave from San Diego

I humbly submit that dystopias are science fiction for people who don't like science or fiction. So what they do is show raw non-fictional human nature against an absurd non-mentally-challenging setting. The only reason they're draped in sci-fi clothing is to create room for lots of special effects and gratuitous violence.

Jul. 23 2014 07:17 PM
David Brin from California

Nice article. And of course I support Neal's efforts and the ASU Center. It is collaborating in several ways with UCSD's new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (, where the sciences and arts will come together to explore humanity's most unique gift.

Look, none of us are asking for a return to the fizzy optimism of 1930s sci fi. The changes wrought in our genre by the New Wave and by Cyberpunk and by the glorious surge in savvy and insightful women writers have all been tonics that yanked us forward... and with great art.

Moreover, there is a real role for dystopias and apocalypses! I've written some myself. When a dystopia is making a deep and new point - as in Orwell's work or Huxley's - or in cinema like Soylent Green or Dr. Strangelove - the message can stir and scare folks into actions taken to PREVENT the scenario from ever coming true. Self-preventing prophecies. Yay.


But today's tsunami of cookie cutter dystopias with drooling-nasty oppressors who have no reason to be the way they are, other than to give protagonists an evil to fight... this is not a help but just a harm to the confidence of a civilization that has a lot of problems to solve, and that needs to believe that - deep down - we can solve them.

I go into it deeper at ... and why directors and authors who do this tedious thing over and over are motivated by nothing more than pure laziness.

We deserve better. Good writers and directors can deliver action and peril and warnings!... while also conveying the slim possibility that civilization is possible. And our neighbors might be somewhat smarter than herd beasts.

David Brin

Jul. 23 2014 01:58 PM
Peter A Blacksberg from Wayne NJ

How we revel in the nightmare when would could dream, design, create opportunities for a positive existence. All help is appreciated. We can rescue ourselves. Science fiction can plant the seeds of success as easily as those of destruction.

Jul. 21 2014 08:17 PM
Jonathan Lowe from Tucson

The killer robot genre is maintained by Hollywood, as are all the zombies. We are taught to fear the future by cultural memes and US vs. THEM scenarios (Good VS Evil.) The A.I. of the future need not be good or evil, and there is as good a reason to believe it will help as much as harm us. And who are we, anyway? Biased to believe we are evolution's summit, we are overdue for extinction if you consider how long most species survive. Can we change, or will we need help changing? I think the latter is more likely, although the movie Transcendence was considered a failure due to its Hollywood ending. --Jonathan Lowe, author of Transcendence 2

Jul. 20 2014 09:05 PM
Scott from Brooklyn

Uh, sorry, but this is kinda dumb. There's plenty of great sci-fi that's not dystopian - nay, it's UTOPIAN. Iain M. Banks's "Culture" series is one example, among many others.

Jul. 19 2014 11:55 PM
Chris Gurin from Philadelphia, PA

Kurt Andersen’ s intro to the “The Power of Positive Sci-Fi” made me think about how my views of the future have changed. As a “Boomer”, I grew up with the cold-war space race in a part of California where just about everyone’s dad worked for either a prime or sub-contractor building something to get us to the moon. Space infected me, and I badgered my mother into buying Tang, and the truly awful “Space Food Sticks”. If you’ve never heard of these, don’t feel deprived: Pillsbury yanked them pretty soon after their introduction. When I say I watched “Star Trek” (TOS) religiously, I mean it –as a skeptical Catholic School kid, already on the path to damnation, I had new gods (Kirk said it, I believed it, and that’s that.)

Then something awful happened: we made it to the Moon. Suddenly, the thing that had powered our world was no longer important. The plants where “The Future” was being built were closing, the engineer dad’s were home during the day, looking as lost as the stars they had once aimed for, the same stars we were told to were just within our reach.
At the same time, I discovered I had no talent for math, which pretty much meant I wouldn’t be issued my official McDonnell Douglas pocket protector any time soon.

The FUTURE was no longer certain. Based on some of the novels I was reading and movies I was watching, the future was a dark, forbidding and smelly place where even the plumbing didn’t work. After watching “Soylent Green,” I was beginning to wonder what Pillsbury really put in ”Space Food Sticks.”

Then something wonderful happened: I saw Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. This movie had such a different feel from everything else I had ever seen, the quotidian mise en scène elements of familiar corporate logos (Pan Am, Bell Telephone, Hilton Hotels, IBM) made it seem, well, real. The message of the movie was also real for me- the very uncertainty of the universe was far more exciting than engineered future I had been conditioned to believe.

Jul. 19 2014 11:54 AM

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