Are dystopias screwing with our ability to get the big stuff done?

In a fascinating article for the World Policy Institute, Neal Stephenson (author of Reamde, Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon, etc.) argues that (1) as a society we’ve become less able to execute on the big stuff and (2) it may be the fault of us science fiction writers.

Now I feel him on the first part. He describes being a child of the 60’s growing up watching us get big things done in space. That was me, too. I was glued to the Apollo missions (as well as Star Trek, 2001, and anything space), and I later ended up working at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.  Yet this year we watched the Space Shuttle program sputter to an end with nothing really to replace it.  So, yeah, we’re not executing on the big stuff so much at the moment.

But, is this because we’re not writing science fiction about moon colonies and galactic civilizations? Well, I don’t know about that. Granted, the science fiction leading up to (and well into) the space age embraced a certain techno-optimisim. And now we’re writing about, gasp, dystopias and steampunk. Correlation ain't causation, though.

I think we’re not executing on the big stuff not for lack of imagination but because of lack of political will. Going to the moon captured the world’s imagination, but the US got there because we were afraid the Russians were going to beat us—and drop bombs on us. Right now our leaders don’t see the strategic value of missions to near Earth orbit. (The irony is that we’re now relying on the Russians to service the space station.)

What do you guys think? Is there a connection between the literature of our imagination and our ability to get the big stuff done?


Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

I think you're right--it's probably more politics than it is literature. I can't imagine the reason NASA hasn't executed on new big projects is because they haven't thought of it--it almost always comes back to funding and politics.

Adam Heine said...

Actually, if there's a connection at all, I'd say it's the other way around. In the 60's, Americans were super-optimistic about space and what they might do or find there. Aliens, moon colonies, wormholes, the restaurant at the end of the universe. Who knew?

Well, now we do kinda know. Or at least we've been up there long enough to stop getting excited about it.

I think dystopians are the same thing. A lot of us born in the 70s and 80s have gotten kind of disillusioned with gov't. We can see all the ways it could go (and is going) wrong, so we write about that. At least that's my take.

Marcia said...

Y'know -- I've had this thought. I didn't really expect anyone else would.

I like dystopians, but I feel a overall emotion from them that says, "It's all going to heck anyway." I don't mean from any one work, but from the sheer numbers of dystopian novels now out there. Seems possible this could have some effect on our will to solve problems.

Jessi L. Roberts said...

I think Adam might right. People could be less optimistic about space since nothing new has happened recently. If aliens land on Earth, I'm sure people would want to travel to the stars again.
Back when space travel started, people probably wanted to know what was going to happen so reading sci-fi about space exploration and aliens was the way to know how the future could be. Now, we're in that future and it hasn't happened so people are tired of those books.
Since economies seem to be in shambles and there are rumors of war, I think people are worried about the future so they read dystopian since that looks like the most realistic future.
I don't think this is a problem. New things are getting invented and computers are making huge leaps forward. The inventions that are happening now are especially exciting because they're having such a direct impact on everyone. It's not just a bunch of space stations that only a select few people get to float in but hand held devices almost everyone can afford. Who knows? Soon, cell phones might be able to talk to people, sort of like the robots in movies.