Saturday, November 15, 2008

Relevant SF

(Cross-posted from the SHINE blog)

...or: The world is looking for solutions. Why isn't SF trying to help, or at least trying to think along?

In the past couple of weeks, I've been in airplanes quite a bit. My airplane reading is mostly newspapers and science magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American. So when I flew to Spain about a month ago I delved into the October, 11th New Scientist "A Brighter Future" special issue, and when I flew to Calgary two weeks later I bought Scientific American's "Earth 3.0" special issue. Then there's also Ode Magazine (I read the Dutch version, but there's also an English one) with a 'Generation Now' special report.

The similarities between the three: they're all worried about the (near) future. Indeed, just like SF, I hear you think. But unlike most SF today, these three magazines are not only analysing the problems, they're also actively looking for solutions. Why has most SF fixated on the former (often directly extrapolating today's problems in tomorrow's dystopias), while greatly ignoring the latter?

I strongly suspect that this is one of the main factors that keeps (written) SF from being relevant to a larger part of the population, especially young people. Not the sole one(*), mind you, but a very important one. I strongly think we need SF that starts thinking about near future solutions for our current problems.

Since our problems are complicated and interlinked, our solutions need to be multifacetted: most of today's biggest adversities do not exist in isolation, so multiple causes need to be addressed simultaneously. This requires multidisciplinary approach that is both broad and deep: one single specialist in one field (no matter how brilliant) will not do, but a group of 'intelligent optimists'. These teamworkers and teambuilders realise that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution, but that quintessentially different aspects require tailor-made solutions. They cherry-pick the best solutions from a great variety of sources, attack the problems from a lot of different angles, and are interdisciplinary, practical, forward-thinking go-getters.

Dog help me, I hear some of you think: this is immensely difficult. Indeed, it is. It's the point: SF can't afford to be too simple or straightforward anymore. Good near future SF not only reflects the complexity of the real world to a high degree, it also needs to see the intricate problems as tractable if we put our combined minds to it, with sharp intelligence, the will to co-operate, and hope.

So let's look at this in a broad perspective, and link the three 'special issues' I mentioned above:

  1. Our energy and water problems are interlinked: both crises must be solved together (this is the Scientific American "Earth 3.0" cover blurb almost ad verbatim). In the article, they link water usage to huge power plants such as combined gas/steam cycle, coal, oil and nuclear plants. And if alternative vehicles like hydrogen fuel-cells and plug-in electric vehicles get their charge from these huge power plants than they are water hoggers, as well:
  2. But the New Scientist "A Brighter Future" has this highly illuminating graph on pages 32 and 33 that depicts where alternative energies such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and tidal wave are most abundant across the world showing that the electricity potentially available from renewables (310,600 TWh) is much bigger than the total electricity being generated (19,014 TWh in 2006). Especially solar and wind energy use hardly any water: so if we power our electric or hydrogen fuel-cell or biomass hybrids with them we kill two birds with one stone: the energy and the water dependency. Only 433 TWh is generated by renewables, so the potential is enormous:
  3. Which bring us to Ode Magazine's "Generation Now": it sees higher oil prices as the trigger for decentralised generation of renewable power, both stimulated by governments (as has already happened in Germany and Spain) and by entrepreneurs, as Silicon Valley investors are now turning to investing heavily in green energy, and where people will try to make their houses self-supporting energy-wise ('energy-free living');

Again, why do I find this kind of positive, forward-thinking in non-SF magazines?

Two quick, off-the-cuff musings:

  • We need an urgent paradigmatic shift in economic thinking: the planet cannot sustain continuous economic and population growth. So combine a zero-growth (or a shrink-and-expand-to-the-same-size) economy while the population stops growing, as well (UPDATE: the 'zero-growth' economy was actually the theme of the 18th October issue of New Scientist, as Anthony G. Williams's post 'The Folly of Growth' reminded me. Thanks!). The European Union might be the forerunner in this: less economic growth over the last decade than the US or the new Asian tigers China and India, with a population that is stagnating or even shrinking while its people are growing older.
  • Suppose a platform like Liftport starts building a space elevator somewehere west of the Galapagos Islands, it could have the hydrocarbons it needs for its complex nanotube tether supplied by a company that is cleaning the Pacific from the accumulated plastic pollution. It uses solar and skysails powered vessels to get supplies to and from the space elevator's Earth base, it's presence in the tropics stimulates the nearby Latin American economies in a sustainable way, and more.

This is to get you -- and especially the SF writers among you -- thinking. Doesn't SF pride itself for it's potential for 'sense of wonder' and its ability to shift paradigms? The point is, these sensawunda-powered conceptual breakthroughs almost always happened in space, virtual realities and runaway technological singularities (and yes: I'm guilty, too). Bring the gosh-wow, preconception-shattering power of SF to address, if even partly, the current problems plaguing our planet (or help imagine new solutions, new approaches) and SF will become relevant again.

Another maxim has it that SF writers like a challenge. So what are you waiting for?

(*) = I fully agree with Paolo Bacigalupi -- see his interview in The Fix and an exchange I had with him on his blog -- and Ian McDonald that SF needs to become relevant again (we disagree, and probaly not even that much, on how to recapture that relevance: Paolo's focus is on environmental issues, while Ian has a thing with the Multiverse, while I think we should troubleshoot the lot -- the environment, the economy, the human tendency to short-term thinking, the lack of education, and the elephant in the room called overpopulation): spewing humanity all over the galaxy while we haven't decently solved our current, highly complex problems is a flight forward. We need to face our challenges now, and instead of fictionally wallowing in them, we need to start thinking our way out of them.

(NOTE: I love a good discussion, and haven't closed the comments on this post, but I would appreciate it if people would comment on the SHINE blog.)