I went to see Daniel Suarez and Andy Weir read at an SF in SF event at the Emerald Tablet in North Beach last night. Suarez is one of my favorite authors and has a new novel out called Influx that deals with the authoritarian control of innovation. Andy Weir is a new author whose book, The Martian, has attracted a lot of attention. It’s about an astronaut stranded on Mars and is notable for its adherence to scientific accuracy. Weir, like Suarez, started out self-published, but sold enough copies independently to get picked up by a publisher.
I am halfway through Influx now and in some ways it continues a central theme found in Suarez’s work. He is is concerned about the way technology can concentrate power into fewer and fewer hands as it progresses. His novel deals with the stagnation of innovation idea by suggesting that innovation has actually occurred, but that it is continually harvested and hidden by a secret government organization that is intent on maintaining social order. He also suggests that an attempt to create superhuman AI capable of innovative insights, but lacking in free will, is an abomination. It represents for him a sort of cybernetic slavery that could put unthinkable power into the hands of a single person.
I haven’t read Andy Weir’s book, The Martian, but his reading was very compelling. He tells the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars in the form of smart-assed entries into a mission log. Weir is a computer programmer and was obsessed with getting all of the technical details correct in order to make the story scientifically feasible. He credits this adherence to scientific accuracy for providing him with many unexpected plot twists as he thought through the scenario one step at a time. His book has received a good amount of positive press and I look forward to reading it.
During the question and answer period, I brought up Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project, which is encouraging SF writers to write stories that can inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers to create innovative technical breakthroughs. Suarez was ambivalent about the idea and Weir was frankly opposed to it. In Weir’s view, entertainment should be entertaining and not aspire to social benefit. I found his position interesting because The Martian seems that it would fit quite nicely into the Hieroglyph Project. It appears to be a positive story that highlights the ability of humans to overcome difficult obstacles and also shows the feasibility of humans traveling to and surviving on Mars.
For my own part, I was previously much more skeptical of the impact that science fiction can have on the future of innovation, but I have become more amenable to the idea over time. Technological progress is a story that involves science in a complex dance with economics, politics, and other cultural forces. Even in this scientific era, the stories we share shape how we conceive of reality. Great stories of positive and plausible future outcomes have inspired not just engineers, but also politicians and business people. Utopian stories are justly criticized by Pinker and others, but we do need a common narrative to move in a coherent direction as a society. It may be that storytellers do have an important role to play and need to take up this difficult responsibility.
So much can go wrong in the future and many paths must be avoided, but what directions SHOULD we go in? Our stories can point the way. I haven’t finished Influx yet, so I can’t say in what direction Suarez would point us. Weir offers his own succinct answer: We should go to Mars.