Science fiction isn't just a Silicon Valley think tank

What’s the point of fiction?

This is a question that isn’t asked enough as it should be. We are swimming in stories: from the type that you find on Instagram to the elaborate stories of superheroes that occupy extended universes. I sometimes wonder if a bit more attention to fictional storytelling might give us a little more control over the stories used to manipulate and change political and social reality.

But the question came up over the weekend thanks to a couple of tweets by François Chollet, one of the leading figures in artificial intelligence at Google (okay, probably the whole world).

He wrote:

Chollet was referring to Elon Musk’s current obsession with Mars. Musk apparently wants to nuke the planet in a bid to make it hospitable, a move which certainly does echo Stanley Robinson’s trilogy - in it, scientists detonate nuclear bombs beneath the surface of the planet to release water.

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However, my problem isn’t this - I’ll admit, it’s a neat echo worth inspecting further. It’s instead the fact that Chollet then sees this as evidence of Stanley Robinson’s ‘impact’. And then proceeds to suggest that science fiction fulfils some kind of idea generation role for the tech industry.

Indeed, I was curious that he should use the word ‘impact’ at all - this word already has a bit of a reputation in academia, a domain where ‘impact’ has become the go-to metric by which all research is judged. For academics, the word impact instrumentalizes their research. It forces it into the mold marked ‘useful’, and in doing so strips it of its uniqueness, and its ability to ask questions that might not emerge elsewhere.

What was most infuriating is that Chollet just sees Stanley Robinson’s novel - and by extension science fiction in general - as a kind of compendium of ideas that can be mined by entrepreneurs for novel ways of spending their money.

I don’t know anything about Stanley Robinson, but even a cursory glance at his Wikipedia suggests that he wouldn’t see himself as someone working in the tech industry. A review cited on his Wikipedia entry states that “Robinson's Mars books are probably the most successful attempt to reach a mass audience with an anti-capitalist utopian vision since Ursula K. Le Guin's 1974 novel, The Dispossessed.”

This was the point made by Tim Maughan - a writer who has just published his own science fiction novel:

Science fiction - any fiction - isn’t just a collection of stuff. It isn’t just things happening. That might sound trite, but it obviously needs to be spelled out to people who are ostensibly highly intelligent.

If you read a science fiction novel and think ‘yes,, let’s nuke mars’ I would question whether you’ve actually read it at all. To me, even without having read Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, that you would think one might ask questions like should we colonize Mars at all? If we do, what should that colonize look like? Who should get to do it? Who should benefit from it?

This would appear to be completely over the head of Chollet who not only appears to struggle with the concept of fiction, but the publishing industry too:

Perhaps Chollet’s Silicon Valley salary has caused him to lose touch with reality - I’m pretty sure that Stanley Robinson isn’t rich, and he would surely find the idea that there’s some sort of link between impact and wealth absurd.

That being said, he’s right to say that it is about the mark you leave on the world that matters.

My concern is that there’s a generation of intelligent and wealthy people lacking even the self awareness - let alone the social awareness - to consider what sort of mark they’re going to leave on the world.