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Science Fiction is the most valuable art ever. Discuss.

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So. Today at the Out of this World event at the British Library (which was really rather wonderful), Neil Gaiman shared a fascinating factoid with the audience. While appearing as a Guest of Honour at China’s largest state approved Science Fiction convention, Neil decided to enquire why SF, once frowned upon by the Chinese government, was now not just approved of but encouraged. China is now the worlds biggest market for SF, with the highest circulation magazines and the largest conventions. A point Neil reiterated by mentioning that the opening ceremony of the convention he attended was shown on national television.

I don’t think that’s ever been the case at a WorldCon.

The answer Neil was given is very, very interesting. China is the worlds manufacturing powerhouse. But it doesn’t invent or design the things it manufactures (I’m sure there are numerous exceptions to this, as I am also sure the general trend holds true.) China wants to capture the creativity and imagination of the culture that has produced companies like Google and Apple. So researchers talked to people involved with those and other companies to see what factors they had in common. Guess what the answer was?

They all read Science Fiction.

Now I’m sure I don’t need to rehash issues of cause and effect that impact on this kind of social analysis. Science Fiction might just be a popular hobby amongst the demographic that are drawn to working in science, technology and other creative fields. Or…it might be that Science Fiction is an essential influence in the development of top level creative thinkers, especially those dealing with technology.

Let’s go with that second idea for a while. We live in an age of unparalleled technological development, which is creating change across society of an unprecedented magnitude. Is it really so inconceivable that SF in all its forms is a valuable tool for helping train people to creatively work with that change? SF doesn’t just show us possible futures, it trains us to anticipate new technology, model how it will impact our lives and exploit that insight. Isn’t that basically what Apple, Google and billions of workers in technology and the knowledge economy are now engaged in doing, day in and day out?

Take this argument a step further, and it’s possible to make an interesting case that Science Fiction’s contribution to the global economy is far greater than the apparent value of the SF publishing industry. Economists could spin all kinds of mumbo jumbo about the actual value of SF in this scenario. At the very least it might suggest that SF writers should get paid a bit more!

When I interviewed Charlie Stross in 2008, he made the argument that literature can no longer afford to view our social and cultural lives as separate from our technological and scientific advancement. Events such as the Out of this World exhibition at the British Library suggest that many people outside the world of SF agree with Charlie. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a prediction that I hope I’m around to crow about when it comes true. Fifty years from now Science Fiction won’t exist as it does today. It won’t be dead. Instead it will have evolved as an integral part of literature and culture. Because the story of the next fifty years, if it isn’t abbreviated by war or environmental collapse, will be one of technological change and human adaptation. The art and literature of the future will reflect on that story, and they will drive it, just as Science Fiction does today.

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21 thoughts on “Science Fiction is the most valuable art ever. Discuss.”

  1. “Valuable” as in monetary… I was somewhat misled at first until you explained everything…. I suspect it’s more of a hobby among the technologically savvy — or perhaps, people really are getting advertising ideas out of the funky projections that populate the idea crammed pages of Stephenson and Stross…. As long as people don’t advertise in my dreams (as in Philip K. Dick’s mostly unhindged worlds) I’m fine.

    Fascinating piece.

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  2. Gut-feeling says the connection is valid and that, for entrepreneurial thinkers, SF is less a hobby and more a state of mind. Enterpreneurism involves thinking outside the box. People who enjoy SF do that too (frequently redefining the box, actually, as a multi-dimensional containment device with portals to alternate realities). How can you design for the future unless you’ve imagined living in it first?

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    1. The link between Science Fiction and entrepreneurialism is also fascinating, and much under explored. I see it happening at the grass routes level with the way kids adapt new technologies in ways their designers never considered.

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      1. Yes. And I don’t think we need limit it to technology. Urban and social planning, education, political structure … is there any aspect of civilisation that can’t be illuminated by relating it to science fiction models and concepts?

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      2. That’s again an interesting idea. You could argue that SF is introducing readers to the idea that civilisation is constantly evoliving. But the speed of evolution is now fast enough to effect profound change within a lifetime, or even just a decade.

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      1. But you won’t, because you haven’t, because it would’ve happened, and it hasn’t. And if you’ve done it by sending back a directive of some kind to an agent in the past, then it’ll/it has fail(ed) because the resulting temporal loop will/has infinitely degrade(d) the signal.

        “I don’t think that’s ever been the case at a WorldCon.”

        The thing is, it’s not like Obama would ever get away will yelling at NBC until they broadcast it. If the Chinese government wants something on CCTV (award for Creepiest Name for a Television Network in the post), up it goes.

        I largely agree with the article, although I’d question slightly whether Apple, for example, really considers impact beyond “it’ll boost our margins”.

        Another thing, as well, is that science fiction of the moment can be more than slightly scattergun in its predictive capabilities – see the fact that we’re far closer to eliminating the uncanny valley than terraforming any Martian valleys, whereas taking SF of the 1960s in aggregate as an implicit prophecy suggests that we really should be pretty close on both of these (that said, Philip K. Dick tended to be spectacularly wrong about these things in particular, and yet he’s at least one of, if not the most important figure in the field of the age).

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  3. But there is no mention of the age at which the people read the science fiction. And if this applies to the future. What science fiction was available when Steve Wozniak was in his pre-teens. It wasn’t Star Wars. Star Wars is not science fiction. The producers called it Space Fantasy. So does the same reasoning apply to most of the junk called science fiction today?

    Today people say that Isaac Asimov could not write. The financial success of SF due to better special effects in the movies has attracted shlok “literary” writers who do not know science and cannot weave it into a science fiction story. It is just sci-fi tropes like “The 5th Element” with nothing to say, but the “mundanes” love it and call themselves Geeks.

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