Tag Archives: Albert Einstein

Why has the imagination been sidelined in literature?

Imagination is a powerful force for progress. So why has it been sidelined in the one place it should be most welcome – literature.

In his now famous quote, Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge. When Einstein wrote those words in 1929, those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin
The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to the National Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”

It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.

This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding. That’s not a criticism of STEM subjects or their creative potential, but as Einstein was trying to tell us, those subjects are at their strongest when honed by a powerful imagination.

Such an imagination can look at our world today and see the vast potential for it’s future, and the terrible risks that threaten progress. It’s no coincidence that the imaginative literature of science fiction has made utopia – the discussion of how to make a better world (a discussion Le Guin has played no small part in) – one of its core themes. It seems more than credible that the forces that might lead us to a dystopian future might tend to surpress those powerful imaginations that can envision their defeat.

Imaginative literature itself has been in a virtual civil war in recent years. When fantasy novelist N K Jemisin called for a global literature of imagination, in a speech that echoes Le Guin’s both in its meaning and its passionate intensity, it was a recognition that imagination can not be limited by gender or race. But the venomous, racist attacks made on Jemisin in response suggest that some, a small but bitter minority, do not agree. When that same, bitter minority were involved with block voting at this years Hugo awards, they were sent packing by award voters outraged at an attempt to limit and politicise imaginative fiction.

Anne Leckie’s clean sweep of this years major awards for science fiction, and Sofia Samatar’s victory at the World Fantasy Award, suggest imaginative literature is indeed becoming global and starting to overcome boundaries that had held it back. Despite, or perhaps because, of the barriers placed in its path, imaginative literature arrives in 2014 far stronger than it has been for decades. Ursula Le Guin’s honouring at the National Book Awards is one of many indications that, far from being excluded any more, imaginative literature is now at the very heart of literary life.

But if anyone is responsible for that change it is not publishers, or even writers, but readers. The internet and it’s massive disruption of the traditional publishing industry has allowed readers not just to vote with their wallets, but to evangelise for imaginative literature across thousands of blogs and fan forums, to support diverse new writing through crowdfunding and other platforms, and to become the new writers, editors and independent publishers of imaginative literature. There’s a grass routes revolution in publishing, and the power of imagination is at its heart.

RE: Worldbuilding – can sci-fi help build a better world?

Science shows us how the world is built. Can science fiction help us build a better world?

Follow @damiengwalter on Twitter

The Blue Marble

Astronaut Jack Schmitt released the shutter on the 70 millimeter Hasselblad camera at 5:39 AM on 7th December 1972. The Apollo 17 mission to the moon was 45,000 kilometers from Earth. The image that it captured was not the first of its kind. Other photos of Earth had been recorded by previous space missions, but none so clear and potent as this one.

“The Blue Marble”, as it would later be nicknamed, shows a fully illuminated Earth of white clouds, blue oceans and the continental landmasses of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the south polar ice cap. For hundreds of thousands of years, humankind lived on Earth’s surface. Now we could look back and see Earth as a whole, like a child’s marble, shining against the darkness of the cosmos.

The "Blue Marble" through the generations from left (1972, 2000, and 2012). (Images: NASA)
The “Blue Marble” through the generations from left (1972, 2000, and 2012). (Images: NASA)

In the same decade the Apollo missions were taking a handful of men into space, the rest of humankind were boldly going where no man had gone before. Not on rockets, but in stories. Star Trek was just one in a wave of television shows, movies, comics and books that took readers on journeys of imagination into the unknown reaches of space. Science fiction stories had been around for decades, but the space race between America and the Soviet Union gave them a new energy and importance. When Jules Verne penned From The Earth to the Moon in 1865, its description of a manned mission to an Earth satellite seemed like a flight of fantasy. As the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface just over a century later, Verne’s words read like a startlingly accurate vision of the future unfolding before us.

It’s not outrageous to think that science fiction inspires science. Captain James T Kirk’s five year journey on the starship Enterprise inspired both the name of the first space shuttle, and some of the mobile phones we carry today were modeled on Star Trek communicators. In the 1980’s the “cyberpunk” stories of William Gibson were an intrinsic part of the emergence of “cyberspace” and virtual worlds. As Albert Einstein stated, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge is limited to what we know, while imagination reaches into the unknown. As science radically expanded what was known through the 20th century, we needed ever more powerful feats of imagination to guide its development and shape its outcomes. And among the most important products of the 20th century imagination was science fiction.

The scientific revolution that allowed us to send rockets into space was also transforming our understanding of the world we were leaving behind. Centuries of cartographic surveying had outlined and detailed the world’s continents. A revolution in transport meant that the journey around the planet described in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days could be completed in eighty hours or less. Just one year before the “Blue Marble” photo was taken, the Intel Corporation produced the first commercial microprocessor chip. The information technology this new computing power allowed would, by the early 1990s, see the advent of the Internet. “The Global Village” – a counter culture concept coined by media theorist Marshall McLuhan – was becoming a reality. Millions of humans flocked to join the emergent Internet, through which they could communicate as easily with peers on the other side of the world as with strangers who lived next door.

A rocket to the moon in an illustration from the 1874 edition of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon turned out to be prophetic. (Image: Henri de Montaut/Public domain)
A rocket to the moon in an illustration from the 1874 edition of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon turned out to be prophetic. (Image: Henri de Montaut/Public domain)

The 7.12 billion people living on Earth today are arguably the first cohort of humankind to understand our world from a truly planetary perspective. On the physical plane we have mapped every square meter of the planet’s surface, modelled the tectonic movements of its core and can predict the atmospheric patterns that shape its weather. In the social sphere, we are ever more adept at understanding the tremendously complex, interrelated behaviours of the seven billion people who populate the globe. From economic forecasting to the immense power of “big data”, used to exploit the hidden patterns in human behaviour, we have unprecedented insight into the operations of our society. Cognitively, we can look in to the grey matter of the brain to understand its functions, and employ a century or more of psychological learning to understand our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. And on the grandest scale of the cosmos itself, we can place the blue marble of our world in a dynamic galaxy, itself a mere speck in a universe that grows ever more infinite as we probe its depths.

The “Blue Marble” showed us an Earth both more beautiful and more fragile than we had imagined. The image became symbolic of a burgeoning environmental consciousness. Our planet was no longer a boundless wilderness to be conquered, but a finite resource to be conserved. And science was showing us the many systems that made up the planet and governed life upon it; systems that, once thrown out of balance, might never be brought back under control.

As we look ever deeper int the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of our world, we are lead to ask a simple but profoundly important question: Can we build a better word? Can we apply the systematic understanding of the world science has given us to improve these systems? And like the most complex of mathematical problems, can we find a solution that will bring balance to the world.

In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy. Science has given us such a detailed insight into the systems of our world that not one of us can hope to hold more than an infinitesimal fragment of it in our heads at any one time. Isaac Newton, the natural philosopher who contributed much to the emergence of modern science, was still able to range widely across the emerging fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Today, to understand just a single specialization in the vast sea of human knowledge seems the task of a lifetime.

In looking for an answer we might find that science is both our greatest tool and our worst enemy.

Equally problematic is the conflict between science, religion and the arts. In defining its pre-eminence in the world, science rejected many of the ways of seeing that preceded it. Today any attempt to bring religious or spiritual teachings into the public debate becomes immediately divisive. And science also suffers from its own fundamentalism; a materialist philosophy that rejects all internal experience as invalid, meaning that art of all kinds is also devalued and pushed aside.

Solving a problem as complex as building a better world is going to need unusual tools. We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us. And because at the heart of our problem are seven billion emotional, erratic and unreasonable human beings, we’re to need tools that look deep inside the human experience. Tools that are every bit as much art as science, and as open to the products of imagination as of reason.

We’re going to need the tools of science fiction.


World Building

Science fiction was shaped in the pages of pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s, when stories of alien life, machine intelligence and galactic civilizations became mass entertainment. Critics have dated the emergence of science fiction to the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the late 19th century, or the publication of Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in 1818. As a form of modern mythology, science fiction continues in the tradition of fantastic story-telling reaching back to the roots of human civilisation.

Pulps from the 1920's and 30's like Amazing Stories and Astounding set the foundational ideas for science fiction that would strongly influence later works in the genre. (Images: Public Domain)
Pulps from the 1920’s and 30’s like Amazing Stories and Astounding set the foundational ideas for science fiction that would strongly influence later works in the genre. (Images: Public Domain)

In his essay “Fantastika and the World Storm”, author and critic John Clute outlines a history of science fiction that begins in 1750, at the dawn of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that would shape the modern era. Science fiction, in Clute’s schema, emerged as a “planetary literature”, one which could consider the ideas emerging from science and envision the vast changes, both good and bad, they would unleash upon the world.

Science fiction is defined by the storyteller’s craft of world building. The world at the heart of a work of science fiction might be our own planet Earth, in some near future or alternative history. Or an alien planet in orbit of a distant star. But the worlds of science fiction aren’t limited to rocky spheres floating in space. The world of a science fiction novel can be a galactic empire, an alternative dimension, an imaginary kingdom, a political state or any of thousands of distinct worlds. Every element of the story – its characters, setting, plot lines and events – are integral to that world and its future. The hero is not just the center of the story. They are the center of the world.

We’re going to need a forum where thinkers can merge ideas across the sciences to see what new synchronicities emerge, and a place where our imaginations can explore the incredible possibilities that knowledge opens for us.

Issac Asimov’s Foundation series charts the fall, and eventual rise, of the Galactic Empire, a human civilisation spanning the Milky Way galaxy – the world the story encompasses. Hari Seldon, the story’s hero, is a mathematician who specializes in “psychohistory”, a scientific discipline that allows him to predict two possible futures: one where a thirty-thousand year dark age overcomes the Galactic Empire, and another where after only one thousand years a new, utopian society arises. By establishing two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy, Hari Seldon attempts to ensure the second of these futures.

Frank Herbet’s Dune centers on the young Paul Atreides, heir to the doomed House Atreides, who will become the Emperor of the Known Universe. The desert world of Arrakis is the centre of that universe and the source of the spice Melange, the only substance that allows galactic travel. He who controls the spice, controls the universe, and through a process of mystical enlightenment and open warfare, Paul Atreides learns the secret of the spice.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven depicts a near future Earth, a global society ravaged by poverty and resource wars. At the center of this world is George Orr, a man whose dreams can change the nature of reality, and William Haber, the psychiatrist who tries to shape Orr’s dreams to make a better world. Together they seek to solve racism and overpopulation to bring about world peace, all with unfortunate and counter-productive effects.

A vast array of concepts collide in the stories of Asimov, Hebert and Le Guin. The ability of economics to both predict and shape social change. The politics of empire, colonialism and the long span of history. The emerging ecological awareness and new age spirituality of the counter culture. Resource scarcity, and the fates of worlds in conflict for finite sources of energy. Post-modern philosophy and the conflict between objective reality and subjective experience. It is this melding of disparate ideas into coherent narratives has become the hallmark of science fiction.

"World building" is represented in some of the most highly regarded works of science fiction (clockwise from top left: Herbert's Dune, Asimov's Foundation series, Orwell's 1984, and LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven.
“World building” is represented in some of the most highly regarded works of science fiction (clockwise from top left: Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation series, Orwell’s 1984, and LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

These imagined stories – like thousands of other science fiction tales told in the 20th century – were presented to audiences as popular entertainment and escapism. But there was a greater purpose implicit in the emerging literature of science fiction. For most of human history stories had embraced both reason and the imagination. From the earliest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh, to the Biblical stories recorded in Genesis and other religious texts. The myths of ancient Greece and Rome, the fairy and folk tales of Medieval Europe and the courtly masques of Shakespearean theatre, for most of human history stories were shaped from both the real and the imagined.

But as we embraced the age of science and reason ushered in by the Enlightenment, a tradition of purely realistic storytelling emerged that set aside the products of imagination. The modern novel, shaped by generations of writers – Honore de Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, George Elliot, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, Virgina Woolf, Jack Kerouac and thousands upon thousands more, became the natural home of realism. By the late 19th and early 20th century the realist tradition dominated contemporary culture. Stories that grew from the imagination of the writer, and those resembling the older stories of myth and legend, were thought fit only for children. The imagination was sidelined as a source of mere escapist entertainment and the stories that came from it were seen as pure fantasy.

The Inklings were a group of writers who – between the two world wars in the university town of Oxford, England – were drawn together by the idea of creating stories which recaptured the imagination. Among them were C. S. Lewis, whose “Narnia” novels would enchant a generation of children, and J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Middle Earth would become arguably the most famous story of the 20th century. As a child, Tolkien had seen the world transformed by the Industrial Revolution. As a young man he had survived the brutalities of the Great War, the first conflict to engulf the whole world. And from these twin experiences, Tolkien would create what he considered to be a new mythology for the modern world.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings chronicles the twilight of the Third Age of Middle Earth, and the battle to defeat the dark lord Sauron by destroying the One Ring, a quest which can only be fulfilled by the hobbit Frodo Baggins, a hero defined by the purity of his spirit rather than his physical strength. Should he fail, the pastoral world of Middle Earth would be overrun by evil, and turned from green fields in to smoke belching factories.

George Orwell was only a decade younger than Tolkien, a product of the same culture and upbringing. Nineteen-Eighty Four- Orwell’s masterpiece of totalitarian horror – is at least cosmetically a very different book to Lord of the Rings. It encompasses the world of Oceania, an all-powerful, totalitarian state. The story follows Winston Smith, a low ranking bureaucrat attempting to find personal liberation and space to love Julia, a young woman also trapped within the state. But unlike the heroes of myth, Winston Smith’s attempt to overcome the oppressive regime of Big Brother ends is absolute failure. He is tortured in room 101, forced to betray his lover, and left a broken man. Nineteen Eighty-Four shows us a world utterly crushed beneath the jackboot of totalitarianism, with no hope for redemption.

As different as they may appear, the stories of Orwell and Tolkien are both products of imaginations trained by similar cultural experiences. They both encompass worlds, and the fates of those worlds and in doing so, they reveal aspects of our own world. The oppressive power of Big Brother in Nineteen-Eighty Four and of the dark lord Sauron in Lord of the Rings are both reflections of the very real oppressive powers that challenge the wholeness of our world in reality. And like thousands of great science fiction stories, from those of Asimov and Le Guin to the masters of the form today, they use the imagination to show us our world as we could never otherwise see it.

Science fiction storytellers use ideas like time travel to provide insight into how we might create new and better futures. (Image: David Revoy/Blender Foundation - CC BY 3.0)
Science fiction storytellers use ideas like time travel to provide insight into how we might create new and better futures. (Image: David Revoy/Blender Foundation – CC BY 3.0)


The Re-emergence of Imagination

Science fiction has grown from its origins on the printed page. In films, television, comics and other narrative media, science fiction stories are a cornerstone of popular entertainment. Star Wars. The Terminator. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. The Matrix, too, is often dismissed as simple escapist entertainment, but the success of science fiction and fantasy stories represents the re-emergence of the imagination in our world of reason. Through the mass media science fiction is now reaching global audiences, and helping us to understand our world from the planetary perspective.

Contemporary science fiction weaves ever more sophisticated visions of our planetary future. Charles Stross’ Accelerando follows three generations of one family into the future as Earth is transformed by the “technological singularity”, the point at which change driven by technology outstrips the human ability to comprehend it. A point, some might argue, we have already reached. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes explores an alternative future Johannesberg where an underclass of criminals are stigmatized by being “animaled”, magically bonded to an animal familiar. Beuke’s planetary vision is distinctive for escaping the assumptions of the technologically developed first world, and extrapolating instead a future through the lens of the world’s emerging economies. The baroque fantastical visions of China Mieville in books such as Perdido Street Station, The City and The City and Embassytown reform many of science fiction’s earlier visions, from the fantasy world building of J.R.R. Tolkien to the space opera stories of Issac Asimov. Mieville’s planetary visions undermine those which have come before, challenging us to ask if we can ever understand the reality in which we find ourselves.

The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention. Today our relationship with imagination is increasingly complex. We value the products and innovations that drive every aspect of modern society, even while we continue to underestimate the imagination as the source of those things. We remain in the Enlightenment paradigm, alienated from our imagination, treating it as little more than an avenue for idle entertainment and desperate escapism.

But for generations our stories have called us back to the imagination as a source of insight and understanding. J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Issac Asimov, George Orwell, Lauren Beukes, China Mieville and thousands of other creators of science fiction offer us powerful and potent visions drawn from the imagination. If there is one single message we should take from science fiction, it is that the imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world. We can analyze the physical, social, cognitive and cosmic systems of the world in the finest detail. But it is only through the imagination that we can begin to synthesize that knowledge back into a whole. And from that informed imagination comes the planetary visions of science fiction. If we wish to solve shape our “Blue Marble” planet in to a better world, we may do well to pay attention to them.

Story Cover: Mind of the Future by Brent Drake. Brent Drake is an illustrator and entrepreneur residing in Austin, TX. He likes the St. Louis Cardinals. A lot. Twitter: @brent_drake



Isaac Asimov – Foundation

Lauren Beukes – Zoo City

John Clute – “Fantastika and the World Storm”

Frank Herbert – Dune

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Lathe of Heaven

China Mieville – Embassytown, Perdido Street Station, The City and The City

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein : A Modern Prometheus

Charles Stross – Accelerando

J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings

Jules Verne – Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon

Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!

If you could teach a class of young people one idea from SF, what would it be?

UPDATE: I’m asking a few good SF writers the following question (answer below, and please add your own!) – If you could teach a class of young people one idea from SF, what would it be?

Science Fiction is almost an oxymoron. We live in a society where science and the humanities seem to be in eternal conflict. Scientists decry the lack of rigour or practical application of the humanities. Artists and other intellectuals respond that while science can show you how things work, it can’t tell you why. Or as Einstein said “”Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”

Artists and scientists love these arguments because there is so much to learn from them. But any artist or scientist worth their salt will, when the chips are down, admit that both are simply alternative approaches to arriving at the same truths. To quote Einstein again, “”Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I think Einstein overstates the case, but then we live in era where knowledge has been enthroned and imagination almost entirely sidelined, so perhaps he was seeking to redress the balance?

Which makes Science Fiction exciting, because it is an arena where knowledge and imagination can be brought together. I am working on ways to use SF in schools as part of the science curriculum for a set of workshops I have been invited to give. The only problem in planning these is that there is TOO MUCH. The wonderful collision of knowledge and imagination that SF has given shape to for more than a century has so much richness that it is hard to know where to start.

So. I’m turning to the wisdom of crowds. If you could choose just one story, novel or author from SF to educate young people about, which would it be? And what scientific learning would it demonstrate?


David Brin – Change happens; scared people go feudal. But the bold invent and go forth into the universe. People can become better.


First published in Sci-Fantastic magazine.


by Damien G Walter

Every evening Mike would hang the costume up in his wardrobe and every morning he would take it out again and put it on. Every other day he would hose down the insides to wash away his own stale sweat.

After two months he stopped putting it back into the wardrobe. On Fridays he handed the suit into the central maintenance department for servicing. The odd chemical smell it returned with never totally wore off, but by Tuesday it would recede to the point where he did not notice it.

Mike was happy with the costume. Occasionally he would wear it in the evenings to entertain his friends, and after a while his appearances ‘in character’ became a part of his life. Places on his body that the costume had initially rubbed against and made sore developed a few extra layers of calloused skin and after a year even the discomforting heat that developed during prolonged stints in the costume came to feel quite natural to him. He even gave the costume a pet name: Joey.

Mike had stumbled into the recreations industry by accident. After university the pressures of the ‘real world’ had come as a shock to him. After two months of casual job hunting he had found his bank account empty. He had no money and no prospects.

Kathy, his flat mate at the time, found him crying at the kitchen table. After donating him a dinner from her own cupboard she delivered a very sobering lecture.

‘You’re living in a dream world, Mike.’

He had defended himself, explaining the logic of his choice to study an unusual and impractical degree and how his talents would eventually be noticed. One by one, Kathy discredited his arguments as self-delusion and denial.

‘For the moment you need to make a living and build a stable life for yourself,” she said

The point conceded, Mike listened carefully to Kathy’s advice. A stocky, dependable girl, Kathy had worked her way through university, holding down a series of jobs along the way. She explained to Mike the reality of the situation.

‘Look at Keith. Only a third but walks straight into a plum job. Why? Because Celebrity Anthropology is a solid subject. Wide applications and a reputation for producing clued-up graduates. Economics and business may have been intellectually stimulating but it’s never going to get you a job. I mean, it’s the 22nd century Mike. Who even goes to banks anymore?’

The next morning Mike went to a recruitment agency. He ditched the suit and tie for something more respectable but he could tell from the way the receptionist greeted him that he had not made the right impression. He made a mental note to leave it a while before visiting the barber again.

Apparently he was lucky. The agent found him one of the few jobs that did not stipulate a relaxed, happy attitude and two days later he had turned up for his orientation and induction session at the headquarters of Pleasure Planet Inc.

The other successful applicants – six or seven hundred of them – surrounded him on every side. The small amount of pride he had felt at finally gaining employment shriveled up and died. They sat in small groups, exchanging introductions and snippets of their life histories as they waited for the instructor to arrive and after a few minutes the room began to fill with laughter. Mike found himself sitting alone on a chair, facing forwards, starring up at the huge black letters projected on a screen at the far end of the room, reading them over and over again.


From time to time he would glance around the room, through eyes that had gone watery from continual stress-relieving yawns. The recruits lounged around, sitting crossed legged or leaning upon one another. Part of him envied the ease with which they made contact. He caught the eye of a young man but looked away after only a fraction of a second.


Mike considered leaving, and was close to getting up and exiting the room when the instructor entered. As he did a cheer of adulation and laughter echoed around the room, which Mike thought was a bit over the top. He could hardly see the man from his position near the back of the room; he was not much more than a blue dot in the distance, tiny before the huge screen. He could discern an old face with a shock of wild, white hair and thought for a second he recognized the man. His voice however boomed out across the space, slightly distorted from the amplification but displaying a distinct German accent.


The room replied in kind. Mike tried to join them but only managed a small, scratchy squeal as his voice caught on over-tensed vocal cords.

STEP TWO : RELAX!!!!!!…….:)

Mike tried desperately to concentrate, to focus on the voice, but only managed to take in one in every ten words; such was his state of agitation. He was particularly shocked when everyone in the room moved onto the floor and lay down on their backs. His reactions failed to keep up and by the time he got up from the chair he was alone, like the single uncut stem in a wheat field. He froze with panic, waiting for the rebuke from the instructor.

‘Excellent you two. Nice to see a demonstration of effective self-determination. Now on your backs, both of you.’

Mike looked around and found himself starring into the burning, furious eyes of a dark-haired girl. Even with just a glance he could see she was as out of place as he was. Her hair was pulled back severely into a tight bun, she had small round glasses and the sober lines of a plain black suit marked her out of the crowd of brightly attired youths. He smiled but again failed to control his muscles correctly and the resulting expression resembled that of a man being eaten by a tiger. He sat down quickly and with gratitude, understanding what it actually felt like to have a hole in the ground swallow you up just at the right time.

After the session finished Mike headed for the exit as quickly as possible, navigating through the amblers without paying any attention to them. She came at him from the side, gravitating towards him across the distance of the room.

‘Hi,’ she said quietly with a nervous smile, ‘my name’s Kristen.’

She stuck out her hand and he shook it.


They agreed to get a coffee together and headed for the cafeteria. She delivered a few judgments about some of the other trainees that they passed, none of them overly positive, but Mike found himself agreeing, even chiming in. Over their drinks he turned her monologue into a conversation by admitting he had heard none of the lecture and had no idea what the job involved.

‘Oh.’ she said, followed by a pause indicating that she had not entirely understood either. She unfolded the piece of paper she had been carrying, scanned it and delivered to him the salient points.

‘Congratulations blah blah blah … Pleasure Planet Inc., our employers …’

Mike nodded.

‘New London facility … cutting edge technology … themed personality areas?’


‘They are opening a leisure park in London where people can go and see famous people. In themed areas,’ she said without really looking at him.

‘Famous people.’

‘Yes. That’s us.’

‘Ah … we have costumes?’

‘Yes. “The very latest in bio-mechanical engineering.” It’s right here.’

Mike inspected the glossy brochure, recoiling in surprise as he assimilated the information. ‘That isn’t possible! I’ll believe it when I see it.’

‘You already have.’ She grinned. ‘Or do you get lectures from Albert Einstein on a regular basis?’

White hair. German. Mike twigged.

‘Oh.’ he said. ‘Wow. Recreation.’ He turned it over in his head a few times. ‘Recreation. Recreation.’


He got really interested when Kristen told him she was a graduate in Marketing and Corporate Law. He had asked a few generally interested questions about her studies and had fallen in love with the answers he received. She wanted to start a business. A big business. He told her about his own ambitions to one day develop corporate strategy professionally. He knew then they were meant for each other, and he knew she knew he knew by the way she looked at him. For a second they both waited for the other to put it into words. Then his phone rang. He tried to finish the call quickly but failed. A buzzer went off, indicating it was time to return to classes. Kristen left the cafeteria without him. He pretended he did not mind. They sat a long way apart in the hall and never managed to catch the each other’s eye. He approached her as they left but she was caught in conversation with another girl. He had booked a taxi to return home in, and could not afford to keep it waiting. By the time he got back to his room the flat, dull rage that he felt towards himself left him starring at the wall for an hour.


Mike almost failed in the first week, but through determination and the full application of all his skills he managed to scrape through. He was removed from the main group and placed in a smaller group of sixteen trainees who had a room to themselves for the remaining two weeks of training. The atmosphere was different from the main hall: more structured, regulated, ordered. They had periods of silent study where they read from the training manual and were expected to be able to list the main points of what they had read. They all began to think of themselves as an elite. The instructor encouraged this, distanced them from their remedial reality and in some ways they did become skilled above the main body of trainees. They mixed less and less with others.

One afternoon the instructor took Mike to one side. The old man put an arm around him in a fatherly gesture and gave him a smile, the wide eyed mad grin famous from over a century of magazine covers and television documentaries. Mike found himself drawn into the great scientist’s magnetic aura.

‘I think you are ready.’

They walked together until they reached a barred and bolted door guarded by two security men. They swung the heavy steel door open at Einstein’s signal and Mike followed the man in.

The sight was horrific. The bodies hung in row upon row, slack-jawed and empty-eyed. They draped from their hangers in folds down to the ground; skin and muscles positioned unnaturally without a skeleton to support them so that even their gender was difficult to discern, the relevant identifying features obscured by a hanging thigh or a flattened arm.

Einstein led him along the aisles, running his fingers over each skin as if searching through them by touch. He stopped and then, pushing a number of the skins to one side pulled out one and draped it over his arm, offering it up in the way a tailor would display a suit during a sale.

Mike starred down at the limp, dead item. He took in the rounded, fat arms and torso, the waxy yellow white skin covered in patches of coarse black hair and saw the jowly, stern face with its spiky black mustache.

‘Mike,’ said Einstein, ‘Meet Stalin.’


Mike found that he enjoyed Stalin immensely. Even the other trainees, many of whom had been given their costumes weeks before, turned and took notice when he made his first public appearance. It took him some time to discover the appropriate gestures and mannerisms but soon the process came naturally. He found that others would fall silent as he approached and became used to the aura of nervous apprehension that always arose when he spoke. With Stalin came an automatic authority that Mike had never experienced before, a power over the minds of men.

At first Pleasure Planet Inc.’s designers had planned for Stalin to play only a passing role in the never-ending drama of the theme park. During the early rehearsals however Mike’s role had been so successful that Stalin was upgraded to a central character. Mike found himself surrounded by a large entourage of writers, producers and many non-costumed actors employed to fill in non-celebrity roles. His limousine parade would wind through the park’s maze of replica streets; one moment traversing the Champs Elysee, the next engulfed by a Manhattan ticker-tape parade. He perfected Stalin’s severe public salute on the balconies of the world’s palaces and parliaments. Once a week his cortege joined those of the worlds other great political and military leaders for the Parade of Kings; among the park’s most popular events. The crowd sometimes reached over 100,000 to watch as Napoleon’s eagle led the way through the park’s streets, the Popemobile was swamped by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and an explosion of gore blew onto the window of JFK’s sedan.

Mike and Joey were selected to feature in the theme parks advertising campaign, a montage of the nuclear family enjoying the sights of the theme park: mom almost fainting into Clarke Gable’s arms, dad enjoying the nineteenth hole with Tiger Woods, teenager Emma dancing next to Brittney, the beautiful boy with the golden locks sat astride the muzzle of a Soviet M-16 heavy tank. Stalin waving from the high walls of the Kremlin. Billy waving back and then signaling the driver. Stalin making a comic attempt to duck out of the way as the shell rockets towards him, then blows him apart, leaving only his smoking boots behind. Fade out on Billy, grinning happily. Tagline in big letters.



Stalin made the cover of Entertainment Weekly, Time and Esquire; his highest media coverage for over a century. This time, as the marketing men observed smugly, without the slightest mention of war, political dissidents or Siberian labor camps anywhere in sight.

Mike found himself traveling in exalted company. Stalin’s role was expanded. He appeared at state dinners and sporting events, handed the champions trophy to Mohammed Ali at Madison Square Gardens. He walked the red carpet for the Oscars; opened Jack’s Best-Ever Actor golden envelope. Stalin counted down to launch Armstrong towards his second giant step for mankind and joined the solemn minute’s silence at the Cenotaph for every Unknown Soldier.

The days were filled with color and amazement. The nights with blackness and boredom. Drinking with his old friends he would tell them how much he hated his job, share with them his business plans, his corporate strategy and they would join in and encourage him to follow his dream as they were following theirs. He read passionately the works of Gates, Murdoch and Branson, studying every word intently. Each night he would put Stalin back in his closet and then one night as he watched himself inside the great man shaking hands with President George Bush VI on the television, looked down to see his own stern eyes staring up at him from the front-page of the daily newspaper, turned into the eight-foot larger-than-life poster of himself wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shades and sipping from a cocktail that had shifted a million units world wide, seeing his own face as the entire population of the world had come to see it. He realized that real life had already found him with a vengeance and he would never be able to escape it. Mike stopped putting Stalin in the closet. He stopped taking off the costume at all.

Then there were the women. The first was slight and blonde, with a face he recognized but could attach no emotion to. Her name was Olga, the only female cosmonaut, played by Janice, a non-costumed actor. Stalin awarded her a medal of valor every second Monday, just before ordering the soldiers of Stalingrad to fight to the death. He did not remember why she rode in his limousine today. He stared at her coolly. When she noticed she began to fidget with discomfort and then lost the thread of her conversation with the attractive young KGB agent with whom she had been flirting. One by one all the members of the coterie fell silent. He ordered them all out of the car, leaving them stranded in ancient Egypt, nine dark suited shadows cast into the desert sun. He never stopped looking at her as they drove onwards, never even blinked.

After the first few times it became so easy that he lost interest in the preamble, although he regained some enthusiasm for the chase when he discovered the challenge of the great female intellectuals, philosophers and poets, but even these bored him after a time. Eventually he simply dispatched an aide to bring him his latest choice. He never saw any of them again.


Stalin had only one close friend. They had met at a late night cabaret in occupied Paris. Stalin had wondered how the bearded, longhaired man had gained access to such an exclusive establishment. The room applauded as Stalin entered but He stood up and shouted out in a drunken slur, ‘Stalin! You bastard! Bet you never thought you’d have to face me, did you!’ and then exploded into laughter. Many drinks later they decided they would be comrades forever.

Things changed on a grand tour of Rome. His friend had managed to attract some rather adverse media attention, something about taking the Lord’s name in vain. The press were circling for a media feeding frenzy. They decided to skip town.

It happened on a plaza surrounding a huge fountain, perfect in its Felliniesque beauty. She arrived upon a dais carried by eight glistening slaves, a train of servants and entertainers surrounding. The plaza came to a halt upon her arrival, including Stalin and his friend. At a signal from her a herald stepped forth from the train and addressed the crowd in a clear, declamatory tone.

‘Citizens of Rome.’

An explosion of camera flashes barked around him.

‘The lady Octavia, wife of Caesar, sister of a Caesar departed, having accepted the challenge laid down by Portia, known as the whore of Rome, seeks one hundred men of good health and noble bearing to aid her in her cause. Each man shall be rewarded handsomely.’

‘Excellent,’ said Stalin’s friend. ‘I’ve heard about this. She has to rut with more men than the other woman to win the challenge. I’m off to the palace to join the front of the queue.’

‘You will have a long wait friend,’ roared Stalin, ‘she looks for men of noble bearing!’

His friend gave him an unamused look and then broke into a crazed grin.

‘King of kings.’

And with a wink he set off across the plaza, with Stalin close behind.


The queue was already half way around the palace when Stalin and his friend arrived. The streets became a stampede of competing male bodies that Stalin barged his way through, knocking down weaker rivals and intimidating the occasional larger ones, clearing the way for himself and his friend. He only stopped when he reached a pair of inhumanly large, heavily armed and armored guards who even he decided were not worth troubling. His friend attempted to blackmail them with promises of complete absolution and eternal life but they were having none of it. Stalin counted only seven men between himself and his prize. He could wait.

It took a little under an hour, standing in the corridor listening to the moans accompanied by the varying grunts of each new man. Finally she called out, literally screaming for more, ordering her guards to bring her a man, any man. On his way in Stalin caught the eye of the man before him and found it cowed and fearful. His interest increased.

She lay on her back, naked and breathing hard, covered in a film of perspiration.

‘Come on. You have to be quick.’

‘I will be as long as I want to be, woman.’

She looked up, starring at him from between her widely spread knees. He began to unbutton himself but she slid round to face him. One arm covering her chest she reached the other out to touch his face, a move that took him entirely by surprise and he was lost for a reaction. Her eyes had a lost, unhappy look. They stayed like that for a moment and then she said in a low tone, almost inaudible.

‘No. Not you.’

‘What?’ he replied with genuine confusion.

‘GUARDS!’ she screamed.

They stomped in and awaited her order.

‘Take him away and keep him away. And bring me another one. That longhaired hippie will do. Just make sure he doesn’t smell.’

One of the guards grabbed the collar of Stalin’s coat and began to drag him out; he fought back but managed only to delay the inevitable expulsion.

‘But I am Stalin. I AM STALIN!’

She looked at him and for a second seemed to be lost for words. Then she laughed a pitiless, vengeful laugh and shouted back.

‘You are Stalin? YOU ARE NOTHING.’


‘What the hell happened?’

Stalin’s friend was waiting outside the room. Stalin did not answer, instead making a lunge for the guard who blocked the door. Stalin’s friend intervened before Stalin could get himself hurt.

‘What in God’s name is going on?’ his friend screamed. ‘And why is this idiot sniffing my robes?’ They both looked down to see the other guard on his hands and knees sniffing at their feet.

‘You may enter,’ he said, looking up at Stalin’s friend.

‘Come on Joe,’ he said with horror. ‘Let’s get the hell out of this mad house.’

‘She … would not … have me?’ roared Stalin as they left the palace.

‘Stalin can not be denied!’ he blustered as they crossed the plaza.

‘How does she refuse the love of Stalin?’ he muttered as they searched for a bar and hard liquor.

‘What is wrong with Stalin’s loving?’ he blubbered into his vodka.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake I really have had enough of this,’ announced his friend after two hours of halfheartedly trying to console the emotionally unstable Russian tyrant. ‘If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s self pity. I’m off too visit Hitler, at least you can rely on him not to fall apart over a woman.’

With that he left. Stalin never saw Jesus again.

Stalin went back to the palace in the dark of morning. He waited around well into the next day but caught no glimpse of her, screaming the name Octavia up and over the buildings high walls. He bribed servants to take messages to her but in reply received only the heads of the servants stuck on spikes outside the palace gates. He tried again to storm the building but only managed to get himself thrown out of the city altogether. He sent her a gift of a thousand black roses. No response. He dispatched assassins to kill every last guard and bring her to him. They returned in pieces: all the limbs in one bag, the heads and torsos in another. He threatened her with complete thermonuclear Armageddon and at one point his finger was right over the button but he did not even know if she had got the message and even if she had he was quite obviously bluffing. He was defeated in every way a man could be. Stalin was no longer himself and he no longer belonged in the places where he had been.

He passed through the park’s main gate, the queues of visitors waiting to enter stretched further than he could see. Beyond them were mile upon mile of parked and stationary cars. Nobody paid him any attention as he left until one small boy stepped into his path, blocking his way and in an awed voice said:

‘Is it good?’

‘Yes.’ he said without stopping, following his path away over the horizon.


The air in the little apartment was almost unbreathable; stale and still like death. Rubbish was littered around; fast food containers full of decayed organic matter, cups and glasses of stagnant fluid. He sat down on the musty sofa and gazed at the dirt-shrouded windows through which the faintest light came to illuminate the internal gloom.

He found his old papers with their scrawl of unrealized plans; dry and brittle like ancient parchments. They crumbled under his touch, the pieces scattering to the floor around his feet. At first Stalin laughed but then he to crumpled to the ground, crippled by an incomprehensible pain.

At first he did not hear the knocking at the door, and once it penetrated his thoughts he took slow steps towards the door, reached out his hand to the latch and then waited for a long time with his fingers touching the cold metal before sliding the bolt away and opening it.

Octavia was the same as when he had seen her first; wrapped within her regal air but now without the entourage or guards, alone and standing on his step. Stalin fell to his knees before her.

‘Royal princess. I am yours. Take me back to our world.’

‘I am not here for you Stalin.’ Her tone was commanding but fearful, uncertain.

They moved into the room and sat down upon the floor amongst the shards of paper. They looked at one another and once again she touched him on the cheek. He clasped her hand in his and felt his old strength returning. He pulled her towards him, trapping her but she responded with unexpected strength, hurling him away from her. She rose to her feet and stood above him. As he watched she put her hands behind her neck and tipped her head forward. A small click echoed around the room. She inhaled deeply as if in pain and then pulled her hands forward, the skin around her neck and jaw distorting, the features of her beautiful face twisting around themselves until they fell away completely. She kept pulling until the skin had gone entirely and she dropped it to one side of her.

Stalin watched the small dark haired girl with stunned incomprehension as she moved in on him, her skin pure white from lack of light and slick with slime like a newborn child. She placed her hands against his neck and he heard the click and then he screamed as she tore the skin from his flesh, heaved away the scalp, stripped the fat from the muscle. And she tossed the skin away across the room he felt the heat of a thousand days slide away and cool air brush against his wet body.

‘Mike,’ she said as she looked at him.

‘Kristen,’ he replied.