Life

What should the science fiction of tomorrow look like?

I’ve been reading with interest about Hieroglyph, the first anthology of science fiction stories from Project Hieroglyph based at ASU. The idea is that inspirational science-fiction can aid science:

The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern “hieroglyphs” – Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Project Hieroglyph

It’s a description of hieroglyphs that will cause a few Egyptologists to choke, but the idea behind it is definitely interesting. If science fiction inspires future scientists, what modern icons could point in a direction toward the future in science fiction?

In Hieroglyph most of the alternative futures seem grounded in physics, computing or engineering making the collection seem more retro-futuristic. Perhaps the problem of coming up with a 21st century equivalent of a ‘moon-shot’ is that the target is couched in 20th century terms.

Another problem might be the fact be that the Hieroglyph approach might be in reverse to good story-telling. Robert McGrath calls some of the stories preachy, which would suggest that the fiction is there to push the idea. First of all fiction has to work as fiction before it does anything else.

Brian Stableford has argued that good science fiction explores what he calls a novum, a new thing like an invention or discovery. It’s not simply how its use changes the world but also how its unintended use can change human action. He’s pointed out that Asimov’s simple Laws of Robotics remain a fertile source for stories. Bob Shaw was able to pull plenty of ideas from slow glass, which is glass that slows down light so it takes years to pass through it.

Is there is simple iconic biological idea that could inspire science, but is also interesting enough in itself to produce stories?

CRISPR will be a major phenomenon over the next few decades, but by itself it’s not easy to explain, though Carl Zimmer gives it a good effort. Instead, thinking of a use, could pharming become one of Stephenson’s hieroglyphs?

Pulp sci-fi cover
Created with the Pulp-O-Mizer.

Pharming, creating pharmaceuticals with plants, could become a major source of medicines over the next century, along with engineered microbes. The idea itself is simple enough to understand but there are plenty of consequences to explore.

One example is where do you grow the pharm crops? We already know there will be pressure on agricultural land, so will new crops be engineered to grow on marginal land or will the conditions they treat, for people in rich nations, mean they get prime land and drive up the cost of food elsewhere?

Another consequence: Imagine you could engineer a brassica with a variety of benefits to make it a superfood. Like a lot of people, I loathe cabbage and turnip. To nudge people into eating this healthy food, the makers add a mild non-addictive additive to give people a sense of well-being after they eat it. What effect on society could a food like Lotus have? What effect would depriving a society of it have, like if you introduced a pest into a rival country?

I notice that even trying to produce a positive innovation there’s still room for a negative aspect, but even in golden age sci-fi there were dark sides to progress.

I’m sure that pharming isn’t the only possible hieroglyph that botany could offer. I’m sure that there’ something could be done with phytomining, though I’m not sure what and plenty of other things that I’ve missed. Can anyone else think of positive botanical hooks for science fiction and traditional physical sciences based authors overlook?

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