Creating the Future: Why I Am Taking Sci-Fi More Seriously

Theral Timpson

Writers, Artists, and the Intelligentsia

I majored in English Literature--otherwise known as the Booze and Sex Department. For many years I thought that writers and artists were the greatest intellects around. They told us what was going on in our world, what had happened, and what would happen in the future. Let me try to convince you with a few examples.

In 1922, T.S. Elliot published "The Wasteland," one of the most important poems of the 20th Century. It defined the time and prophesied the future. (If the 20's gave him a wasteland, what would today's Facebook generation offer?)

Around the same time, Picasso gave us cubism, a visual demonstration of the emerging modern era. Cubist paintings reflected the disjointed life that came about from the liberation of perspective. Past, present, and future were fashioned into one simultaneity. (An English degree teaches you to write fancy sentences like that.)

The modern poet, Maya Angelou, was chosen by Bill Clinton to give her “On the Pulse of the Morning” for his inauguration. She was the second poet to participate in a presidential inauguration, the first Black and woman. In light of the recent election, the dawn of a new era for minorities and women, we see Maya was indeed ‘on the pulse.’

Scientists and Engineers

And what does this have to do with the life sciences?

I’ve been in the industry for many years now, first as a marketer, now as journalist. In the two years since we came up with the idea for Mendelspod, I’ve had an ongoing internal debate (crisis) about who creates the future. For it appears more and more that it is the scientists and engineers, not the writers and artists, who are setting the direction of our species.

Just today, I heard from a geneticist at Stanford, Mike Snyder, that health is merely a product of our genes, proteins, microbes, etc. That we will be able to manipulate it by understanding the molecules. It appears that it is the Mike Snyders of the world, or George Church, Ron Davis, Art Levinson, Bill Gates and Serge Brin who seem to be making the most difference in modern life. The cold fact is that scientists and engineers are reshaping our lives almost daily with new technologies: They are giving us powerful new ways of connecting, which is causing revolutions, not only politically, but in our private lives as well. Notions of identity and privacy are being challenged like never before in this genomic age. In fact, it looks probable that we will be able to live longer than ever before. Some of them talk of the end of aging.

Let me suggest a literary project. Do away with the concept of death and then go find any meaning in any great piece of literature since the Epic of Gilgamesh.

You see my crisis. Have writers and artists, the old leaders of intelligentsia, become less important? For millenia it was the bible (literature) which gave us notions of our place in the cosmos. Then we had Herman Hesse. Now it's Deepak Chopra teaming up with Rudolph Tanzi on brain science. Now it’s scientists like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who recently made the bold claim at an Apple conference that “philosophy is dead.” Philosophers have not kept up with current physics, he says, and are therefore becoming irrelevant.

(If you have an idea how to argue with this, please email me.)

Sci-Fi and the Futurists

This year we’ve had several ‘futurists’ on the program. Folks like Sultan Megjhi and Joseph Jackson who are completely at home talking about the way things will be fifty years from now. In fact, many of the scientists we’ve had to the program could be called futurists. George Church talks about living to 200. I ask, who knows more than they do about what our lives will be like on this planet in a couple hundred years?

I peppered Dr. Church in an interview last year with the question: are you a visionary? He shied away from the term saying it wasn’t good “being too far ahead of one’s time.” But I wonder if his hesitance has something to do with getting funded and being commercially relevant. George’s big aim is to create technology that can be commercialized and make a difference. He’s been at the center of $1,000 genome movement. He is a visionary.

Where do these scientists and engineers that come on the program get their ideas? More often than not, when asked, they reply that I should read this or that science fiction novel. Hey, wait a minute. Are we saying that the writers are still calling the shots afterall?!

Humanity+ Conference

You can no doubt appreciate my delight in hearing about the Humanity+ Conference that took place in SF last weekend with the tag line, Writing the Future. (I've been around the futurists long enough to know that for them, this line is without hubris.) Let me tell you about Humanity+. It is an organization born from the philosophy of transhumanism. Humanity+ advocates for the ethical use of emerging technologies to enhance human capacties. Hence, trans-human. You humans are so yesterday. Yes, I guess we should start figuring out the liability of the Google Car, or whether IBM's Watson is entitled to personhood. The conference began with a lineup of science fiction writers. What did they talk about? The future, of course.

I confess here that I was never keen on science fiction. Why take most of the time creating gobledy-gook and leaving precious little space to talk about real issues?

Kim Stanley Robinson is author of the prize winning Mars Trilogy about the settlement of Mars. I have just begun the series, and find myself having some profound new thoughts in between trying to forget about my Mormon upbringing and the theology that one day I will be a God and populate my own planet. Perhaps I've been too earth-centric all this time. At least since I left Mormonism. In his talk, Robinson pointed back to the work of filmmaker H. G. Wells as a big influence not only on him, but on the direction of science. As for the future, Robinson quoted William Gibson, “the future is already here - it’s just not distributed evenly.”

How true. It seems I've been missing my own daily dose.

Many scientists point to Robinson’s Mars series as a major influence. They think that along with solving aging (did I just write 'solving aging?'), we must get off this planet for the survival of the human race. (See our recent show with John Cumbers, a synthetic Biologist at NASA.)

David Brin, another sci-fi author speaking at the event, isn’t shy about man’s future either. He stressed the importance of the crowd speaking with the "lobotomized who voted for [Romney]" so that they, the transhumanists, don't end up in the shoes of Giordano Bruno and burned at the stake. Are those with the technology really that powerless, Mr. Brin? “We may be the only hope for the galaxy,” he said in earnest, via Skype. “The galaxy is waiting for us.”

We want to do our part at Mendelspod. We certainly wouldn't want to let the galaxy down. We’ll be running a series, “Creating the Future,” where I’ll be talking to some sci-fi authors and other hefty intellectuals about not only their thoughts on the future, but on their role as influencers of the future through scientists. Perhaps you've picked up some skepticism, even sarcasm. It's just the sound of my feet dragging on the pavement as I'm pulled into the future. I am keenly interested in the topic. I aim to make sure the future gets more evenly distributed, over me. More than needing to know what will happen to the race in the future, I’d like to start by knowing just who is running things around here at the present. I hope you’ll find as much delight in the discussions as I do. Please send in your suggestions for guests and questions as we probe the great beyond.