Celebrate National Science Fiction Day by Learning To Live in the Future

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 2 2013 5:32 PM

Celebrate National Science Fiction Day by Learning To Live in the Future

Isaac.Asimov02
Isaac Asimov.

By "New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection" (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s 2013, people—we are living in the future. Since the news is still awash with problems we created for ourselves decades or centuries ago (the permanent fiscal crisis, gun control, the political powder-keg that is the Middle East), it may have escaped your notice that today is also National Science Fiction Day.

While you may still be rooting through your holiday gift pile searching for that long-promised jetpack, science fiction writers actually had some grim things to say about 2013. Jack London pegged the coming year for the arrival of the Red Death, a new pandemic. Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly guessed one in five Americans would be hooked on illegal drugs (and if you count criminal hypocrisy, he would not be wrong).* And David Brin pretty much called the whole civilizational ballgame with The Postman, imagining a postapocalyptic hellscape in which only Kevin Costner fans could survive.

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And yet, so far, we are 2 for 2 on the world not ending in 2013. So let’s take a minute to celebrate the idea behind National Science Fiction Day as embodied by the writer and scientist whose birthday it marks, Isaac Asimov. Science and the stories of science that Asimov loved to tell are going strong.

In 2012 we watched the Mars rover Curiosity and its spunky band of rock star engineers explore the red planet, saw the Higgs boson emerge from the ether, traced Felix Baumgartner’s 24-mile space-dive, and followed James Cameron seven miles down into the Mariana Trench. Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ helped us share details, rumors, and excitement about these momentous events worldwide. The social media buzz surrounding these events were part of what the New York Times has called “an epidemic of science geekiness” that put millions in contact with the latest news from labs and research missions around the world. It also felt like the year in which science became a like-button topic, a zone of what I call “butterfly engagement” in which you watch a short video, share it with your friends, and move on to the next shiny (or levitating) thing.

Now, I’m all for this kind of enthusiastic conversation about science, but we also need interactions that last longer than a few minutes. It’s not the fault of scientists (or science writers) that social media naturally encourage slacktivism, in which clicking a button or signing a virtual petition take the place of more substantive forms of engagement. But the rush to amass eyeballs and retweets runs the risk of eliding any actual thinking for the sake of special effects and sound-bites.

This brings us back to Asimov, a guy who took the long view about science and human progress, perhaps most memorably in his Foundation series, which traced the long arc of human history across millennia. What Asimov knew about science fiction, and science writing in general, is that a good story sticks with you in part because it takes time to tell, and time to absorb.

Fortunately, I think the Internet offers its own antidote to slacktivism in the form of deeper dives: extended conversations, curated archives, long reads, and long tails. The same technologies that can cue up 60 episodes of The Wire on a moment’s notice can also deliver extended meditations on Asimov’s future history, habitable worlds, and thoughtful dialogues about the world we ought to make for ourselves.

So why not make this the first day of 2013 that you spend living in a science fiction era? Let social media guide you to the incredible things humans are achieving on and off this planet, and then let science fiction and the deep riches of digital culture guide you to some new ideas, some better dreams, and better futures.

Correction, Jan. 3, 2013: This article originally and incorrectly said that Philip K. Dick’s fiction predicted one in five Americans would be hooked on illegal drugs by 2013. In fact, his novel is set in 1994 and makes no such prediction. The statistic about 20 percent usage in 2013 comes from Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.

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