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Neal Stephenson on Science Fiction, Building Towers 20 Kilometers High … and Insurance

In a public interview with Technology Review’s Jason Pontin, the best-selling author talked about the obstacles faced by real emerging technologies.
April 18, 2012

Speaking before a packed lecture theater at MIT yesterday, Neal Stephenson worried that the gloomy outlook prevalent in modern science fiction may be undermining the genre’s ability to inspire engineers and scientists. Describing himself as a “pessimist trying to turn himself into an optimist,” and acknowledging that some of his own work has contributed to the dystopian trend, he added “if every depiction of the future is grim…then it doesn’t create much of an incentive to building the future.”

Jason Pontin (left) interviewing Neal Stephenson. Credit: Eric Mongeon

Consequently, Stephenson is trying to make a literary course correction, and last year launched the Heiroglyph Project, with the goal of creating an anthology of plausibly optimistic science fiction. Stephenson himself is contributing a story about a 20 kilometer high tower for launching spacecraft into orbit, based on a real engineering proposal.

Stephenson was being interviewed for the next installment of Technology Review’s annual science fiction anthology, TRSF, which will be released in September. Much of the discussion with editor-in-chief Jason Pontin explored Stephenson’s fear that big thinking, of the sort that once drove the space program and other large scale projects, has fallen out of vogue. In part, Stephenson explained, this was because of the Internet: “Everything got put on hold for a generation,” while civilization digested the Internet and figured out what it could be used for. 

Another part of the problem was a modern inclination to hold off on starting really big projects in the belief that it would be better to wait for some enabling advance. Noting that he could have used artistic license and built the tower in his Heiroglyph project story twice as high with a fictional superstrong nanotube-based material, Stephenson said he choose to stick with steel to underscore the idea that we don’t have to wait for a future technology to fall into our laps. 

In fact, said Stephenson, we already have much of the fundamental technology we need to fulfill such science fiction ambitions as large scale solar power production, or routine space flight. Instead, he said, we need to start looking at the non-technological obstacles to these advances, citing insurance as a key example. The development of alternative space launch systems has been curtailed by the unwillingness of the insurance industry to underwrite satellite launches on systems for which there is no good model of the risk involved. Turning to the audience of mostly MIT students, Stephenson said “maybe some of you people need to go into the insurance industry instead of writing code.” 

The response was nervous laughter.

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