Science Fiction, Otherworldly Aspirations & Innovative Teamwork

By Kristy Jansen

July 20, 2019 was the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first small step on another world, and humanity’s symbolic “giant leap” into the future.  In the intervening decades, we have learned how to talk to each other across vast distances using a palm-held device that fits into a pocket or even fit on the wrist.  We have learned how to use space-based satellites to pinpoint our current location on the planet so precisely that a phone app can guide us nearly anywhere we want to go in real-time.  We have learned how to pull energy from sunlight, wind, or waves and use that collected power to light our homes, fuel our vehicles, or fly a drone that delivers groceries.  

In September 1966, three years before any human had stepped on an alien surface, Star Trek first aired on prime time television. Gene Roddenberry’s creation portrayed a future space-faring reality that included wireless communications, mobile location tracking and warp drives powered by mysterious fuels.  It was also a world where the color of one’s skin or shape of one’s head were unimportant details. Despite the cheesy dialogue and predictable storylines, the franchise sparked imaginations around the world, launched a plethora of spin-offs and loyal fan groups, and birthed a universe still vibrantly alive in our cultural imagination.  It influenced the wider society in ways subtle and profound, perhaps most famously in the design of the first flip phone. 

Writing the future 

Modern achievements in science and technological innovations often stem from the brains of curious science fiction writers. Researchers at the University of Hawaii are studying the link between science fiction writing and inspiration for new scientific projects. 

“Sci-fi movies, shows or stories do provide inspiration for the foremost and upcoming human-computer interaction challenges of our time, for example through the discussion of shape-changing interfaces, implantables or digital afterlife ethics,” says Philipp Jordan, one of the lead researchers. Just as President Kennedy’s ambitious declaration of the possibility of reaching the moon was initially dismissed by many as an improbable fantasy (including Eisenhower), many science fiction technologies, initially regarded as far-fetched manifestations of imagination, have found their place in reality.

Indeed, in the 1940s, science fiction sage, Arthur C. Clarke described how radio signals could bounce off satellites for long-distance communication long before the first communications satellite, Telstar, was launched in 1962. Additionally, George Orwell’s 1984 presented the world with an ever-monitored society three years before the advent of closed-circuit television in 1942. 

Writers cultivate the seeds of imagination to present society with ideas of “what could be.” Prominent science fiction writer Andy Weir, the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Martian, says science fiction is one of the many ways people come up with ideas about how to shape the future. 

“I guess I’m just an imaginative guy and I like other people to experience the stories I come up with. Probably the same thing that drives most writers. I think the biggest attribute for becoming a writer is imagination.” says Weir. Science fiction can make powerful social commentary, but Weir points out its beauty also lies in its ability to present a story of pure fantasy and imagination. Perhaps this vivid and otherworldly literary escape is what unites society’s love for science fiction. 

He also remarks that science fiction writers’ passion for scientific and mathematical accuracy helps tie their stories into tangible innovation. “I love science and I wanted to get the science correct. And it wasn’t hard for me. I really enjoy doing the research and math.”  

Everyday Innovation

This imagination of authors is just one of the many ways ordinary people become involved with scientific breakthroughs. The moon landing would not have been possible without the involvement of thousands of individuals across a broad range of fields. Journalist Charles Fishman’s new book, One Giant Leap, looks at the multitude of ways ordinary individuals contributed to sending a man to the moon. He remarks that an astonishing 410,000 men and women from 20,000 different companies contributed to the effort. 

“Apollo was the biggest nonmilitary effort in the history of human civilization,” says Fishman.  Next week we will go more fully into the Moonshot, an extraordinary achievement made possible by a big idea, a nation’s commitment, and hundreds of thousands of regular people.  But for now, please read on for our full conversation with self-proclaimed space nerd and science geek, Andy Weir…

It seems that we humans are notoriously short-sighted, and most of us are very bad at imagining a reality vastly different from the one we see around us on a daily basis. We’ve been wanting to do a feature for some time on the power of fiction (and science fiction in particular) to help envision solutions to the current problems facing our society these days – whether related to climate change, social justice issues, gender relationships, or the rapidity of technological advances – and also maybe to help us get a picture on downstream consequences of choices we are making in the world today.   So we were thrilled to have the chance to talk to Andy Weir, who helped put the idea of landing on Mars in the near future into our minds with The Martian – which became a feature film starring Matt Damon.  Weir followed that up with Artemis, an action-packed thriller set on the Moon in the near future.  He is one of the most active and influential writers of science fiction today, and we were thrilled he agreed to let us feature this conversation for this week’s Optimist View.   Read on to hear more from Andy Weir!      

TOD: Do you agree that fiction and science fiction, in particular, can help humans envision the future?  

Andy Weir: It’s one of the many tools that people can use to come up with ideas on how to shape the future. But it’s not the only one. I don’t buy into the idea that sci-fi authors are the only people who come up with this stuff.

We totally agree!  There are a lot of incredibly creative people who “see around corners”, and who have contributed greatly to creating new futures, by inventing new technologies or re-thinking an old problem – and we often feature these folks in The Optimist Daily.  That said, I still appreciate people like you who come up with possible future worlds and make them feel real through their storytelling skills. I would say The Martian made that type of a human-led expedition far more likely, just by creating a world where it happened in such a realistic way.  Do you give yourself any credit for that? 

I think there’s a virtuous cycle that can happen with the entertainment industry and space. A space-based story like “The Martian” can increase public interest in space travel. That increased interest causes NASA to get more funding and causes private space companies to get more investment. That funding helps spur new things in space travel. Those new things in space travel keep it topical and make it more profitable as a subject of film and TV.  

You have been writing fiction and science fiction for a long time, even before you were a full-time writer.  First off, why write at all? Is it a calling for you?

I’m not sure. I guess I’m just an imaginative guy and I like other people to experience the stories I come up with. Probably the same thing that drives most writers.

What do you think was your best attribute in becoming a writer?  And what about the biggest flaw?

I think the biggest attribute for becoming a writer is imagination. The biggest flaw is other hobbies. When the writing gets tough – which it always does on any given project – it’s easy to retreat into hobbies and other interests.

Who are writers, films, or shows that have inspired you?
My “holy trinity” of authors are Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke.
These are three of my favorites as well.  In fact, I’ve just gotten interested in Asimov again in the context of today’s headlines on social media giants collecting our data.  I’ve been re-reading the Foundation series and thinking about how psycho-history might be understood in the context of “Big Data” and how Asimov’s writing was prescient – or not.  What do you think?

In a way, deep-learning applied to big data is a rudimentary form of psychohistory. It can predict, based on your interests, what products you might be interested in buying. That’s still a pretty big difference between predicting the future of humanity, though.

One of the things I loved about The Martian was how closely you followed actual science.  Everything in the book was completely plausible, and your descriptions of everything from orbital mechanics to potato farming helped me understand how science might apply.  Was that an intentional move in your creative process? 

Yes, absolutely. It’s just my style. I love science and I wanted to get the science correct. And it wasn’t hard for me. I really enjoy doing the research and math.

What’s your process for doing this research?  

AW: Google, mostly. I have a solid foundation of science knowledge, and the rest I look up. From there, it’s big piles of spreadsheets to do math for me. 🙂

I read that you actually created a program to calculate the orbital mechanics for the Mars trip.  How did you figure that out?

I was a computer programmer for 25 years before writing The Martian. So the software part wasn’t hard for me. As for the actual orbital paths, I use incremental simulation. Basically, I had the computer calculate the effects of gravity on the ship’s velocity, update that velocity, then apply the velocity over one second. That updates the ship’s position. Repeat a whole bunch of times. 

These are the actual paths: 

Also, what are your thoughts on science and technology in general?

Well, obviously, I’m a fan. I think most of the world’s problems could be solved by technological solutions. Not all, obviously, but most. With sufficient technology we could take care of water purity and food limitation issues in the third world. We could eradicate disease. We could effectively give everyone freedom of speech via internet-capable phones. We could have perfect birth control for all who want it. The list is endless.

With Virgin Galactic’s announcement, on July 9, 2019, that it is going public came with an update that the company is preparing to send its first customers into space within a year.  Blue Origin, SpaceX, NASA – are all getting into space tourism as well. First of all: what do you think about these billionaires moving into the space race? 

I think it’s fantastic! Economic drivers are the best possible way to advance humanity in space. The true “space boom” will come when the price to low earth orbit is low enough that ordinary middle-class people can afford to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip into space. The demand for it will be massive and money will be flying around everywhere.

Once you get commercial engineers working on problems, that’s when you get real progress. Just look at the state of modern aviation. That’s all thanks to economic drivers.

Also, I hear you’re terrified to fly.  Would you ever accept a ticket on a Virgin Galactic flight or an invitation to tour the International Space Station?

Nope! I write about brave people – I’m not one of them. (smiling)

The popular HBO series Chernobyl opened many people’s eyes to the realities of nuclear power production and potential disaster. Did you watch the series? How do you feel televised reproductions of scientific events affect the public’s understanding and opinion on them?

I watched the series and I thought it was incredibly well done. One of the best things I’ve seen in years. Although I think this question is a bit skewed – it presumes nuclear power carries significant risks. I don’t believe it does. In terms of human deaths, nuclear power is far less costly than any other non-renewable power. Coal miners die every day. Oil right workers die every day, too.

There have been thousands of nuclear power plants in operation all around the globe for over half a century, and in that time there have been a total of three failures. One was caused by catastrophically poor management (Chernobyl), one was caused by bad equipment and contained before anyone got hurt (Three Mile Island), and one was caused by a massive earthquake and tsunami striking the plant dead on (Fukushima).

Saying “Nuclear Power is dangerous” is like saying “Commercial Air Travel is dangerous”. Yes, it’s not 100% safe, but it’s far better than any alternative.

In The Martian, the “world” you created was not significantly different than today’s geopolitical world, but in your follow-up novel, Artemis, you got to invent a new society on the Moon, which in my mind is also an opportunity for social criticism. How do you understand the role of fiction in reflecting on society? 

I avoid social commentary like the plague. I don’t like being preached at so I don’t preach at my readers. I’m not writing to “change your mind” about some issue or bring anything to light. I’m just there to entertain the reader – nothing more.

I think it weakens a story to have a political slant. As a reader, once you detect the political or social message of the story, you more or less know the end of the story. You know the universe of that book will validate the author’s point of view. And that kind of predictability is, to me, boring to read.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with other authors expressing political viewpoints in their work. It’s just something I choose not to do myself.

We focus on Solutions at The Optimist Daily and are always looking for solution creators. Do you have anyone you look to for solutions, and or is there something, in particular, you believe we should be focused on solving?

I think the biggest problem in the world is Malaria. It’s the reason Africa has been suppressed as a continent compared to everywhere else. Fully a quarter of their population is constantly sick. It kills twice as many people every year as the US Civil War did in its entirety.

Interesting that you chose Malaria as the top issue you’d like to see cured.  You set the primary spaceport in Artemis in Kenya – which gave that imagined version of Kenya a lot of socio-political power.  I loved that feature in the book. In a world that Malaria – and other chronic diseases – are eradicated, could you imagine the African Sub-continent developing into a true powerhouse?

Yes, I honestly believe that, without Malaria, Africa would be a massive international power. They have the population, plenty of reliable agriculture, lots of water, and nearly endless natural resources. They have all the ingredients to be a massive economic power. But having a huge percentage of their labor force sick all the time for the last several centuries has been devastating to any would-be economies.

Before we go, how about a few Mars Survival Tips?

You’ll need a pressure vessel and a means of liberating oxygen from carbon dioxide.