Fiction and responsibility

I gave a talk a little over a year ago about Science (Fiction) and Design. It was very well received, which I found very flattering, and I was excited that it found an audience.

Since then, though, I’ve done a bit more research and thinking that is perhaps less optimistic, but ultimately more honest, practical, and ethical.

I’d like to weave in another thread that’s been weighing on my mind more and more these days: the responsibility of our role as imaginers of, and creators of, our collective future(s).

The products and services we shape and create are always more than the thing itself. They are signals and signs of our values, our intentions, and our visions for the future. And they are the material for the imaginings of people around the world, the catalyst that sparks the next leap, the next connection, the next piece of science fiction that becomes real.

As powerful and exciting as that is, it carries a weight that we must take seriously. Our products and our ideas, imperfect as they may be, are the seeds of the next waves of thought and creativity.

What if our visions, for all their sparkle and shine, have darker qualities and implications?

What if the creations and creators that inspired us have their own difficult histories?

And, in the end, how do we create a space where clear-eyed critique and historical awareness can sit alongside optimism, imagination, and bold visions?

“Werner von Braun: He shot for the stars / And hit London.. / Rest in peace”

This was my first exposure to the history of space exploration, although I didn’t know it at the time.

I was 11 or 12 years old when I read the book this is in — a book called Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking Drown the Sound of my Voice Talking, by Dan O’Neill, published in 1969 (Space buffs in the room will recognize the significance of that year.)

I recently started digging in to the history of space exploration a little more. One thing I came across was the first image of the Earth from space.

The first image of the Earth from space

Knowing there must be an interesting story behind this, I started searching. Among other things, I turned up this video:

YouTube video: V-2 Rocket Launch at White Sands, New Mexico 1946–11–21 Universal Newsreel

All interesting stuff, but a couple phrases might have jumped out, like “captured German V-2 rocket” and “This giant engine of destruction, designed by Hitler to annihilate Allied nations now served the worldly cause of peace and research.”


So, the V-2. “Vengeance Weapon 2.” The one that rained down on Antwerp.

V-2 bomb damage, Antwerp

And Den Haag.

V-2 bomb damage, Den Haag

And London.

V-2 bomb fragment, London

And Liège, Hasselt, Tournai, Mons, Diest, Norwich, Ipswich, Lille, Paris, Tourcoing, Arras, Cambrai, Maastricht, and Remagen.

The V-2 rocket program was masterminded by a guy named Wernher von Braun.

He was, as Google Image suggests, a Nazi.

“Best guess for this image: wernher von braun nazi”

I won’t go into his biographical details, but the main point of interest here is that, after the war, we brought over 1,500 Germans to the United States to work for the government. (There was an express order not to hire Nazis, but many records were falsified in order to make this happen.)

Wernher von Braun was in the first group. And, after helping out with those initial V-2 tests, he eventually became Chief Architect of the Saturn V.

von Braun with a Saturn V rocket
Saturn V launch
von Braun and John F. Kennedy observing a launch

This, of course, is the rocket that launched our Apollo astronauts to the moon.

The Earth from the moon
Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Now, by the time we landed people on the moon, studies of a human mission to Mars were already well underway.

Unsurprisingly, it started as science fiction. What surprised me was the author.

In 1948 the U.S. Army’s V-2 test program was completed and von Braun used his spare time to write a science fiction novel about a manned mission to Mars.

Sure enough, it was von Braun himself. He went beyond most hard sci-fi, though — he included an appendix with detailed drawings and calculations. And that appendix was published: first in German, then in English.

Das Marsproject, Werner von Braun

So picture yourself in 1970. The Apollo program cost roughly $150 billion in 2016 dollars, and there was talk of a human mission to Mars to follow.

Understandably, one of the primary ethical questions was around budget. A nun named Sister Mary Jucunda, working in Zambia, had exactly this question. The response, from Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then Associate Director of Science at Marshall Space Flight Center, contained this phrase:

“You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death.”

A good question. (Of note: I was unable to find a record of Sister Mary Jucunda’s letter, only the response, which was published by NASA.)

“Why explore space?” – Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger’s response
“Why explore space?” continued, photo of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger

He’s a friendly looking guy, and his letter includes a number of persuasive points.

One of the themes in his letter is a point about “a better Earth” – that these activities, however outwardly focused, improve life on our home planet.

He also pointed out how much more noble the pursuit of space exploration was relative to certain other pursuits.

“How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships!”

What a great counterpoint to Wernher von Braun, right? Peace instead of war! Right on, man!

Except there’s a wrinkle: Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger worked with von Braun on the V-2 rocket, and was in that same group of Germans who were brought over after the war.

Ernst Stuhlinger and Wernher von Braun

(That picture was taken at Walt Disney Studios, but that’s a whole different story.)

In a 1995 article for The Huntsville Times, Stuhlinger addressed the double purposes of his work.

“Yes, we did work on improved guidance systems, but in late 1944 we were convinced that the war would soon be over before new systems could be used on military rockets.”
“However, we were convinced that somehow our work would find application in the future rockets that would not aim at London, but at the moon.”

Learning all this dark history behind the moon landing and Mars exploration — and even the role of science fiction — has made me reflect on my largely optimistic narrative around fiction and design.

Fiction is powerful, with both positive and negative implications.

Fiction inspires us
Chesley Bonestell painting of humans exploring Mars

Fiction does inspire us, and carry our imagination to new places.

Fiction lets us simulate the future
OnSight concept storyboard by Garrett Johnson

Fiction does allow us to simulate the future, to test our response to ideas in a way that has elements of realism, and allows us to react instead of hypothesize.

But it has its dangers, as well.

Fiction can obscure harsh realities
V-2 bomb damage, Den Haag

Fiction can seduce us and distract us from negative impacts, intended or unintended. We can believe so much in the plausible, lofty end goal that the damage we are causing becomes invisible, or excusable.

Fiction can be used to con people
Donald Trump, photo by Gage Skidmore

And we must wield fiction with respect, and never forget the difference between fiction and lies. We must take on the responsibility of using fiction to get at truths and possible futures without using it to con people or to use it solely for our own ulterior motives.

I hope my reflections on this difficult and complex history leads you to embrace fiction as the powerful, inspiring tool it is, while illuminating some of the dangers and darkness.

We treat our future, and our future-building, with the utmost care, consideration, and ethical attention.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Jesse Kriss’s story.