Some people think science fiction is the bastion of nerds, geeks and a milieu of maladjusted social cripples who just can’t come to grips with the real world.
Those people are wrong. And one day they’ll probably work for someone who’s read or reads science fiction.
Whether you’re talking about the golden age “I, Robot” era of Isaac Asimov, the gritty cyberpunk of William Gibson or the ethereal distant futures of Iain Banks’ artificially intelligent Culture, science fiction takes an idea and creates around it future realities.
But the definitions and the variances and the evolution of genre don’t really matter that much here. What does matter is that science fiction is built on thought experiments.
How would a society that can’t lie develop over thousands of years? What would it mean if an entire galaxy’s continued existence hinged on the consumption of a single resource? How would life change if tomorrow computers learned how to think better than human beings?
The ability to rigorously imagine future outcomes based on incomplete information (and uncommon imagination) with the same diligence that many use to assess immediate economic, political, emotional and business conditions is a bulletproof skill. It’s a practice that sparks creativity, uncovers new opportunities, and improves current operations.
And it’s one kind of thinking that’s desperately needed. The “what ifs” and the “why nots” and the “I have this crazy idea, but hear me outs” are the ones who can imagine solutions to the problems of today and the catastrophes of tomorrow.
Elon Musk is going to Mars—and building electric cars on the way. A generation of entrepreneurs are developing businesses around a cryptocurrency that has massive implications for the (developing) world. New models are needed to map, predict and react to an increasingly volatile natural world. Algorithms of all stripes have the power to build entirely new ways of doing business, and lay waste to old ones.
It doesn’t have to be limited to big ideas, either. Not everyone’s going to be an astronaut. But maybe some of us need a better way to hail taxis or find useful content online or buy healthier food.
Science fiction isn’t the roadmap. In fact, a lot of the classics will sound increasingly quaint or fantastical as the years pass. It’s hard to keep up with a real world where driverless cars drive better than you, computers can map your genes and mathematical formulas make your job disappear.
No, science fiction is a toolkit. A toolkit for imagining what’s next, and how to get there—no matter how big or small.
Frank Herbert’s Dune might be about a distant, future world’s importance to an entire galaxy’s political, religious and economic paradigms. But it’s also a primer on how ecological change and social mores might play out in the planet-wide equivalent of a laboratory setting.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is about a smart little boy who saves the planet from aliens. It’s also as good a tutorial on strategy and team-building as most business books I’ve read.
Asimov’s short story The Last Question is one of the more succinct and creative commentaries on technology, religion and philosophy you’ll find out there.
But even these high-minded writings can’t necessarily fit into the challenges and opportunities of the real world—our world.
And that’s precisely the point. The real world is catching up to the imagined worlds of science fiction. We’re running out of literary runway for our ideas to take flight.
Thought experiments matter, even if they’re lightyears away. Because more than ever, individuals, businesses, governments and societies are in uncharted territory.
Which is why using the books we have to imagine the world that we don’t is more important than ever.