Neal Stephenson on Innovation Starvation


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Many of you are probably fans of the prolific Neal Stephenson.  He basically helped to start the whole “cyberpunk” movement with his novel Snow Crash, and has been pumping out giant novels at an alarming rate ever since.  Stephenson recently wrote an essay bemoaning the dismantling of the space program, and more generally the lack of real innovation when it comes American engineers.  He chalks this up to two reasons: the first, that modern SF writers are not doing their job, which is to inspire real-world scientists to innovate.  The second reason is that the corporate atmosphere fails to be conducive to risk-taking which is absolutely essential to achieve real innovation.  Companies are instead able to quickly scan the internet for precedents, leading to a defeatist attitude:

What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new—and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields.

He has a point.  How important is the space program to our overall economic productivity?  How important is the average SF writer’s role in this?

[Via World Policy Journal]





3 Responses to Neal Stephenson on Innovation Starvation

  1. Not to knock Neal Stephenson, cuz Snow Crash was tons of fun, but I think you mean to refer to William Gibson when you're talking about the start of the cyberpunk movement. Neuromancer, in which Gibson coined the term "cyberspace," was published 8 years before Snow Crash. I mean, come on, you're talking up an essay in which Stephenson bemoans the lack of speculation in modern SF, how could you miss the easy reference to Snow Crash as a novel that relies upon but moves beyond the cyberpunk movement?

  2. Aside from the mishap that Elizabeth King pointed out, I think the space program hasn't been coming out with anything innovative for public use since the early nineties….

  3. Yes. There aren't enough writers as awesome as Neal Stephenson out there, and he has to upbraid them for it.

    If there isn't any really innovative modern science-fiction being published, of course it has nothing to do with the aggregation of publishing houses that have to provide profits, or that are closely tied with movie studios, who are looking for the next multi-movie protagonist. Why publish 10,000 copies of 100 thoughtful, well-written books when you can sell 1,000,000 copies of 1 semi-literate book like Twilight and make even more on licensing?

    (Yes, there's self-publishing on Kindle. But not everyone who uses an e-reader has a Kindle.)

    Seriously, can you imagine Ray Bradbury getting published today?

    As for NASA – yes it sucks that we're losing it because of the innovation that comes out of it. However, there are so many factors that have gone into the lack of innovation coming out of the USA, most of it having to do with the decline of domestic production in general, and how many companies are simply moving columns of numbers around to make money, not actually selling products.