The Wind of Change is Blowing

BIS Odyssey

Some thoughts on adapting to a changing world. Published by Oxford University Press 1992. Cover illustration by Victor Stabin/The Image Bank.

Everything seems to be changing around us these days, particularly in the fields of science and technology.  And not all of it for the better.  Even the most technophile enthusiast sometimes feels that not every development or update is really for the benefit of the consumer.  Part of the problem is that vast numbers of people are employed solely to change what is already in place, based on the belief that any failure to change is stagnation, and everyone else then has an advantage over you.

Robert Townsend, who built Avis into a rental car giant, knew a thing or two about how to run a business properly.  His 1970 best-seller Up The Organization includes many pieces of wise advice on what to do, or not to do, in running a successful firm, one of which is particularly relevant in this context: a company should employ a senior person with the responsibility for killing off things which are nothing more than bright ideas with little or no value for the company or its customers.

We can have a lot of sympathy with that, but like it or not, change is a part of modern life and, in at least certain respects, there is a danger of being left behind if one doesn’t adapt to it.  In his thoughtful introduction to the 1992 anthology The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, Tom Shippey, then Professor of English Language and Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds, explained that the cumulative effect of science fiction is to accustom its readers to change and “ready to accept that technological change will inevitably bring social and political change as well.”

As Professor Shippey suggests, this becomes increasingly important when there is growing popular awareness of scientific information and theories, as well as “the mingled power and weakness of the scientific method itself.”  And there can be serious obstacles if the general public, and possibly their elected representatives, cannot or will not adapt to the change that scientists and technicians (and science fiction readers) may be able to accept.  He refers to Arthur C Clarke’s moving 1961 short story Death and the Senator, where an American Senator is only converted late in the day – and too late for his own well-being – to the benefits of space research and exploration.  Now, despite all his previous power and influence, he can only look back on his life and regret what might have been.

Opposition by many to space travel has long been accepted as a fact of life.  It is, after all, a time consuming and expensive endeavour.  Isaac Asimov’s 1939 short story Trends expresses well how extreme it might get, showing social resistance to space flight, which is seen by some to be “defiance of God” with death threats being made against the perpetrator.  Asimov observed that, when writing this, he had in mind historical instances of resistance to technological innovation going back as far as ancient Mesopotamia.  As he makes clear, such reluctance can be a major blockage to progress.

But even just getting the message across may not be easy.  Professor Shippey points out that a specific problem for science fiction is that it has to set out “the precise and novel nature of each story’s individual universe before or as well as getting on with telling the story itself.”  For a full novel, this may not be such an obstacle – series such as those set Larry Niven’s Known Space universe and made famous in his 1970 novel Ringworld, or the CoDominium future history which Jerry Pournelle developed in collaboration with others, including Niven in the 1974 story The Mote in God’s Eye, establish settings which are impressive in their complexity and realism.

But the short story – a medium in which science fiction has long excelled – does not lend itself so easily to in-depth descriptions of potential future scenarios.  Therein may lie part of the problem; if the setting of a story is superficial, the entire concept of any new world that it introduces may be unbelievable.  Which will be so much the worse for any attempt to encourage adaptation to change.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Dreams of Other Worlds | Overturning Established Convictions

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