Science Fiction Ideas Can Change the World

The Sci-fi Idea Bank is a spreadsheet of 3,567 sci-fi ideas, that proves, if you choose to believe it, that ideas for new technologies appear in science fiction first, and, can serve, for the ambitious, as a catalyst to bring Sci-fi to life. Vintage (like 1634 vintage!) and post-modern, it includes: 

  • bio-energy (1726), 
  • food tablets (1915), 
  • brain rejuvenation (1930), 
  • a scent organ (1932), 
  • a sobriety ray (1942), 
  • vat meat (1951), and 
  • DNA publishing (2011).

Among many other existing and to-be-developed product and company ideas compiled across 500 years of speculative fiction.

Not Boring‘s Packy McCormick admits – transparently – that he built the spreadsheet over a weekend using Technovelgy (“the best website on the Internet”) and a team of AI research assistants to demonstrate “it’s hard to find an example of a tech company whose product didn’t first appear in speculative fiction.” Inventing and writing down ideas is perhaps perceived as easier than executing ideas, bringing them into the physical world. But idea generation, developing characters who interact with novel ideas, inventions, technologies, in new situations and timelines, and grow (because there is no story if there’s no growth) during the course of the story is far from easy.

(I’ll admit, that as much as I read, I never read enough SF. And that admission aside, to me, even bad SF with a great idea is better than most other fiction. )

The SFIB is terrific at showing you ideas. It’s a brilliant why-didn’t-I-think-of-this spreadsheet. 

The stats are nuts. 

  • It starts in 1634 for God’s sake. 
  • Of the 3567 ideas presented, 26% have been built. 
  • Those involving bits (32.4%) were more likely to be built than those involving atoms (23.7%). 
  • Author Philip K. Dick (of Blade Runner, Man in the High Castle and Minority Report and 43 other novels fame) generated more ideas (241) than any of the other novelists examined (Robert Heinlein is second).

A few days before McCormick released the SFIB, in her newsletter, author/journalist’s Annalee Newitz (Autonomous, The Terraformers) – who is not included in the SFIB – described “applied science fiction,”  Neal Stephenson’s idea that we should write SF about solving big problems. According to Newitz, “futuristic stories don’t just exist on a continuum of dystopian to utopian. They are also on a problem-solving continuum, where on one side you have people writing about fixing broken systems – and on the other side you have people whose writing is all about admiring problems without suggesting any solutions.”

In other words, we need stories. We need stories about solving big problems with people fixing broken systems. And we need stories to help us process the changes, technologies, and possibilities of multiple unrealized futures and even to inspire us toward the futures we want. 

In the 1970s, English punks adopted No Future as a motto to assert their generation had no future in front of it. Fifty years later, the punks that are still around are likely grandparents and the no future they probably turned out a lot better with than they expected. Perhaps it’s time No Future morphs into Which Futures? as we grapple with the acceleration of change. Societal dysfunction, divisiveness, doubt in institutions, and climate change are happening simultaneous to a great acceleration of positive technologies. I like saying we need every solution, everywhere, all at once. 

McCormick points out that some ideas need underlying technologies, economics, probably, politics and hell, personal obsession, to be brought into reality. But still more than 70% of the ideas presented have yet to make their way into reality and at least a few are billion dollar ideas. 

You can examine the SFIB and complain it’s not comprehensive enough (how could it possibly be?). One glaring issue is that the SFIB is mostly male, leaving out a wealth of contributors to science fiction from the likes of Octavia Butler and underrepresented non-English writing writers. Despite these limitations, the point of the admirable SFIB is to acknowledge speculative fiction as a source of ideas, be inspired by them, investigate them, then, if you’re so motivated, go make those that can be reality real.


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