Neal Stephenson’s article has been causing a fuss among SF writers as he calls for them to ‘start pulling their weight and supplying big visions that make sense’.
I certainly don’t plan to join a Big Things Crusade, because if the 20th century taught us anything it should be to run screaming from anyone who demands that we must do Big Things. A century ago, for example, SF writers were extolling the wonders of scientific socialism, which was going to make the world a utopia; instead it’s bankrupt the planet. Big Things have wasted vast amounts of money, imprisoned billions and murdered tens of millions (possibly hundreds of millions if some estimates are to be believed) over the last hundred years.
If anything, my stories are an anti-Big Things Crusade; governments are small and local and the groups who are really into Big Things are the bogeyman that parents threaten their kids with when they’re naughty.
Going back to Wells and his utopian socialism, that is probably a good way to compare the opposite ideals in SF writing. ‘Alien’ was a great movie largely because it wasn’t a ‘Big Thing’ SF story but was about a bunch of ordinary Joes just doing their job, which happened to involve travelling through space. At the other end of the scale, ‘Things to Come’ was a movie about Big Things which was probably considered a glorious prediction of the wonders of the future when released. Now, with decades of hindisght, we can see that it was actually a glorious paen to fascism and outside of the Soviet Union no-one has ever made its like again.
One of the biggest of Big Things, and among the most beloved of SF writers, is the Apollo program. I’ve met some of the engineers involved and it was a marvellous achievement that pushed technology to its limits, but with hindsight it was a failure; we built a massively expensive rocket to put two people on the Moon for a few days at about a billion dollars a ticket. Because it was a rush program with near-unlimited budget no effort was made to make it efficient or to build infrastructure which would have allowed lunar trips to continue after the initial landings. As soon as the Saturn V was cancelled, it was dead.
Worse than that, it was probably actively harmful to future exploration. Prior to that point, we could still dream of being the first person to set foot on the Moon and it was a significant goal to work for through the usual process of starting with small steps and building up to reach the destination. As soon as Neil Armstrong’s billion dollar boots touched lunar dust, that goal was gone with nothing to follow on from it; go to investors with a business plan based on landing on the moon and exploiting the publicity and they’d just laugh at you.
Today we’re close to returning to the Moon, not because taxpayers are funding Big Things, but because companies like SpaceX are building spacecraft which can do it at a price that companies or even tourists can afford. A Falcon 9 Heavy and Dragon capsule should be able to make a circumlunar flight for a couple of hundred million dollars and a landing probably wouldn’t cost more than twice that once the development costs of the lander are amortised. That is the kind of story that SF authors used to write, trips to the Moon paid for by private companies with a few thousand employees, not massive government programs funded by billions of taxpayer dollars.
Stephenson complains that we haven’t made progress on solar, tidal and wind power since the 70s. The reason why we haven’t made progress is that none of those things makes financial sense; oil, coal, gas and nuclear power are at least as cheap and more reliable, so there’s absolutely no reason why we should have put much effort into those areas. High-speed rail is another money-sink which fails not because companies aren’t willing to invest money in long-term profits, but because it makes no financial sense in most of the world.
If we want the human race to do big things, then we won’t get there by wasting vast amounts of money on Big Things that make no sense.