Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

SF and innovation – what happened?

December 11, 2012

Returning here after a pause, in case anyone wonders what happened to the promised piece for NESTA on SF and innovation.

As is the way of these things, some of the futures think pieces they commissioned (not mine – old journos do deadlines) took longer to produce than originally planned. So we are having a meeting to discuss them tomorrow, and think about what it all means.

Intriguingly, I learn that the SF and Innovation commission ended up doubled. That is, another contractor got some money to examine the same question. Neither of us, I think, knew the other (the other team in their case) was at work.

That means we both spent time reviewing the same literature, which may or may not be beneficial, but also (and better) that if our conclusions are similar they may gain force from independent verification. We may talk about that tomorrow as well.

The whole set of projects will be published, I believe, as NESTA working papers, but not until some time next year. All the folk who helped me do mine will be properly acknowledged then, but thanks to all now as well – and especially to Cheryl Morgan for advice on science fiction and authors.

Frau im Mond - ready for launch, unlike this report

Frau im Mond – ready for launch, unlike this report

Meantime, and in advance of the meeting, here is a 12 point version of the quite long (15,000 word) paper I’ve ended up with.

Science fiction and technological innovation –

1. Science fiction and innovation influence each other

(although that could just be ‘cos “everything influences everything else”)

2. Technology, at the design stage, is a kind of story-telling

(a point I’ve taken from David Nye, among others)

3. SF is a characteristic mode of story-telling of industrial society

(or “the dreamtime of industrial society – W Gibson)

4. This affinity promotes their mutual influence

5. SF’s treatment of technology has a history

(and that is a story itself)

6. Most (but not all) simple stories of SF inspiring, or even influencing technology fall apart on close examination

7. Past influence has been largely positive

(though not because the balance of depictions is positive – but cheerleading works better than doomsaying and awful warnings)

8. Mass exposure to SF has now moved into the cinema, where some depictions of technology have qualities which lend them particular influence

9. Contemporary SF authors neither predict nor, in the main, attempt to influence technology

(they said, when asked)

10. Nevertheless, a growing self-consciousness about SF and technologies mutual influences has arisen

(among media, critics, corporations, and all)

11. One of its most striking manifestations is design fiction

(which comes under various other names, but all are trying to open up a conversation about possible futures)

12. This approach might be developed to deepen relations between fiction and technology, and enrich public debate about technological futures.

If anyone wants to see the whole thing now in late draft, for comment or just for interest, or nab the references (the bibliography is quite long, too)  email me and I’ll let you have a not-for-distribution PDF.






Up and Atom – robots in Japan

June 6, 2012

While I’m pondering science fiction and technology, and their interaction, one thing which is hard to cover without vast research (and languages I don’t read) is the question of how the influences in either direction might differ between times and places – especially places.

But there is one obvious example where it does seem possible to find reasonably persuasive conclusions. Commentators often say that Japanese attitudes to technology in general are somehow different from those in the West, though usually at the not very interesting level of implying enthusiasm for gadgetry (those elaborate toilets usually get a mention, too). The strongest case, though, seems to apply to one kind of technology, and its fictional representations, in particular: robots.

A tradition of charming automata – related to earlier puppetry, combined with Buddhist and Shinto influences that blur the boundaries between animate and inanimate things, has apparently engendered a largely benign view of robots in Japan. This is reflected in fiction, especially in the two most important creations: Mighty Atom and Mobile Suit Gundam. The first, AKA Astro Boy,  is a super-powered, world-saving, peace-making robot of astounding cutesiness, conceived by Osamu Tezuka in 1951. He looks like this.

The first appearance of Astro Boy

The second, later, label refers to a whole raft of giant weaponised robots, “piloted” by teenagers – who also generally seem to end up saving the world. These anime superstars look more familiar, and less friendly…

Both have inspired big media franchises  – embracing comics, film and TV, toys and kits, and much other merchandise. And both feed into a general enthusiasm for robots and robotics, and research into making new ones.

As one academic engineer put it, “The difference between Mighty Atom and Terminator shows the differences between how Japanese and Westerners view robots. Westerners tend to have this sense of alarm or wariness, Japanese are unique in the world in their unique affinity and love for robots.”

This is an oversimplification, inevitably. Early audiences cheered Arnie’s Terminator, not Sarah Connor. And the print corpus of Western SF, and even film to some extent, includes an enormous range of possible robots, and possible responses to them. Still, there is lots of testimony that many Japanese engineers were enthused by Astro Boy when young, and set out to build something like him when they grew up.

The result is a wonderfully blended culture of research projects, design exercises, hobby clubs, toys, stories, and commercially available bots. Other influences are easily incorporated. ASIMO (which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, of course), has done a thousand corporate stunts, but there is still something touching about the small figure bringing a bouquet to the bust of Karel Capek in Prague.

But there definitely seem to be specifically Japanese influences at work here. The best source I’ve found so far on this is Timothy Hornyak’s Loving the Machine (where the Prague photo appears). There is some useful incidental stuff in Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, too. Any other useful reading would be good to hear about…

Styling the future

March 4, 2012

What does the future look like? Does it matter? A piece of book karma prompts an attempt to amplify a thought I was trying to air last week. Talking to an audience at UCL, including quite a few old friends, I mentioned an idea which has come up here, and in other talks, a few times – that the accumulation of old futures has interesting effects on the way we respond (if we do) to current future talk.

The accumulation is real, and takes various forms – there are quite a few coffee table books. But it is most often encountered, I reckon, in websites, often very nicely curated ones, which feature images and designs from past futures efforts – Worlds Fairs, magazines, comics and so on. As I said on the night, hardly any need to illustrate these. Do a google image search for retrofuture or palaeofuture and you’ll get thousands of them.

Next day I called in on my favourite London odds and ends bookshop, Judd Street Books (don’t look there, incidentally, it’s in Marchmont Street). More or less the first title I set eyes on on the front table was this.

It is a beautifully crafted graphic novel, only published in 2009, which I unaccountably missed when it came out. The narrative is a little didactic, but the imagery covers much of the history of decayed futurity, and comments on it perceptively. There’s a clever, and also nicely realised, interwoven narrative of a made-up comic book which enriches the author’s take on the feelings which were in play in all the episodes he depicts so well, from the New York World’s Fair in 1939 – which I talk about as well – to the final Apollo moon landing in 1975.

I won’t summarise it, as plenty of others have – here and here for example.

But what I like about it is that it takes such trouble to go beyond the images. The very interesting discussion after the talk moved a few times to talk about imagery and design like this and how they get used now. And it seemed to me, though I didn’t formulate the thought clearly at the time, that this is part of the problem. The images are so easy to come by that folks get caught up in talking about the look and style of the future.

I love looking at these pix, but I don’t actually care what the future looks like, or much about changing fashions in futuristic design. What matters is surely how the future might feel, what past futures tales tell us about that and, if we can fathom them, what the mentalities of times past made of their imagined futures.

This book makes a good stab at representing that, going beyond and reworking the images. It has affinities with David Gelernter’s splendid but quirky Lost World of the Fair, but is more accessible. It is well worth getting hold of as a discussion starter.

Incidentally, and back to images again, the notes to the other book point to a fascinating compilation of visitor shot cine of the World’s Fair, at

like this 

Getting noticed

July 5, 2011

This blog hasn’t said much lately about the actual book which it sprang/limped wearily away from. But I’m not going to resist a couple of chances to note that some people think it’s quite good – in case either of my readers here haven’t bought it yet.

First, the Rough Guide to the Future has been longlisted for the Winton Royal Society Science Book Prize. That puts it in company with a daunting list of other rather fine tomes, but they don’t whittle it down to the last six for a few months so I can preen ’til then, at least…  It is last on the list, but that is alphabetical by author, honest.

Even more pleasing, if possible, as it is a single selection is that the Guide has been chosen by Prof. Rod Smith, incoming President of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and all round splendid fellow as his “book of the year”. That means lucky visitors to the I. Mech. E. (and people who get visited) are given a copy, as are 100 odd new fellows. Lunch at the end of the year may be involved, too. They haven’t even asked for a discount on the book (as far as I know). So well impressed, as well as pleasantly surprised, by that one. Thanks to them, and to the Winton judges – Monica Ali et al – for noticing the book. All very encouraging. I might even write another, but it won’t be quite as ambitious/foolhardy as the Rough Guide, I think, at least not at the beginning.

Talking about science fiction

June 6, 2011

There’s a teeny bit of me on video in the British Library’s splendid new exhibition on science fiction, Out of This World. I (and others) answered a few more questions, at sound bite length, and the collated results – which evidently didn’t quite fit the finished show – have surfaced on the BL’s website. Like so:

We asked the questions you would have liked to ask! Six short videos featuring:

  • Lauren Beukes: Author of Zoo City, and 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winner
  • Sumit Choudhury: Online Editor, New Scientist
  • John Gribbin: Science journalist and science fiction author
  • Alok Jha: Science correspondent, The Guardian
  • Gwyneth Jones: Author of White Queen
  • China Miéville: Author of The City & the City
  • Jon Turney: Lecturer and author of The Rough Guide to the Future

Choose an image to play a video.

Choose an image to play a video.

Launch video 1“What work of science fiction has had most impact on you, and why?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 2“What fictional technology do you look forward to becoming reality?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 3“Who or what has had the most profound effect on the development of science fiction?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 4“What is your personal vision of utopia?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 6“What is it about science fiction that you personally find fascinating?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Launch video 6 “If you could be a character from a science fiction story who would you be, and why?”
Launch video
Open video in your media player

Futures events May-June

April 21, 2011

A small cluster of futures-related events coming up which I’m looking forward to. I am variously chairing, “in conversation with” or empanelled with a strikingly interesting bunch of people in the next month and a bit. An enticing, if slightly daunting prospect.

First up is a three-way at the Arnolfini in Bristol, blurb as follows:

Creating a Future Without Destroying the Present

Diane Coyle, Mark Stevenson and Jon Turney

 Diane Coyle 20 May 2011, 19.30-21.00
Arnolfini, Bristol

Jon TurneyMark Stevenson

How do we continue to live well and not damage the future? Is economic growth the problem, not the solution? Who is planning for the future and what kind of future will this be? Enlightenment economist, writer and blogger Diane Coyle, author of The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters, shows how we can be happy and prosperous now without cheating the future. She looks at the fundamental questions about the way the economy is organised and about the links between the economy and the kind of society we want and need, so that we can provide our children with a decent future. Mark Stevenson, in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, tours the world to make sense of what’s in store for us all. He looks at the amazing work of scientists, robots that think, re-engineering of humans, science that will solve the energy crisis and the ideas of great visionaries. They discuss their work with Jon Turney, author ofThe Rough Guide to the Future.

Price: £7.00 / £5.00. Contact Arnolfini, Bristol on: 0117 917 2300, book online, or visit in person.


Then come a couple of discussions at the British Library in London, opening a series linked to their fascinating science fiction exhibition, opening May 2oth.

The first, coincidentally, has some of the same people –

Who owns the Story of the Future? 

With permission of the Frank R Paul estate

Tue 24 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Conference Centre, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

any Book now for 24 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Will the future be better or worse? – and does the story we are telling ourselves help or hinder us? Can we make the right choices, and deal with the grand challenges ahead or will our ambitions and lack of political will get in the way.Jon Turney (The Rough Guide to the Future) chairs a panel including economist Diane Coyle (The Economics Of Enough), technology and SF writerCory Doctorow and Mark Stevenson (An Optimists Tour of the Future)  STOP PRESS:  Now with added William Gibson!

Diane Coyle runs Enlightenment Economics, a consulting firm specialising in technology and globalization, and is the author of a number of books on economics, including The Soulful ScienceSex, Drugs and Economics, and The Weightless World. Her most recent book is The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as If the Future Matters. A BBC trustee and a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, she holds a PhD in economics from Harvard.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger, the co-editor of Boing Boing ( and the author of the bestselling Tor Teens/HarperCollins UK novel Little Brother. His latest novel isFor The Win, a young adult novel; his latest short story collection is With A Little Help.

Mark Stevenson divides his time between running agencies for science communications and cultural learning and performing and writing comedy. He lives in Telegraph Hill, south London. His first book is An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.


The following night, we’re talking about revolution…

Compared to this, the Industrial Revolution was Nothing!

With permission of the Frank R Paul estate

Wed 25 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Conference Centre, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

any Book now for 25 May 2011, 18.30 – 20.00

Is the ‘ultimate reboot’ is coming as the Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics/AI revolutions intertwine and pick up speed? Are we heading toward a radically different society where our notions of old age, scarcity and our institutions have to be radically rethought? Or have we heard it all before?

Trying to shed light on these intriguing questions will be our speakers who include Richard Jones, University of Sheffield and author of Soft Machines;: Nanotechnology and Life and Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute.

Chair Jon Turney.


Finally, I’m joining a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival on June 11

Human Extinction – will we survive beyond this century?

12noon – 1.30pm on Saturday 11 June at Cheltenham Town Hall

at Town Hall Unreserved
£8 (£7) Members – 10% off

Ecologists have suggested that the Earth is experiencing a mass extinction of species, but what about Homo sapiens? The survival of humankind has been challenged throughout history and, despite our ability to adapt to past changes, nothing is guaranteed. Zoologist Charles Godfray FRS, chemist Judith Howard FRS, palaeontologist Chris Stringer FRS, and author of The Rough Guide to the FutureJon Turney discuss past and present threats to humanity, the future challenges that we face, and whether we have the capacity to survive.

Cheerful, eh?

The last time I was at the science festival in Cheltenham (as opposed to the jazz festival), about ten years ago, I read poems from A Quark for Mister Mark in the Pillar room with Richard Dawkins and Lavinia Greenlaw, which was delightful. But the invitations prompted by the more recent book seem to be a little different…

Science fiction does not predict

March 29, 2011

Gearing up for the British Library’s exciting looking exhibition on science fiction which opens in May, and some associated events, been thinking about what SF delivers. Not prediction, of course – you knew that. As Ursula Le Guin said long ago:

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like.  I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information.

The comment comes from her introduction to possibly my favourite science fiction novel ever, The Left Hand of Darkness.

The rest of that intro, here, still stands as a pretty good statement of what science fiction can do, I think.

It is worth reading in full. (Everything by Ursula LeGuin is worth reading in full). But I can’t resist pulling out another quote.

All fiction is metaphor.  Science fiction is metaphor.  What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what? That, as she implies, is for readers to decide…