Science Fiction or
Speculative History?

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

We brought together two Techers who branched into the realm of writing science fiction: New York Times–bestselling and Hugo Award–winning novelist David Brin (BS ’73), whose work spans more than three decades and includes The Postman, Sundiver, and Earth, and newcomer
S.B. Divya (BS ’96), whose debut novella,
Runtime, was just nominated for a Nebula Award. The two authors discuss the evolving nature of their genre, how Caltech shaped their writing, and how the imaginative worlds of science fiction can impact the real one in which we live. 

 

Divya: First, I want to say that I’m thrilled to have this conversation. I’m a fan of your work.

Brin: Thank you. Likewise. Congratulations on the recognition you’ve already received. There is a unique thrill to being at the start of one’s career. Like the beginning of any book, there’s joy in discovering the pages ahead.

Divya: Let’s start with what lies ahead—the future. How do you approach contemplating that unknown?

Brin: You begin with the perspective that all creatures live embedded in time, moving in the monodirection that this universe seems to pose in one of its dimensions. Only humans appear to try to picture it as a process, contemplating how causes and effects might have been different in
the past. 
  Science fiction was poorly named. It should’ve been speculative history, imagining different ways that history might have gone or alternate versions of the present world. Above all, we extrapolate into the future a story that was already spectacularly dramatic, bold, terrifying, poignant—the dreadful and inspiring gradual climb of humanity out of darkness in caves.
  Divya, how do you see your work evolving?

Divya: I would hate to restrict myself this early. It’s certainly freeing to let your mind go visit these fantastic scenarios where we’re vast eons away from humanity and its state today. But I also think it’s fun to explore near-future science fiction—a place grounded in our own experiences but also just different. That’s where I happened to have started with my first novella, which is about a young woman who enters a grueling race for those with cybernetic enhancements—except hers are cobbled together from the garbage of richer people. 
  Even now the military has been developing exosuits to help soldiers run or jump. This isn’t that farfetched in some ways. I find that an appealing place to explore.

Brin: Yes, I agree. There certainly is an arty corner of my brain that rebels against the realist and wants to play with impossible notions, UFOs, ancient Greek gods. Yet, the Caltech spirit, or perhaps the spirit of Star Trek, always surges back by the middle of the story [and demands] impudently that authority figures account for themselves.

Divya: You know that kind of speculative work—where we attempt to peer just around the corner—has given rise to a related field, a new branch in thinking known as futurism. And it’s not just for fiction’s sake. People now dedicate time to thinking about and predicting what’s to come.

Brin: Hmm. Do you think that this will result in a credentialed profession with standards?

Divya: Yes, it already has. I looked into it a couple years ago when I first heard the term futurist used to describe someone professionally. There are proper four-year universities that are starting to offer specialized degrees in futurist studies. They tend to focus mostly on economic predictions and technological predictions.

Brin: As the grumpy old skeptic here—I wonder if our futurist colleagues may be claiming better prophetic skills than their tools justify. There have been some interesting advances coming out of research by IARPA [the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity] that indicates a small fraction of very well-informed amateurs [make predictions] as well as the intelligence-community specialists [do].

Divya: Ah, but do you think futurists necessarily need to be most concerned with accuracy, or do they need to be more concerned with direction?

Brin: I can’t speak for futurists, but I know that most sci-fi authors deny they’re trying to predict. The very best aim to prevent
  The most powerful “effective fictions” would be 1984 by George Orwell, Soylent Green by Harry Harrison, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which recruited millions to get engaged in the fight against either tyranny or ecological destruction. Retired generals now admit that Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, and Fail-Safe all helped prevent nuclear war. These were self-preventing prophecies. You don’t have to predict accurately. You just have to shake people up with plausibility so that humanity can veer perhaps just in time [to avoid] a land mine or snake pit. 

Divya: That’s interesting. Another positive: Science fiction can inspire technology, such as space travel or the diagnostic tools in medicine. Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”—as much as they are perhaps oversimplified—taught many would-be roboticists a certain way to approach their work with empathy.

Brin: Sure. Many scientists avow that their careers and educations were stimulated by stories and films. I’ve received letters crediting some of my works in that way—it’s very nice to hear. What I find even more inspiring is the way so many modern scientists consider speculative literature to be part of their own process. 
 Divya, speaking of inspiration, what aspect of Caltech helped to send you on this brash and unabashed path of yours?

Divya: I think one of the great strengths of Caltech is the breadth of our undergraduate core curriculum. It equipped us with a remarkable set of tools to look at topics outside of our area of expertise. I use that knowledge to shape details in my fiction. Having a reasonable depth of knowledge in biochemistry, neurobiology, computer science, physics, and astronomy enabled me to field a lot of hypotheses and discussions that others couldn’t. Would you agree?

Brin: Without doubt. The skills we learned at Caltech empowered us to ask the sacred scientific question: “Might I be wrong about this assumption? Might we all be wrong?” Just by asking that question, you’ve improved the model. That’s a feeling that I get when I write. 

Divya: Speculative fiction is really constructed in the same way that a science experiment is. We come up with a hypothesis, we test that hypothesis through narrative, analyze it, and present our conclusion all as part of the storytelling process.
 Every speculative-fiction author is basically a scientist in the lab of their own head…and perhaps an odd scientist. I still can’t believe that this is something I’m now doing. I still have the first check they sent me for writing framed on my wall.

Brin: I hope you cashed it.

Divya: [laughs] Oh, I did. It wasn’t nearly what I make as an engineer, but still…it means a great deal to me.

Brin: Curiosity is perhaps the greatest asset we have. At Caltech I developed a lifetime habit that I now urge upon every undergraduate: Wander the halls of a randomly chosen building, knock on a door and ask, “What do you do here?” You will be delighted, surprised, and fascinated. I swear—those days knocking on doors were times that I learned the most—especially about how curiosity is almost always rewarded.

Divya: That’s a terrific idea.

Brin: Knocking on the doors of Harold Brown, Murray Gell-Man, Richard Feynman, I would deem no god or alien more daunting, yet I survived and enjoyed every minute of those confrontations.