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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible


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Visions: No Worlds Left To Conquer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series “Visions,” science fiction about the very latest research will be paired with analysis looking into the facts behind the fiction. The goal is to marry ripped-from-the-headlines science fiction with analysis into the possibilities hinted at by new discoveries.

It took a while before I figured out that my life as I knew it was over. After the aliens landed, at first I was as happy as everyone else on Earth that they apparently came in peace. It was only after my agent stopped returning all my calls, tweets and emails that I began to realize I might be out of a job.

Credit: Victor Alatorre. (Used with permission.)

Science fiction is my life. I’ve written short stories, novels, comics, radio, television, movies — you name it, I’ve done it. The problem was there wasn’t much call for sci-fi writers to imagine aliens when we now had them right in front of us. Why did we need stories about what life in Andromeda might be like when we now know? I might as well have been a buggy whip maker or a Betamax engineer.

I mean, there was still work out there for science fiction writers, just not in science fiction. Glen and Edgar rapidly became pundits on the talk show circuit. Anson and Alice already had pasts in the military and in intelligence and were quickly called back into the fold, while I hear a lot of the military sci-fi guys were quietly approached by a number of private consulting firms.

I wasn’t going to be made homeless by losing my job. I was successful. I had money. The problem was that I dreamed for a living, and by taking away my living, they took away my dreams.

It was after a three-week drinking binge that I checked my voicemail to find 30 or so calls from my agent. The reason made me laugh sick to my stomach — the next day, I was getting the Grand Master Award for a lifetime of achievement in science fiction.

So what can I say? I went to accept what was likely the last such award to ever be given. It was like accepting the gold watch I was due before retiring with the rest of my kind to oblivion.

I staggered hungover into the convention hall and stumbled past the jackal pack of journalists before I hazily realized there were a lot more reporters at this award show than at any of the past ones. It was only after they handed me my trophy that I noticed the aliens in the audience.

So that’s why my agent sounded so frantic over the phone, I thought in my stupor.

It was the Q&A session that changed everything for me. The reporters were really only there for the aliens, so only a few of them made at best half-hearted attempts to ask me anything. When it was clear the aliens had some questions of their own, everyone else shut up immediately.

As the large red Singingwing approached toward the mic, I went over everything I knew about them in a blur. Descended from grazers. Use finger-like appendages on specialized limbs to drink nectar. Don’t have mouths to talk with. Communicate with their vestigial wings. Wait, did I eat in front of them? They find life that eats other life a bit revolting, right? Was that a huge faux pas? Never mind, they forgive that fact in other species. I think?

The Singingwing chirped and her mechanical interpreter spoke her question out loud in a jewel-like melodious voice.

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

“Schenectady,” I blurted out without thinking, the stock answer I got from Harlan Ellison to the single question writers get hounded about most often. I started to correct myself and give a real answer, but the Singingwing seemed to understand the joke and laugh, astonishingly.

“By the way, it would mean the world to me if you could autograph my book.”

“Um, of course,” I said. “Who should I make it out to?”

“Ffzzthrr.”

“…How do you spell that?”

“Ffzzthrr.”

After one of the machine intelligences stepped up to the mic to not so much ask a question as to offer a fairly convoluted theory that romantically linked two of the main characters of my show “Strange Angels,” it dawned on me whom I was dealing with.

I was dealing with fans.

It was with the last question, from a blue-skinned humanoid construct of the Toymakers, that I saw my old life end and my new life begin.

“So what book are you working on now?” it asked.

In the back of my mind, I wonder now if the entire rigamarole was the kind of thing these aliens did whenever they encountered infant civilizations like ours, to help kindle the self-esteem to keep going even when it seemed they had already done whatever we might want to do and gone wherever we might want to go.

I didn’t care. I was dreaming again.

“Well, you see,” I said, “it starts beyond the edge of known space…”

My agent expects that the story will fetch an astronomical advance.

***

Twenty years ago, nearly 150 U.S. newspapers had science sections, but nowadays fewer than 20 do. Newspapers in general are in peril of a death from a thousand cuts — newspapers are folding left and right, newspaper staffs are shrinking, classified sections were eaten by Craigslist and newspaper circulation is declining as audiences read stories online for free.

It’s been said that the Internet is killing journalism, but it’s also been said that the Internet might save journalism as well. Anyone with online access now has a chance to reach an audience of millions, and thousands of fresh new voices have burst onto the scene, including a number of bright lights who are now collected here on Scientific American‘s blog network.

For journalism to survive and grow, it needs to experiment with new ways of approaching its audiences. This series “Visions” here on Assignment: Impossible is one such experiment, in the hopes that science fiction can help enrich the experience of science for readers.

The pairing of science fiction and science fact has often proven very popular over the years. The late lamented science and science fiction magazine OMNI might have closed up shop more than a decade ago, but Nature has its recurring science fiction series “Futures” and New Scientist has run a flash fiction competition for the last two years.

Although some might consider science fiction trivial, I say that science is dedicated to exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible and that science fiction is the ideal playground for science and society to reflect on what might be possible. Certainly all the scientists who’ve delved into science fiction over the years — notably Arthur C. Clarke, who came up with the concept for geostationary satellite telecommunications relays — as well as the large number of researchers who’ve said they entered the field inspired by the likes of “Star Trek” serve as evidence that a marriage of science fact and science fiction might be a fruitful one.

In future, entries in this series will touch on the latest science, the first time I think anyone’s attempted to regularly write science fiction about science as it appears. For now, my first offering explores how writers might feel obsolete in the face of the future — be it in the form of aliens or the Internet — and how such a challenge might help us advance forward to new frontiers.

You can email me regarding Visions at toohardforscience@gmail.com.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. @dcastelvecchi 12:31 am 07/14/2011

    Nice, @cqchoi! Your blog inspired me to do this (it’s been done a million times, I know):

    Write a science fiction story in less than 140 words, then tweet it with hash tag #sf140.

    Here’s my opening salvo:

    Had to take a deep gasp before she told her husband. He must have had it before boarding. By the time they’re on Mars, they all will. #sf140

    Link to this
  2. 2. toohardforscience 3:25 am 07/14/2011

    I’ll bite!

    We DNA-tested the corpse of the man who tried to kill me. He was the child of my daughter. My 3-year-old daughter. #sf140

    Link to this
  3. 3. jrennie 8:39 am 07/14/2011

    “Made it through,” she smiled, stepping off the telepad, and the world cheered. Only I saw the new blankness behind her eyes. #sf140

    Link to this
  4. 4. toohardforscience 9:50 am 07/14/2011

    Stared with pity across the digital night, knowing the torment this secret would cause my namesake, son, clone. “Murder most foul…” #sf140

    Link to this

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