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Sci-fi and Hi-fi


Many a technologist has been inspired by science fiction. Some have even built, or rebuilt, entire companies around an idea introduced in a story they read, as the founders of Second Life and Meta did, working from the metaverse as imagined by Neal Stephenson in his seminal 1992 novel Snow Crash.

IEEE Spectrum has a history of running amazing sci-fi stories. Twenty years ago, I worked with computer scientist and novelist Vernor Vinge on his “Synthetic Serendipity,” a short story he adapted from his novel Rainbows End just for publication in Spectrum. Vinge’s work is informed by his research and relationships with some of the world’s leading technologists, which in turn gave me plenty of background for the accompanying 2004 Spectrum article “Mike Villas’s World.” Vinge’s tale of the near future explored then-nascent technologies, such as 3D printing, augmented reality, and advanced search-engines, all of which Vinge depicts with stunning clarity and foresight.

So when our News Manager Margo Anderson and Contributing Editor Charles Q. Choi hatched the idea for the science fiction/fact package featured in this issue, our local sci-fi maven, Special Projects Editor Stephen Cass, eagerly volunteered to shepherd the project. Stephen is coauthor of Hollyweird Science: From Quantum Quirks to the Multiverse (on the science shown in movies and TV shows) and the editor of several sci-fi anthologies, including Coming Soon Enough, published by Spectrum 10 years ago.

Choi suggested we hire the futurist Karl Schroeder, author of 10 sci-fi novels, to write the sci-fi story. Cass, Choi, and Schroeder then had a brainstorming session. Cass recalls, “I knew by the end of it that Karl had the chops to nail the real science concepts we wanted to explore, and come up with a compelling narrative.”

The idea they hit upon—turning a planet into a computer—is not new in science fiction, Cass notes. But “we wanted Karl to explore the idea in a way that would shed light on what purpose you’d put one to,” he says, “and also think about what some of the unintended consequences might be. And he had to do it in 2,500 words, which is a very tight fit for a story.”

As for the accompanying nonfiction annotations, Choi’s brief was to work with Cass and Schroeder to make sure that the story, although fantastical and set in the far future, was sufficiently grounded in ideas that scientists and futurists are taking seriously today.

And of course, any good sci-fi story needs some cool art. For that, Deputy Art Director Brandon Palacio chose Andrew Archer, whose work has a terrific balance of realism and stylistic flair. Historically, many science-fiction stories and books have had accompanying art that’s only barely related to what happens in the text, but Archer worked with us to make sure his work really fit “Hijack”.

Deft storytelling is something Cass himself delivers in this month’s Hands On: “Vintage Hi-Fi Enters the 21st Century” [p. 16]. Not only is he our in-house sci-fi expert, he’s also our staff do-it-yourselfer. This month, he resurrects a vintage hi-fi that came from his wife’s family. Inspired by the recent passing of his father, who helped his own father in their radio and television rental shop in Dublin before spending decades working as a broadcast engineer, Cass wires up a tale of family and connection through technology that you’ll read only in these pages.

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