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The SF Prize by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Editorial  ISBN/ITEM#: 0710ELTSFP
Date: 21 April 2007

Links: X-Prize Organization Site / Google Lunar X-Prize /

The original X-Prize captured the imagination of the world by creating a new model for both philanthropy and research and development (R&D). Instead creating a massive and most often self-serving government or corporate effort to wear a problem down in slow steps, innervating the creative people who could grasp a vision and get turned on by solving it. One of SF readers standard complaints is that the future envisioned in the golden age haven't materialized, but we need to ask if we've done all we could to make it happen. Like, did we offer a prize? Maybe we should. So, if you had $10 million dollars to spend on your SF dreams...what would you wish for?

I've never been to a NASA spaceshot, though I keep meaning to go see the shuttle off before it stops flying. On the other hand, I was there in the Mojave Desert in 2004 when SpaceShip One made the first of its record breaking ascents into space...near space anyway. It was a totally cool scene, hanging out with a couple hundred other reporters in straining to see a white speck in the sky. While I was there, I met a number of interesting folks; Burt Rutan, who's company built the ship, Mike Melville, who flew the first of the two required flights for the prize...and Peter Diamandis, Founder & Chairman of the X-Prize Foundation. The whole idea of prize-philanthropy is brilliant, though of course it's not quite new, and I was thrilled to be in such heady company.

OK, I indulged in a little hero worship, but at the same time meeting these folks rekindled an idea that I'd had some time back. Why shouldn't SF fans pool our resources and come up with a prize of our own? The biggest problem would probably be trying to figure out what we're all willing to wish for. You might have come to despair that our favorite technologies are too far fetched to ever entice anyone to collect on a payoff, but when you consider the advances made in quantum computing over the past decade, or say, teleportation...or even cold fusion...well, scratch cold fusion for the moment...the impossible seems a little more likely.

But what do SF fans really want, anyway?

    A Faster Than Light drive,
    or a Neural Computer Interface?
    Contact with an Alien Race,
    or just a robot to clean up our rooms?
The odds against our coming up with enough money to actually encourage a breakthrough in any of those areas seems pretty daunting I admit, and since they're all a somewhat in the nature of long shots, it's hard to pick one to shoot for. Still, since we'd probably not have to pay out for more than one advance at a time it might not be that much of a problem. Wishes traditionally come in threes, so if we were going to wish on our SF star, we might pick the top three most popular wishes. Collecting the wishes itself would be a lot of fun in itself.

But maybe picking a specific goal isn't the right approach anyway. Instead of motivating breakthroughs we might consider recognizing them and getting SF a little credit in the bargain.

I suggest that we come up with a prize not for the realization of any specific science fictional technology, but for the most significant one in any year. The idea would be that we find the technological achievement in a given year that best makes a piece of the SFish future part of the present and we make recognition of it. While this might not have the effect of spurring technology on it would serve to demonstrate the value of speculative fiction, which seems like a pretty good goal to me.

Frequently the discoveries made in SF, especially golden age SF, were made by accident, no small number of them invoking the mysterious letter "X" to identify the residue in the bottom of the beaker that was about to change the world. So, "X" prize would be a nice name, though it's taken. SFX might be too derivative, besides being common parlance for "Special Effects" but maybe not. We could always name it after an early scientist hero, someone like E.E. "Doc" Smith's Richard Ballinger Seaton, (who I obliquely referenced in the first sentence of this paragraph).

Or maybe not. I've also got some ideas about a prize that involves buying a ticket on the first commercial moon flight, but that's another story. Anyway, you're all bright folks, so give it some thought and let me know what you come up with. It would be nice to think we were doing something to bring the future a little closer, rather than just dreaming about it.

    Ernest Lilley
    SR. Editor, SFRevu

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