The Big Idea: Steven Leonard

The cover of "To Boldly Go."

If you like your Big Idea pieces full of science fiction metaphors and similes, I’ve got some good news for you: Today, editor Steven Leonard has jammed this essay full of them. And for good reason: Science fiction, and its lessons for power, projection and conflict, are at the heart of his anthology, To Boldly Go.

STEVEN LEONARD:

For many of us, some of life’s enduring lessons often come with a seemingly random pop culture reference. For me, those references were never all that random and they always circled back to science fiction. How many of us have invoked SkyNet or the three laws of robotics when cautioning the emergence of artificial intelligence? Or maybe quoted Darth Vader as a reminder of the seductive nature of unchecked power? And who hasn’t pondered the possibilities of time travel without considering the broader ethical implications of tampering with history?

For me, science fiction was the glue that cemented those lessons in my mind.

The Big Idea behind To Boldly Go evolved from a dinner conversation with Australian Major General Mick Ryan at West Point in 2018. Mick, who contributed the book’s foreword as well as chapter on grand strategy and Old Man’s War, pondered like The Watcher, “What if… we used science fiction as a metaphor to capture those lessons?”

It made perfect sense to me. My mental image of a bold leader had always worn a gold tunic, led from the front, and fought with a singular, distinctive style. Kirk Fu? Yeah, it’s a thing. Since boyhood, my concept of strategy had been framed around the science of psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Citing Hari Seldon during planning meetings was always a sure way to get weird looks. From The Twilight Zone to Planet of the Apes, science fiction defined much of how I perceived and interpreted the world around me.

However, this Big Idea was bigger than two people. A lot bigger.

If we wanted To Boldly Go to achieve the promise of the opening monologue of the original Star Trek series, then we needed to seek out other perspectives, other ideas. We needed to take The Big Idea where no one had gone before. Our efforts reached for the final frontier: a diverse, global collective of writers whose shared love of science fiction forged a common bond that transcended, well… a pandemic.

If you thought contending with amorous tribbles in deep space was challenging, imagine coordinating an anthology project during a viral outbreak with writers spread from one end of the world to the other. That was fun.

But the end result was phenomenal. The writing came surprisingly easy, the words seemed to flow effortlessly. For me, the lessons I wanted to share had been a part of me since my father let me stay up late to watch reruns of Star Trek and Lost in Space. I didn’t just quote those reruns; I framed my thoughts around them. And, it turns out, so do a lot of other people.

As Jonathan Klug – my fellow editor and author – and I began to pull the threads together that would eventually form the tapestry of this anthology, I rediscovered my childhood obsession for science fiction. I found myself contemplating the burdens of Captain Avatar, leading an impossible mission with an imperfect crew aboard an improbable vessel. I was back aboard the Battlestar Galactica, re-exploring Adama’s interactions with President Roslin. And, appropriately enough, I was reconsidering the lessons drawn from Captain Trips, the manmade virus that killed nearly all of humanity in The Stand. As pandemics go, that one was brutal.

In the end, good writing – really good writing – draws you back to the source material. To Boldly Go is more than a pandemic-fueled labor of love. Every chapter had me re-watching or re-reading a classic work of science fiction, seeing it again for the first time through a different set of eyes. That’s an indescribably feeling. And a lot of fun.


To Boldly Go: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

You can follow Steve Leonard on Twitter @Doctrine_Man.

4 Comments on “The Big Idea: Steven Leonard”

  1. I credit early exposure to sf with a lot of positive things in my life, including especially my willingness to accept change, willingness to accept others who are different, and a general sense of optimism about both my life and the future, even during difficult times. All really valuable gifts.

    So, gonna check your book out!

    But gotta repeat this: OMG what a gorgeous cover!

  2. The first essay in this anthology uses the cartoon series* “Space Battleship Yamato” for a discussion on leadership. I am sold! This series, which I knew as “Star Blazers”, is weirdly etched in my memory from childhood, so it will be cool to see it dissected from a leadership perspective.

    And the rest of the chapters also look great.

    *It was another decade after watching Star Blazers that I learned the term “anime”.

  3. That beautiful cover art is one of a series of posters from JPL. I have one of them as a framed print in my office. They are all gorgeous!

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