Jun 20

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The Future History of Sci-Fi…


The Science Fiction, in Science Fact…

Or, why should scientists get all the credit?

Even from its origins in fear and wonder, the genre of Science Fiction has continually transformed in parallel to our evolving understanding of the universe.  But is it our understanding of science that informs Science Fiction?  Or is it Science Fiction that helps illuminate paths to new discoveries?


Graphic: Ward Shelly, "History of Science Fiction" 2009 

(Here is a link to an enlarged version) 

"History of Science Fiction" is a graphic chronology that maps the literary genre from its nascent roots in mythology and fantastic stories to the somewhat calcified post-Star Wars space opera epics of today. The movement of years is from left to right, tracing the figure of a tentacled beast, derived from H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds Martians. Science Fiction is seen as the offspring of the collision of the Enlightenment (providing science) and Romanticism, which birthed gothic fiction, source of not only SciFi, but crime novels, horror, westerns, and fantasy (all of which can be seen exiting through wormholes to their own diagrams, elsewhere). Science fiction progressed through a number of distinct periods, which are charted, citing hundreds of the most important works and authors. Film and television are covered as well.

Not many people have heard about the groundbreaking scientific discovery that Science Magazine labeled as: “the most significant scientific advance of 2010.”  Which is odd, considering that one of the major practical applications of the world’s first “quantum machine,” could eventually lead to the creation of device that has been seen by millions of people on TV… since the 1970’s in fact.

Yes, in the world of science, this might be a rather recent breakthrough…but in the realm of Science Fiction…it’s old news.

Thanks to research by quantum physicists at the University of California Santa Barbara, yet another piece of technology from Star Trek science fiction is one step closer to becoming science fact…no, not communicators (we already have cell phones)…and it’s not tricorders or PADDs (we’ve got netbooks and iPads)…and no, it's not anti-matter (we can now create and store it for several seconds)…and in not too distant future we may also have teleportation.


star trek transporter device Transporter Room ...   "Beam me up mom!  School's over…"
Image via Creative Commons


But as the pace of technological progress increases, can science fiction keep up?  That’s what Andy Sawyer wonders in his article, Can science fiction still predict the future?, published in The New Scientist.  And while he notes that predictions for the future weren’t always well received; many became prophetic:

“For example, Jules Verne's 1863 novel Paris in the Twentieth Century depicted a 1960s world of skyscrapers, fax machines and even a proto-internet. It was turned down by his publisher as ‘unbelievable’, and only finally published in 1994.”

Before something becomes science fact, it’s just a theory, an idea…a fiction.  But as scientific progress continues to march on, so does science fiction…you can see from the chart above, after the enlightenment and the discovery of science, the chart continues to grow in complexity… 

“By the 20th century, emerging technologies made such ideas more believable. In 1926, the first issue of the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories enthused, "Extravagant Fiction Today….. Cold Fact Tomorrow". In 1928, British newspaper the Daily Mail published an issue forecasting the year 2000 – complete with giant flat-screen televisions in public places.”

We now have touch screens like the ones that first appeared as science fiction in the film Minority Report, only ten years after the film stopped playing in theaters.

“As time goes by, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between science fiction and reality. Perhaps the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card is predicting the "singularity", suggested by writers such as Vernor Vinge and Damien Broderick: the point at which the development of technology becomes so rapid it is impossible to forecast what comes next.”

But until the singularity does come along, science fiction will continue forecasting the future, and with a high degree of accuracy…because as science fiction author Ben Bova explains in The ‘Marching Morons’ show prescience of science fiction: Science Fiction doesn’t really predict the future…it guides it.

"The aim of science fiction, at its best, is to show the possibilities of the future. Not merely the gadgets, but the kinds of lives we might be able to attain, the kinds of problems that we’ll have to solve, the kinds of opportunities that we might achieve. Science fiction writers are not trying to predict the future. Most of them don’t believe that there is a “the future” to predict. The future isn’t inevitable and inescapable. It hasn’t been created yet. The future is built, instant by instant, by what we do here and now — and what we fail to do. There are tons of science fiction stories that show myriads of possible futures. …But I suspect that a major part of the problem is that most people don’t want to think hard about where we are and where we’re heading. They’re perfectly happy to watch TV pundits argue with one another. They follow the latest attack ads that politicians unleash on one another. But they don’t buckle down to thinking about what our problems are and how we might go about solving them. Many people, I fear, believe they are powerless to make a change in the world. They accept things as they are, more or less. They complain, but they don’t work for change."

In his essay, Science Fiction at its best is ‘history that hasn’t happened yet’; Mr. Bova explains the role Science Fiction writers take in charting out our future…

“I visualize the history of the human race as a vast migration of peoples across the landscape of time. The science-fiction writers are the scouts who go out ahead of the main body and send back reports: don’t go that way, it’s a quagmire; head in this direction, it’s easier and more rewarding…”

While it may not seem that Science Fiction writers are doing any heavy lifting when it comes to scientific discovery…time and time again, they were the first explorers of imaginative possibility.  Through books, movies, and TV, they were the ones who left today’s scientists with road maps of not only where we can go in the future…but also left warning signs to our social subconscious, about the potential dangers of pursuing certain kinds of research.

In the end, it may not really matter which came first:  Science Fiction or science fact.  Perhaps their relationship shouldn’t be one of conflict, but one of cooperative synchronicity.  As Paul Douris mentions in his paper “Resistance is Futile”: Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous Computing:

"Science fiction does not merely anticipate but actively shapes technological futures through its effect on the collective imagination" and "Science fiction visions appear as prototypes for future technological environments…Ironically, what we achieve through an engagement with science fiction is a series of reminders about scientific fact.”


(Want to read more?  Check out:  Anthropology? Not a science? Fine, it’s the Singularity… )

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Permanent link to this article: http://peterusagi.com/2011/06/20/the-future-history-of-sci-fi/

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