How Science Fiction Can Save the World

570_TGWelcome internet traveler. I will be stockpiling neatly organized bits into a collective known as a blog along this portion of your journey. Do not fear for your personal safety, as I will take great care to observe the rules of hospitality during your visit.  As I am a certifiable Tech Geek, I will spend a portion of my efforts exploring the connection between science and technology and science fiction, fantasy, and horror literature.  Please observe all safety regulations as the bits in my collection coalesce.

I blame Jules Verne. He’s the one that started this mess. Maybe he wasn’t the first science fiction writer on this insignificant rock, third from the Sun, but he seems as likely a suspect as any to blame for this plague of technology. You see the world is in a desperate place now. We live in a society that can’t survive without our technology and science. When the power cuts out in your home, how does that make you feel? A touch of panic? A feeling of desperate longing for its return? When you misplace your smartphone do you feel abandoned? What would you do without your doctor or pharmacy? Science and technology have woven themselves into our DNA, and this is only the beginning.

VerneIn 1865 a Frenchman named Jules Gabriel Verne published a story entitled From the Earth to the Moon in which three men flew through space to the moon. It wasn’t his first work of fiction and not nearly his last, but it helped contaminate generations. Over one hundred years later, in 1969, three men flew through space to visit the moon as part of the Apollo 11 spaceflight. Was Verne a prophet, or a motivator?

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea remains his most well-known novel. While the earliest submersibles started appearing in the 1600s, the French built a human-powered submarine in 1800 named the Nautilus. When both the French and the British abandoned this design path, Verne snatched it up as the center piece of his novel. You see Verne felt an obligation to achieve scientific accuracy in his books, and this discarded technology inspired him. He took the sputtering technology and crafted it into science fiction wonder. Scientists around the world took notice. They felt the passion and excitement of the possibilities and devoted themselves to making it a reality. And so it came to pass, in the year of our Lord 1869, that the codependency between science and science fiction began.

Simon Lake, who patented  some two hundred naval inventions, spent his life devoted to designing submarines. He built his first submarine in 1894, and remains one of the cornerstones of current technology. In his autobiography, Lake wrote, “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life. When I was not more than ten or eleven years old I read his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and my young imagination was fired. This generation may have forgotten that Verne was a great scientist as well as the writer of the most romantic fiction of his day. I began to dream of making voyages under the waters, and of vast stores of treasure and the superb adventures that awaited subaqueous pioneers. But with impudence which is a part of the equipment of the totally inexperienced I found fault with some features of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and set about improving on them.”

The list of scientists, inventors, engineers, and explorers who credit Jules Verne for their inspiration could stretch to the moon, but Verne was not alone in his contamination of the adolescent mind. Herbert George Wells was also to blame. While Verne, himself, scoffed at his science, the fiction of Wells was inspiring. Robert H. Goddard a physicist and inventor launched Earth’s first liquid-filled rocket in 1926. Goddard blamed Wells for his interest in space after reading The War of the Worlds at the impressionable age of sixteen. Goddard spent his life working towards spaceflight which earned him public ridicule and scorn. It wasn’t until long after his death that his true genius was revealed. Today Goddard’s multi-stage rocket and liquid-fuel rocket remain key stepping stones in Earth’s achievement of spaceflight.

You see the world is filled with practical people. People that believe in hammer and chisel. Societies that smack you on the back of the head and tell you to stop daydreaming. Lurking amongst them, hidden within the space between their ears, remains a small few who can’t help but dream. They look around them and wonder, “What if?” They look at the current technology and demand more. They consume science to fuel their madness. But wait. Are we describing scientists or science fictionists?

Once upon a time within some misplaced inertial frame of reference, a scientist inspired a science fictionist, or was it the other way around? Regardless of the truth to that age old question, Earth is ruled by this symbiosis. Dreamers look at computer technology and wonder how far it will go. Scientists crack open a novel and decide they can build that robot. Practical people order their Christmas presents online only to have a robot drive through a warehouse, collecting their order from the shelves before boxing it for overnight delivery.

HeinleinDreamers such as Robert Anson Heinlein, Isaak Yudovich Ozimov (Isaac Asimov), and Arthur Charles Clarke inspired generations to chase the impossible instead of clinging to practicality. These men loved science deeply but found themselves wanting more. Cruelly they founded their stories on science, adventure, and imagination. They wove masterful tales that pushed the carrot out just a bit further to where it was eternally out of reach. They said, “Split the atom? So what! I want more.” The world was listening.

In 1886, two decades after Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, engineers and researchers at Cornell University founded an organization known as Sigma Xi which dedicated itself to rewarding scientific research in all fields. Sigma Xi stands for Spoudon xynones, or “Companions in Zealous Research.” Membership is by invitation only. Today Sigma Xi boasts some 60,000 members and publishes the magazine American Scientist. More than 200 of its members have won the Nobel Prize. Its ranks have included such names as Einstein, Fermi, Pauling, and Asimov. As brilliant and innovative as their members have been, even they have been unable to escape the gravitational well of science fiction.

In July of 2010, Sigma Xi conducted a survey amongst its members asking them, “Did science fiction influence you?” One rocket scientist wrote, “My entire life has been influenced by reading a Robert Heinlein story…when I was about twelve years old.” This sentiment pervaded the majority of responses, but as we compile their hive-mind into a collective response we penetrate below the surface.

The Collective: “…It is important to make a distinction between real science fiction as Heinlein wrote it and fantasy as practiced by [others].”  “…[I] am particular in my definition of real science fiction. It should violate no known laws of nature and should anticipate only technologies that would not do so.” “On the other hand, I am very much put off by logical inconsistencies in attempts to be scientifically correct.”  “But they also talk of inspiration or commentary of the human condition. Society. Not just science. They speak of books scientifically interesting but lacking plot and character and story. It seems as if the books and movies that have captured the greatest inspiration are those that combine entertainment with intellectual speculation.” “Some books have a lot of neat technical ideas, but might have deficiencies in plot/characters/readability.”  “The new writers can’t match the old-timers, like Robert Heinlein.”

This collective opinion seems to have stirred a panic within the scientific community. What happens if science fiction goes away? What happens if it no longer inspires? Sensing jeopardy in this symbiotic relationship, the science community moved to action.

Star TrekAnd so the conspiracy begins. “To me the biggest positive of science fiction is that it builds and straightens a ‘sense of wonder,’ curiosity about the new, different and strange and a fearlessness of the unknown. I believe that if more kids read science fiction, more kids would want to know the why and how. They would not be afraid of science and pursuing science careers.” Stephen Hawking famously promoted science fiction as an excellent teaching tool. Sigma Xi founded their survey as a way to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. In 2011 NASA took it a step further.  Concerned for our future they formed a partnership with Tor/Forge Books to educate today’s science fiction writers in science. They desire is to create scientifically accurate and entertaining novels that will inspire the next generation of scientists and inventors.

If the world is dependent on technology, is it time to climb into our bunkers? Is this separation between science fact and entertainment dimming the prospects of our future? As more and more scientific organizations attempt to drag science fiction back to its golden age, I wonder how close we really are to killing this symbiote. Hidden in dark rooms afraid to confess the truth, the Collective gives us the answer. “…how many scientists became interested in science through Star Trek…the number would definitely be surprising.”





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1 Comment

  1. Interesting. And you ask a lot of questions.

    I, too, have previously remarked upon the connection between science fiction writers and budding scientists. I believe that it's absolutely true. Maybe a writer can't directly be involved is science by being a scientist, but a writer can be just as insightful about applications. And people need to dream … about possibilities.

    I imagine there are current trends that are hampering the very progress that politicians and industry experts are demanding. These folks are not the particularly creative dreamers they would like to believe they are. Political acts, such as Leave No Child Behind, seem to stomp on the teaching profession. While there's a lot of value in quantitative analysis, there is no humanity in it. It takes a human to develop perspective. Observation has its limits without insight and that's where writers step in.

    Writing is a private universe. Reading is the public part.

    SF writers provide the insight and often this goes unappreciated by movers and shakers who rule the land. They can often be heard saying: "I must hurry and catch up with the others … for I am their leader."

    Creative dreams for tomorrow, I'm convinced, is rarely born in bureaucratic, corporate, or governmental "Life in the Future" committees. It is often given birth by outside observers. Think of them as travelers who have chosen to operate in space without an umbilical.

    In my singular perspective, I usually think of them as Science Fiction writers.

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