The Fickle Nature of Science Fiction

When ‘bad’ Science Fiction film accurately predicts the future

There are at least three aspects of Science Fiction (what I’m pointing at) where I am at odds with a lot of my contemporaries and peers.

One of those elements is the subject of SF’s prognosticatory powers.

The current fad is to declare “Science Fiction isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about commenting on the now” and thereby dismissing that entire discussion based on a canard.

No one (including me) has ever said that science fiction is only about one thing.

In fact, Science Fiction is just as much about predicting the future as it is about commenting on the now. That aspect just doesn’t go around proclaiming its supremacy. Science Fiction is also about a whole bunch of other things.

One of the other things it is about is teaching us life lessons, one of which is that you ignore something at your own potential peril. Especially in the arts, where the thing dismissed often turns out to be the leading wave of the next big thing.

But that’s not the area of disagreement I wanted to address. I wanted to focus on an aspect of Science Fiction’s predictive powers that were (and are) about the future and that are also about the now.

I will often put on an old SF film for background noise and the other day I chose Robinson Crusoe on Mars for that purpose. I enjoy it more for its nostalgia value than for any connection it might have to Science Fiction. Even in its own time, it was known that many of the things depicted in that film departed greatly from reality. Great, predictive, hard Science Fiction Robinson Crusoe on Mars is not.

The sound track alerted me to the fact that Batman, in the guise of Adam West, makes a brief appearance in this movie before dying on Mars. I turned to watch and caught the scene where Paul Mantee (Crusoe) ejects from Mars Gravity Probe 1 (Even the technobabble is bad. His escape pod is Mars Gravity Probe 1B) and attempts a landing on Mars.

I watched a movie I’d seen as a kid, a movie that I knew back then was outside the realm of plausibility (like any good fan of the 50s and 60s I’d read von Braun and Ley and Bonestell’s The Exploration of Mars and was thoroughly grounded in the technological features of that mission) suddenly transform itself into an accurate depiction of a possible manned landing on Mars.

The movie was depicting a near-term future event with what is probably surprising accuracy. Not because the film has been updated, but because our technological future has changed.

I know I am not the only Boomer SF fan who watches SpaceX and Blue Origin ships land (under power and upright) and says to themselves “the way spaceships are supposed to land”, as we marvel at one of our many “predictive” fantasies made real.

And it is very odd, and I believe informative, perhaps even educational, to learn that there are now two distinct audiences watching Science Fiction. One that watches a real world space launch and receives it as an actual dream come true, and another that watches a bad Science Fiction film and sees their reality depicted accurately.

Meta has become an over-used word but…that’s pretty meta.

Of course I exaggerate and hype to make a point, who doesn’t? The facts remain that at least one instance of Science Fiction’s prognostication has seen our technology catch up to what had previously been “science fiction”.

Oh, you might think, that happens all the time! When Lester Del Rey wrote Rocket Jockey for the Winston juvenile series (under his Phillip St. John byline), he had to wait 17 years for reality to catch up and verify his prediction that the first man on the Moon would be named Neil Armstrong. (Yes, he is, and he is as American as apple pie can make him.)

But this is not the same thing. What’s happening now is a weird kind of reversal. It’s as if the first person to set foot on the Moon had actually been named, oh, say “Buzz” Aldrin (who himself would go on to become a Science Fiction author – even more Meta), but then Del Rey wrote his book and every single history textbook (not to mention Waltham Kronkite’s television broadcasts) were changed to conform to the fictional account rather than what had once been reality.

Does this mean that when we get to Mars we’ll find human slaves working vast strip mines for alien invaders?

God I hope so!*

*(I don’t endorse slavery, but what can you expect from aliens that steal their spaceship design from Martians who ripped off George Pal?)

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