Opinion: Course correction

Does sci-fi still influence the world in the way that it used to?

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“When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers… Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him… The postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.”

Sound familiar? It should. Garnering comparisons with Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Newspad and the tablet desks from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Apple’s iPad is the latest in a long string of culturally significant technological advances that have clearly been influenced by ideas from science fiction. Other advances can be easily traced back to the genre as well – medical jet injectors, used to administer drugs in favour of traditional hypodermic needles, were influenced by Star Trek’s hypospray. Research into laser weapons, teleportation, and faster-than-light travel all have connections to science fiction as well.

Prescience was the genre’s greatest strength, going back to the Golden Age. Novels were littered with fantastical scientific ideas, such as space elevators and geocentric orbits – indeed, Cleve Cartmill predicted a chain-reaction nuclear bomb in his 1944 story ‘Deadline’, leading to his being investigated by the FBI under the suspicion that there was a leak from the Manhattan Project. Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920) coined the phrase ‘robot’, and going back even further, Jules Verne predicted the invention of heavier-than-air flying machines, trips to the moon and long-voyage submarines.

Today, however, can we really say that any popular science fiction is as forward thinking as the Newspad, the hypospray or the space elevator? Are there ideas lurking in novels, TV shows and films that give signposts to the future of our cultural and technological evolution? Outside of a policy report by Anthony H Cordesman from the Center For Strategic And International Studies that equates Buffy The Vampire Slayer with US domestic security policy, and the weaponisation of space being named after a certain film by George Lucas in 1977, it’s not obvious. Our society, many claim, has become so advanced that we are literally living in a sci-fi world. Does that mean our genre is redundant, that our collective creativity has been exhausted by it being made flesh?

Not so. Recent predictions include the explosion of worldwide information networks, kinesthetic interfaces for computers and further extrapolations on the future of space exploration, fuelled and informed by a continually evolving understanding of physics, chemistry and biology. Yes, there aren’t as many groundbreaking or new ideas as there were when Asimov first hinted at miniaturised surgery, or Heinlein predicted the waterbed (seriously), but that’s because expansion on the detail of an idea is where the real innovation comes in. As I said earlier, our attitudes towards technology and our acceptance of what once seemed outlandish influences that, a point perhaps most eloquently illustrated by author Ken MacLeod, writing for the BBC on this very topic in 2008. “‘Science fiction,’ said the robot, ‘has become science fact!’ That’s the opening line of one of my novels – the irony being, of course, that the robot is pointing out a marvel (a space elevator, as it happens) while the marvel of a robot pointing out anything at all, let alone enthusing about it, has become everyday in the story.” This in itself has pushed sci-fi further to its artistic roots, but that’s not to say that there’s not anything of worth in evidence. Read anything by Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Stephen Baxter and Vernor Vinge for examples of modern hard sci-fi, and although TV has been dropping the ball somewhat, efforts such as Virtuality have propagated the ideas of colony ships sent out into space while emphasising the expansion and development of virtual reality. Less hard sci-fi based efforts such as Caprica also deal with the ideas that we leave enough traces of ourselves in cyberspace for a virtual personality to be constructed. Everywhere you look there are signs.

So no, sci-fi is not dead as a genre, nor is it stalled in its primary mechanism of predicting the future. It seems unlikely, however, that we’ll ever recapture the halcyon days of the past, when the tablet computers you hold in your hands used to take up whole walls, or when space tourism was restricted to Willy Wonka and his glass elevator, and creativity as a result ran free. Whereas sci-fi used to innovate, it now exists in a purgatory between extrapolation and expansion, a virtual crossroads where it has to decide where to go. If it chooses one road, we go back to the days of a non-serious genre, one of pulp heroes fighting aliens in the canals of Mars. If it chooses another, we explore the technological singularity and the pre-eminence of the virtual over the physical, the ideas set in motion by writers of a past generation. Sci-fi was always meant to influence society, by its very nature. It explains everything about it, from its basis in the real world, to its link with religion and social commentary. It’s in the blood of the genre, and even though the world has changed since Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was pure fantasy, it doesn’t mean that we’re creatively bankrupt. It just means that we need to stop looking at our past achievements as all we can accomplish, and take them as inspiration for looking forward to our future ones.

This article originally appeared in the print edition of SciFiNow, issue 41 by James Rundle. To buy a copy of the magazine or subscribe, go to www.imagineshop.com, or call our subscriptions hotline on +44 (0) 844 844 0245.