“In science fiction we dream.”
– Ray Bradbury
Science fiction has existed in one form or another in our world for a long time. The history of the genre is contested, but many believe that the fantastical Sumerian poem, Epic of Gilgamesh (2150-2000BC), filled with gods and even the search for eternal life, is one of the earliest examples.
For me though, the modern era of science fiction was heralded in by the stories of H.G. Wells. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The First Men on the Moon, War of the Worlds, and many, many others, are testimony to the great imagination of the man. His work transported his readers into an often scary vision of the future, quite literally in the Time Machine. In that story, part of humanity has evolved into Eloi, a simple peace loving people. However, the rest have become the Morlocks, creatures that live underground and farm the Eloi like sheep to feed upon them. The original cinema adaptions of this film caught my young imagination, but it was the original War of the Worlds that scared the bejeebers out of me!
So why is that science fiction has continued to grow in popularity, both in books and in films?
Science fiction examines the effects of change upon on us, often sweeping in nature, where sometimes the future of humanity hangs in the balance. And if we have ever needed to do it, it is especially needed during this age of rapid technical progress, that we currently live in.
I was lucky to grow up during a very rich period of science fiction, where the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Philip K Dick, created worlds that flooded my imagination with astonishing visions of the future. And maybe that’s another reason that great science fiction resonates so strongly wth us today, because through it, it’s one way that we can peer into our possible futures that are already speeding towards us.
Authors like Arthur C. Clarke had a seer like ability to gaze into future. In 1948 he famously predicted the invention of communication satellites. We are still waiting to see whether his predictions made in 2001 come true: that in 2030 artificial intelligence will reach human levels, and in 2100 humanity will invent the space drive that will enable us to reach other stars. On that prediction Clarke wrote, “History begins…”
Of course science fiction is often filled with bleak warnings, from the robots of Terminator, to the AIs most famously represented by HAL in 2001, that killed its crew.
But it isn’t all bad news. Sometimes science fiction suggests potential solutions. Isaac Asimov in his I Robot series came up with the three laws of robotics to prevent our creations doing us harm:
(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
(2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Maybe this same sort of approach could also be applied to artificial intelligence.
Science fiction can also raise philosophical questions. For example in Blade Runner, the film based on the book by Philip K Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), it can be seen as an allegory that holds a mirror up to us, raising the fundamental questions: who are we, why are we here, and what does it mean to be human?
Through science fiction we also are able to travel in our imagination to places we have never set foot. This ties into my own work where I explore the theme of parallel Earths. The Martian by Andy Weir, highlights the sort of challenges that we may face when we eventually travel to Mars. In Interstellar, our planet is seeing a runaway climate change, forcing us to adapt by reaching out for the stars. These stories raise the what if question. They are also stories that tug at our exploring hearts, possibly reminding us of our pioneering spirit.
To finish this article, I’m going to leave you with a clip with one of my all time favourite science fiction movies, Forbidden Planet.
Filmed in 1956 and based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, there is something truly special about the feel of Forbidden Planet. It’s a film that’s more than the sum of its parts, from wonderful visuals, to the haunting (and first entirely electronic) film score. Whatever the magic is, for me there is something unique about this film that’s always captured my imagination. And that’s maybe one of the most special aspects of science fiction, to capture afresh that sense of wonder that's always waiting to be unlocked within us.
Photo credit: x-ray delta one via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA