A look at why science and science fiction need each other.
Science and science fiction don’t always draw from the same well. Take, for instance, me (a sci-fi nut) and my wife (a geneticist); I have little interest in the hard science of genetics, but am likely, at any given family get-together, to launch into a monologue about the philosophical challenges of a future in which cell replacement and identification through gene sequencing is the norm (Code 46, anyone?). My wife, on the other hand, could talk for days about intracellular structures but doesn’t have much patience for philosophy.
Despite not always agreeing, science and science fiction roll along together in a tight, inseparable loop, continuously pushing one another into new territory. If science is a ruthless paramilitary squad, obliterating superstition and myth as it single-mindedly fights for the liberation of truth, then science fiction is the reconnaissance team that goes in front, doing its best to relay vital information about what lies ahead in terms of potential obstacles and collateral damage.
Could Johann Mendel have known, way back in the 1860s, that his research on the topic of heredity would eventually inform a legion of science fiction works? Could famed sci-fi novelist H.G. Wells have known that his idea of creating an atomic bomb would actually be turned into a reality, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people?
Science has a date with destiny, and sci-fi is the chaperone.
Consider the popular sci-fi show Black Mirror. All fiction begins with two words – what if – and Black Mirror follows those up with some provocative questions about the relationship between people and scientific progress. While [presumably] not intended to be preachy, the show is nothing if not a series of warnings about the potential downsides of living in an increasingly digital age. Sure, it’s made to entertain – but it also pushes its viewers to see technology from more than one limited perspective.
Simultaneously, works of fiction like Black Mirror serve as a source of inspiration for researchers and innovators. In order to answer a question or solve a problem, scientists often need to start by asking “what could be possible?”, which is exactly what writers of science fiction are most concerned with. With Black Mirror, writer/director Charlie Brooker has brought to the small screen a number of ideas for tech innovators to play around with. Among these are thought-controlled contact lenses capable of recording and playing back everything their wearer sees, virtual reality via brain implantation, miniature surveillance drones, and networked servers housing uploaded human consciousness.
Clearly, not every scientific breakthrough is indebted to fiction, and yet it isn’t difficult at all to find examples of those that are. Igor Sikorsky, credited with inventing the helicopter, found his muse in the science fiction writings of Jules Verne (Verne also inspired the invention of the submarine), and famously said, “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.” To whatever extent that’s true, it has some heavy implications.
Just how important is science fiction?
In a roundabout way, all widely-read or viewed works of fiction play a small part in shaping the future by acting as cultural signposts. But science fiction arguably goes further, carrying with it the potential to catalyze meaningful paradigm shifts not only among the general public but more importantly, among members of the scientific community.
When it comes down to it, science needs fiction, and vice versa. Take away science, and science fiction doesn’t exist at all. Without Mendel and his pea plants, we’d have no X-Men, no Gattaca, no Jurassic Park. On the flip side, sci-fi provides a shot in the arm to science in the form of inspiration and direction. It isn’t that scientists are unimaginative or unconcerned with ethics and philosophy. Almost certainly, the opposite is true. And yet, the fact remains that the foremost concerns of scientists are rarely ideological in nature (at least during working hours), but rather physical, mathematical, and mechanical. If creating hard, precise data and technology in the here and now is the specialty of the scientific community, then the specialty of the sci-fi community is lobbying for careful consideration of the long-term ramifications of science’s accomplishments (or lack thereof).
Many people will be familiar with the science fiction movie Gattaca, the heavily emotional film which planted the seeds for a societal discussion of technological eugenics. With the dawn of sophisticated genetic engineering technology, the time has come to answer the questions that Gattaca posed. Like most of the greatest questions about the proper use and limits of technology, regular citizens will have to work in conjunction with their governments to determine what is acceptable.Gattaca takes place in a hypothetical near-future [Click to read more…]
What does it all mean?
It means that if you’re a sci-fi addict, not to worry – you’re actually supporting something truly meaningful with your passion. It means that if you’re a scientist, hopefully you don’t consider sci-fi to be silly (although admittedly, some of it clearly is) or beneath you. It means that if you want to prepare for the future, you’d do well to read more sci-fi, since it has a track record of predicting what’s next with uncanny accuracy. Last but not least, it means that if you want to write a science fiction novel, screenplay, or short story, you might consider looking to the true source, science itself, for inspiration.