The term “Science Fiction” is a relatively new one in regards to the definition of the genre of which we are all aficionados. The term was only coined in the mid-1940s, in the “Golden Age” of actual pulp fiction, when giants of the field like Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury were starting out and writing short stories to be published in “nickel & dime” paper magazines published monthly or even weekly to be consumed like chewing gum and discarded just as quickly. The works of Jules Verne and H.G.Wells were never described as such in their heyday but the term has now become a staple of popular culture and crosses all fields of the genre, not just the printed medium.
Indeed, such phrases as “Beam me up Scotty” “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper? and “Don’t cross the beams!” instantly bring recognition of a favourite story or TV episode to mind for many a person.
One needs to, however, recognise the “science” part of the fiction and looking back to that golden age of story writing see that the main “germ” of the work was the evolution of technology and the impact it had on the supposedly similarly evolved society, usually human. This was …is..the core of sci-fi, the science. The “what if..?” scenario that allows expansion of the imagination and entanglement of human reactions as a result of it.
Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” envisioned a future where humankind had finally evolved beyond our petty differences and had, in fact, embraced them and taken this philosophy to the stars and other species. J. Michael Straczynski’s “ Babylon 5” showed that we hadn’t learnt from the past and whilst our technology had advanced and we eventually made our way out into the cosmos, we still took our bigotries and small-mindedness with us, despite trying to be a conduit for inter-species co-operation. In both visions, it was the science that allowed us to reach the stars. Whether we developed it or it was given, it was our ability to utilise it that got us out there.
Despite our human vices we continue to advance and in my lifetime, I’ve seen significant changes. I recall sitting in my office in the 80’s talking with a colleague on the phone about some paperwork and he said “Hang on!” and Wonder of Wonders in the next minute, the document we were arguing over appeared next to me via one of those new-fangled FAX machines. The argument was over right there with my signature in plain sight.
A few years later I had one of the first car phones, a car based alternative to the 15kg battery-with-a-handpiece “mobile” phone then available. I remember being parked on the crest of a hill in outback Australia, I looked at the handset and it had one bar of signal, that being the frontier town of Broken Hill 45 minutes behind me and looking out at the Flinders Ranges mountains on the horizon.
So naturally…I rang my Mum!
Of course, we’re all familiar with the discussion about ST: TOS’s personal communicators becoming reality 30 years later. Whose idea was this? Hmmm?
All this was foreseen years before by science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke who described in 1974 the use of computers in the year 2001 and beyond
Much was due, in part, to the creation of the humble transistor, the actual electrical component, rather than the popular pocket radio, which started appearing in the early 1960’s suddenly replacing multiple tubes and allowed the shrinking of all types of electronics. It’s easy to see where the sci-fi writers of the time found their inspiration as the hardware around them began to shrink.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that, for me as it has been for many others, the actual science behind the stories that inspire Science fiction, I believe, is far more susceptible to the art copies life/life copies art paradigm as the scientists and engineers now and previously working in the space and computer industries happily admit to watching Star Trek and the like and being inspired to “make that happen!”
Gentry Lee, who co-wrote a number of novels with Arthur C Clarke, was, at the time, also Chief Engineer, Solar System Exploration at JPL. NASA’s robotic space probe division.
There are many pieces of literature that are timeless and we are the better for their creation, such as The Illiad, the works of Shakespeare and “To Kill a Mockingbird” to name a few, but does anyone genre actually have the possibility of inspiring us to better ourselves and maybe,… just maybe, push us to the point or take us to a place where we discover we’re not alone in the universe and we live up to Roddenberry’s ideals and hopes for us as a species?
»Featured image: Chris Foss Art