By definition, science-fiction is inextricably linked with science fact as it has to try to relate to what already exists, interpreting scientific advances to see how they will affect the future, or in some cases examining the impact older technologies have had in the past, and examining how things could have been different without them. Fact and fiction have become closer, as the writers of science-fiction are seeing their ideas become reality almost faster than they can think of them. Giving science-fiction a sense of realism is vitally important to its success; if a predicted advance is absurd, no-one will want to read or watch a film about it.
Some of the best examples of extrapolating future technologies come from the oldest science-fiction, when technology (in comparison) advanced at a slower rate, and fewer research experiments were in progress. Science was needed for more important things such as cures for illnesses. Some, especially Wells’ works, also use the concept of empire building that is one of the tenets of ‘Star Trek’, although Wells’ characters are more violent in their efforts.
To examine the impact of real life science on fiction, it is important to look at the birth of the genre. Science-fiction ‘proper’ is thought by many analysts to have begun with Mary Shelley’s disturbing ‘Frankenstein’. This book was published in 1818, when so-called ‘soft’ sciences such as botany, astronomy and medicine were being researched, and evolution theories had inspired Mary Shelley:
‘Frankenstein’ took the fears of the day and turned them into a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing god, and trying to create life from the remains of death providing a powerful showcase of the problems of meddling with nature, and how it is beyond man’s control.
A very important figure at this stage was Jules Verne, who inspired a different vein of science-fiction: that of the ‘mysterious journey’.
Although much of Verne’s work is not strictly rooted in the genre, many of his books fit the description as the events of which he wrote had not occurred at the time (e.g. moon landings). ‘Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under The Sea’ still counts as science-fiction because although submarines exist, not one has been invented that can withstand ocean pressure at the depth to which Verne’s Nautilus went without being crushed. Therefore, there could be any number of monsters lurking in the ocean depths of which we are not aware. His books about lunar visits however, are now only plausible in the realms of fantasy. Although reasonable at the time, we now know that it would be impossible to reach the moon the way Verne described it. However, Verne determined to give scientific plausibility to his novels, and when written they were difficult to disprove, as he held on to his belief that understanding of natural forces would allow their use by Man.
Through his many novels, Verne sent groups of people to the centre of the Earth, the depths of the oceans and into space through a mixture of plausible and implausible methods. His books did serve a valuable purpose; after his efforts, many other writers began to imagine what lived in the unexplored regions of Earth, and also considered off-planet travel. Verne’s tales gave rise to further stories of adventure and discovery. Soon after Jules Verne, came the man responsible for many of science-fiction’s greatest (and indeed most often re-used) ideas.
H.G. Wells is probably the most well-known and renowned author to write in the genre, and was responsible for bringing science-fiction to a wider audience. Curiously, the man whose thinking was originally more fantasy-based than Verne’s came closer to reality.
This is why Wells’ works are still so impressive today. His visionary thoughts have still not been completely disproved. Wells came to prominence with the publishing of ‘The Time Machine’ in 1895, a cleverly constructed cautionary tale about the future of planet Earth. The man known only as The Time Traveller visits the last days of Earth, having met the two halves of the human race; indolent rules and enslaved workers. Set in 802701, Wells was able to take evolution to its final extreme, creating a world strange yet realistic enough to be worrying.
Aside from introducing the concept of time travel, Wells initiated thoughts of the future as well as the idea of satire on the modern way of life by suggesting how we would live in years to come. The Morlocks and Eloi were products of the future of the Victorian era as Wells saw it. As things change, science-fiction has looked at our species from a different viewpoint, extrapolating the future from what the authors know of today. This has caused science-fiction writing to become more pessimistic about the future as our situation starts to look bleaker.
In 1898, Wells ‘The War Of The Worlds’ was published. Another landmark, it postulated that we are not alone in the universe. This again made a change; previous science-fiction works had got humans as far as the moon, but no-one had considered the possibility of our being visited by aliens.
The book relied heavily on known science, and was designed to show how weak the human race is, despite what we often think. The Martian invaders used various spaceships as machines of destruction which they were unable to leave without being exposed to Earth’s atmosphere, and human technology stood no chance against them. Only Earth viruses managed to destroy the invaders, allowing Man to survive by luck rather than judgement. The proof that Wells’ vision was convincing appeared when Orson Welles adapted the book in 1938 into a drama in the style of a radio broadcast newsflash. Despite mention of it being a fake, many Americans who tuned in part of the way through believed the Martians had touched down and were coming to kill them all. The widespread panic is now legendary. Alien invasions became a staple of science-fiction.
When the Wright Brothers proved that Man actually could fly, the sky was no longer the limit, and the science-fiction writers had to look towards the next advance. On the flip side, many of Verne’s stories were now discovered to be very unlikely, especially as far as trips beyond Earth were concerned. He didn’t believe Wells was any more convincing:
Probably the next major influence came in 1926, when German film-maker Fritz Lang created ‘Metropolis’, a film about a futuristic city built underground in which a scientist creates the worker of the future: a robot. The film has become one of the biggest influences on modern science-fiction, especially its visual element which has given birth to the ‘post-apocalyptic’ vision of the future, where some kind of disaster has turned cities from being bright and shining into squalid slums with massive corporate buildings, allowing industrialisation to take over. Similar cities have been seen in ‘Blade Runner’, the ‘Mad Max’ films, ‘Escape From New York’, ‘Judge Dredd’ and even the floating city in ‘Waterworld’ is a kind of waterlogged version of this when the real cities have sunk beneath the waves. Whether this vision comes to pass has yet to be seen, but we are already building bigger and stronger buildings across the world, and anything that can be designed by a film artist today could be used by an architect of tomorrow.
Part of a science-fiction future always seems to be the robot, whether acting as slave or equal. Maybe in a similar way to God, Mankind wants to create in the image of himself, and we are only a few steps behind the fiction writers in this area; so much so that fact and fiction are beginning to merge. The ‘Metropolis’ robot was actually in its most basic sense an android, because it looked like a human. This is one area where science-fiction has the edge. Many stages in creating robots have been completed, but our technology is still far from equipped to build androids. The main problem is imbuing a robot with human characteristics; some scientists have decided to get their robots to mimic insect behaviour, then move on to the more complicated human responses. Robots exist to do the work of various parts of the human body such as arms, legs, feet, and even eyes, but until miniaturisation improves, the equipment to create something even vaguely near the standard of the human equivalent would be much too bulky to be of use in creating a whole new human body.
The robot in ‘Metropolis’ was only a start. It had no real personality and was created to serve, nothing more. It inspired (especially in appearance, where the two are very similar) C-3PO from the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy of films. In these, robots were owned by humanoids, but still had independent free will and decision making processes. Some were even able to talk like humans, while others could only beep in a language only other ‘droids’ could understand. It is never explained which type of robot is the more advanced model, but it appears each has a function. C-3PO is a protocol droid, and his ‘counterpart’ R2-D2 seems to be more of a maintenance machine.
One way forward for humans is the cyborg; a person with machine parts. For those who have lost limbs in accidents, this could be a huge help, but there has always been the fundamental question of how far to go before man becomes machine. Perhaps, going by this definition, we are all cyborgs already:
Replacing parts that ‘wear out’ as we get older could get increasingly dangerous, and others may want these sort of bionic limbs as they could be a lot tougher to damage and stronger than the original limb:
In most science-fiction, the cyborg is painted as something evil to be avoided, from ‘Doctor Who’s’ Cybermen, who have replaced most of their bodies with machine parts through to the various current ‘Star Trek’ series’ Borg, who roam the galaxy assimilating entire cultures into their collective consciousness, depriving its members of any sense of individuality. It has also been claimed by religious elements that such experiments may ultimately cost a human his or her very soul, as machines have always been seen as soulless.
Also being developed is the artificial intelligence, although this is still in its infancy. In time, the AI could become as, if not more, sophisticated than the human brain, but this is still a long way off. One thing is clear: if robots are given intelligence, they must be taught how to behave. Isaac Asimov created three rules of robotics for one of his books:
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 orders given to it by a human being unless the order contravenes law 1.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as doing so does not contravene laws 1 or 2.
These rules are now being used by scientists developing artificial intelligences in the hope of creating a proper thinking machine, a supreme example of science-fiction influencing science fact. The fiction world has had to lose a major adversary as a result, because
The film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ showed an unusual scenario, where two astronauts have to contend with Hal, a computer capable of independent thought that acts almost like a human being. It shows the danger that if we create an intelligence too similar to the human brain, it could suffer from similar afflictions such as madness. Eventually, Hal has to be ‘killed’ so that the surviving astronaut, Dave, can live.
Michael Crichton showed what would happen if any of the Rules of Robotics were broken in the film he scripted and directed, ‘Westworld’. This showed humans scattered across other planets in colonies, but visiting an off-world theme park that had several different historical areas in which they could interact, including Westworld and Romanworld. Apart from the maintenance crews, all the ‘staff’ at the park are androids, programmed to interact with the visitors and grant them whatever they desire. Romanworld is a feast of orgies, whereas Westworld allows the customer a chance to join in the fun of the old American West however they see fit. Some stay in the bars, whereas others look for the thrill of gunfights in which the androids are not only programmed to always lose, but can even bleed as any real human being. They are then taken to be repaired and put back into circulation. When one of the customers is shot by a gunfighting android and killed, it becomes clear that something is wrong. Overriding its programming, it is not clear if the android is merely trying to preserve its existence or whether it has just assumed its persona too well, but the film shows the problems when sophisticated technology goes wrong as the technicians are eliminated and the theme park has to be abandoned as the androids start to rape and murder the guests.
This is true of much of Crichton’s work , which is concerned with the dangers of high technology and how dangerous it could become. His best example has to be ‘Jurassic Park’, where dinosaurs are recreated by humans and placed in a theme park. This idea of a theme park here and in ‘Westworld’ is a clever one, in that it is usually considered one of the safest environments to be; no-one expects problems. There are many points made by the film beyond its entertainment value; it shows how egocentric Mankind can be, believing it can control a group of creatures that existed and became extinct before Man even appeared, and shows the dangers of genetic engineering. So that they cannot breed, the dinosaurs are all engineered to be female; unfortunately, because of the frog D.N.A. that is used in their re-creation, they are able to change sex and breed, something that the scientists had not considered. There is also the hint that the scientists are being paid back for using their knowledge in a frivolous manner, rather than attempting to use what they know to help others.
Maybe “wonder and excitement” have had to be lost in order to show the darker side of science. Through the Human Genome Project, set up to discover the purpose of every gene in the human body, genetic engineering is improving. Although it will probably take many years before scientists discover the purpose of each and every gene, many have been explained and already the possibilities for altering the genetic make-up of an unborn child exist. Eventually, it may be possible for parents to decide the characteristics of their child. This can be a frightening prospect.
‘Jurassic Park’ utilises some real-life events. As in the story, scientists have discovered the fossilised remains of ancient creatures from which they can extract the D.N.A. It may yet be possible to recreate extinct species, but as Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, points out in the film:
It is later proven that it is unwise to tamper with Nature when the dinosaurs prove to be much cleverer than the humans who are almost wiped out by their own creations.
The latest world-wide sensation ‘The X-Files’ uses a similar idea. Its creator, Chris Carter, denied in its early days that the show was science-fiction, preferring to label it ‘science faction’ because of the close links between fact and fiction in X-Files stories. The best examples of this are in its earlier stories, where everything has a basis in real life events, or conjecture based on actual events such as the Roswell incident, when aliens allegedly crash-landed on Earth. It is shown how our actions could have dire consequences for our future. What if clones were mentally unstable? What if our radiation dumping produces mutations of creatures into new life forms that need us to breed? What lies hidden inside the Earth’s crust, below the oceans or beneath the Arctic ice?
With every action we take, a million reactions occur. Delving too deeply into the unknown could cause a major disaster that we may not know about until it is too late. Although science-fiction writers are always putting forward fascinating new theories for scientists to consider, perhaps it is as well that they also write warnings of what could happen in a world where science runs mad.
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