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Sunday 13 December 2015

From Science Fiction to Science Fact

Brian Clegg is a popular science writer who also runs the Popular Science book review site. When it comes to his own books he has to find someone else to review them, and I was lucky enough to be asked to do this in the case of his latest title, Ten Billion Tomorrows: How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future. Brian sent me an advance copy to read some time ago, but the book has now been published and my review of it has duly appeared on his website.

I started reading science fiction in the 1970s, and many of the stories I read at that time were set in the period 1980 to 2015 – in other words, the future then but the past (or present) now. I still find such stories fascinating, because I have a clear memory of the time when they were written AND of the (usually less dramatically different) “future” as it actually unfolded. This is a subject I touched on in my recent Back to the Future post, and it came to mind again when reading Brian’s book.

One thing that can’t be said too often (Brian says it in his book and I say it in my review) is that SF writers almost never set out to “predict the future”. Writers make money by selling as many books as they can, and the way to do that is to write stories that readers are going to find exciting at the time the book comes out. “Exciting” technology in the 1960s and 70s meant things like space rockets, supersonic airliners and (in a scary way) nuclear bombs… so that’s what people wrote about, rather than “boring” technologies like computers (which were mainly used by accountants and mathematicians) and telephones (which had barely changed since the early 20th century). Today our lives are dominated by phones and computers, while people can go for months without ever thinking about nuclear war or space travel. But how many readers would have found this “future” credible or interesting 40 years ago?

Another thing that’s changed in the last 40 years is that SF used to be almost exclusively a geek subculture, with the emphasis on written works rather than movies or other media. Today the geeks are still there, but (thanks to a constant stream of blockbuster movies) the awareness of SF tropes among the general population is much higher than it was. By and large Brian’s book is aimed at this latter audience – quite rightly, since SF geeks are also likely to be science geeks, and hence know a lot of this stuff already.

Having said that, the book does get off to a rather geeky start, with a chapter about computer games and The Matrix, followed by one focusing on a comparatively obscure novel from the 1950s, The Space Merchants. After that, however, the book takes off on a whirlwind tour of themes that should be familiar to the most casual SF consumers – force fields, robots, clones, exoskeletons, ray guns, aliens, the end of the world, cheap energy, teleportation, trips to the moon, faster-than-light communications, cyborgs, cloaking devices and artificial intelligence.

In chapter after chapter, the same message comes across: Modern science can do that, but it can’t do it as impressively or effectively as it’s portrayed in science fiction. To take one example, “teleportation” – in the form of quantum teleportation – is possible under laboratory conditions, but it only works on a subatomic scale. That’s a far cry from science fictional teleportation (e.g. a Star Trek transporter), which is supposed to work on ten thousand trillion trillion atoms all at once. I discussed this in more detail last year in an article entitled Three Types of Teleportation (which points out that the word “teleportation” was coined by Charles Fort – a fact also mentioned by Brian in his book).

Generally when I’m name-dropping “famous people I used to work with” there are just two names on the list – Seth Shostak (I overlapped with him in the same department at Groningen University in 1982-83) and Nick Pope (I worked in the same office building in Whitehall between 1996 and 1998). But Ten Billion Tomorrows drew my attention to another minor celebrity I could add to the list – Kevin Warwick, who features in the chapter about cyborgs (“Since the late 1990s, Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University in England has been experimenting with a range of implants under his skin that have been described as specific attempts to turn himself into a cyborg”). I crossed paths with Kevin back in 1991-3, when he was consultant to a project on neural networks that I was working on (I had a paper on the subject published in the Aeronautical Journal – I just had a look for it online, but all I could find was this entry on a French bibliographic site).


Anonymous said...

In 1979 (when I was 13) I bought a book called "The Usborne Book Of The Future" which made a serious attempt to predict future technology over the next 50 years mainly and also a bit further to 200 years. One of the predictions that I remember best was that the Olympic Games of 2020 would be on the moon because by then there'd be a lunar colony. I accepted this without question but if I bought a book now that predicted the 2060 Olympics would be on the moon I'd think it was absurd which shows how much we've downgraded our expectations for space travel. I've read that when the Apollo mission landed on the moon in 1969 it was taken for granted that a man would land on Mars by the mid-'80s at the latest. This seems amazingly naive now when you consider all the difficulties of a Mars mission such as the fact that Mars has no magnetic field or ozone layer to protect its' surface from the sun's radiation, not to mention the cost and the practical difficulties of a person surviving a ten-month voyage to Mars. We seemed to think in those days that technology could overcome any problem - but maybe things haven't changed as I think a lot of people just assume that current problems like climate change, dwindling resources and overpopulation will somehow be solved by technology.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - I think you mentioned this book in a previous comment, but I just Googled it and found a scanned copy online - The Internet Archive is a well-established site so I assume this is a legal copy -- I will have a read through and I may even do a blog post on it at some point!

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for that link, Andrew - it's fantastic to see that book again !! Usborne published another book at that time called "Mysteries Of The Unknown" which I got for Christmas in 1978. It was divided into three sections covering monsters, ghosts and UFO's. The three sections were also available separately as softcover books.