Turning science fiction into fact

September 8, 2000

Reports from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, London, September 6-12, Edward James says sci-fi is science's inspiration

Science fiction was defined by one of its most famous practitioners, Isaac Asimov, as "that branch of literature that deals with the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology".

Although its origins can be traced back to Mary Shelley, it can best be understood as a form of literature developed in the 1880s and 1890s in Europe, and shaped into a genre in the United States in the 1920s. I am interested in science fiction not so much as a collection of literary texts, but as a cultural phenomenon that promotes a particular way of viewing the world. In historical terms, the most interesting question must be: what impact has science fiction had on the world as a whole, and on scientists in particular?

In the early days of the genre, sci-fi writers were missionaries for science. The influential early editor Hugo Gernsback saw sci-fi as a way of teaching science to young people and inspiring them to follow a life in science. But he also believed that sci-fi could inspire working scientists and feed them ideas and targets. He even mused on the idea of campaigning to allow the patenting of inventions imagined by sci-fi writers. Gernsback, along with writers and readers from the 1920s into the 1950s and beyond, saw sci-fi writers as futurologists who should help create the future, preparing the public for future shock and helping to advance the cutting edge of science and technology.

The visit by officers of the US Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction magazine in March 1944, to investigate possible leaks after it published a story about an atomic bomb, has entered sf mythology; as has editor John W. Campbell's comment about how relieved he was that they did not notice the map on the wall with pins showing the distribution of subscribers. It showed a marked clustering at PO Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico - the address for the Los Alamos laboratories. Counter-Intelligence might have been even more worried if they had known that Wernher von Braun managed to import his copy of Astounding to Germany throughout the war.

It is easy to conclude that such missionary pretensions were ludicrously unrealistic, and that such days are over. But they might have had their historical impact. Research in the US suggests that a large number of working scientists and engineers in the 1970s and 1980s had a background in, and sometimes a high level of commitment to, science fiction. The proportion among those working at Nasa was far higher than the average. These were people whose formative experience in science fiction was in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. As far as I know, no similar work has been done for the 30 and 40-somethings of today, in either the US or Britain. I suspect the results would be quite different.

Gernsback would have been amused by two items of news this year. First, the ruling by a patent judge that a new design of cat-flap did not merit a patent because it had been prefigured in a Dennis the Menace comic strip in The Beano - an announcement that New Scientist featured alongside a cartoon of an inventor of a time machine lamenting that he was infringing H.G. Wells's patent rights - and second, the European Space Agency's announcement that it was sponsoring a project to find ideas in science fiction that could be exploited by scientists and inventors.

There has always been a contrast - sometimes within the writings of a single author - between those who have largely welcomed the changes that science has brought and those who are more inclined to suggest that "if this goes on" humanity will face dire consequences. The response of science fiction writers to Hiroshima, for instance, was neatly balanced between those who envisaged the bright consequences of the peaceful use of atomic energy and those who depicted future earths ravaged by radiation and genetic mutation. If one can see any trends over the past 50 years, they have been in the direction of a general loss of confidence in science and scientific progress - or, rather, a loss of confidence in the ability of humanity to cope with scientific advances rationally and without error - or in the ability of scientists working for governments or multinational corporations to put other people's interests before those of their employers. I am not sure that it would have been possible 50 years ago for a science fiction author to say, as William Gibson did recently, "the job of the science fiction writer is to be profoundly ambivalent about changes in technology".

Edward James is professor of history at the University of Reading and editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.

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