You’re Living in a Science Fiction Story

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A frame from the only surviving hand-colored print of Georges Méliès's 1902 film <em>Le voyage dans la lune</em>
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It’s easy to look back at old science fiction and see it as silly. But there are important ideas embedded in those stories that influenced scientists and the way technology developed. Take the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans La Lune or A Trip to the Moon, based on a story by Jules Verne. This 1902 silent movie blasts scientists to the moon in a giant cannon. Claire Evans, editor of the recently rebooted Omni magazine, says Verne was on to something. “He just extrapolated from the technology around him,” she says. “A massive shotgun barrel shoots people into space. That’s not what happened in the real world” of rocketry, but “that essential gesture is correct.”

“A successful science fiction story — or novel, or film — allows its readers to become comfortable with the future, with radical new technologies and ideas before they become commonplace,” she says. “It softens the edge of change.” 

Science fiction continued to inspire, even predict, real-world developments. H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, imagined the first atomic bomb in a 1913 short story titled “The World Set Free.” Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was also a mathematician who proposed the first geostationary satellite in a 1945 scientific technical paper. Astrophysicist and science fiction author David Brin remembers, “There was a period during the space race when suddenly science fiction authors were very much in vogue — when they were on the platforms next to Walter Cronkite and talking about the future of civilization and where we were going to go next.”

But as society became more cynical, so did science fiction. In the 1980s, writers imagined addictive digital fantasy worlds long before the web existed. “Cyber-punk was the first science fiction movement to really understand that science and technology weren’t separate from us,” Evans explains. Or as the science fiction writer Frederik Pohl once said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam.”

Alex Gallafent read from Welles’ “The World Set Free.”

(Originally aired: January 24, 2014)

Music Playlist

  1. Trapped In The Future

    Artist: Russell Garcia
    Album: H. G. Wells' The Time Machine: Original Motion Picture Score
    Label: GNP Crescendo Records
  2. Overture- Atmospheres

    Artist: Gyorgy Ligeti
    Album: 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Label: Rhino Movie Music
  3. Epilogue  End Title

    Artist: James Horner
    Album: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan
    Label: Paramount / Retrograde / Film Score