Science fiction is a vital part of popular culture, influencing the way we all look at the world. TV shows like Star Trek and movies from Forbidden Planet to Inception have influenced scientists to enter the profession and have shaped our futures. Science fiction doesn't set out to predict what will happen - it's far more about how human beings react to "What if?…" - but it is fascinating to see how science fiction and reality sometimes converge, sometimes take extraordinarily different paths.
Ten Billion Tomorrows brings to life a whole host of science fiction topics, from the virtual environment of The Matrix and the intelligent computer HAL in 2001, to force fields, ray guns and cyborgs. We discover how science fiction has excited us with possibilities, whether it is Star Trek's holodeck inspiring makers of iconic video games Doom and Quake to create the virtual interactive worlds that transformed gaming, or the strange physics that has made real cloaking devices possible. Mixing remarkable science with the imagination of our greatest science fiction writers, Ten Billion Tomorrows will delight science fiction lovers and popular science devotees alike.
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About the Author
BRIAN CLEGG holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.
BRIAN CLEGG is the author of Ten Billion Tomorrows, Final Frontier, Extra Sensory, Gravity, How to Build a Time Machine, Armageddon Science, Before the Big Bang, Upgrade Me, and The God Effect among others. He holds a physics degree from Cambridge and has written regular columns, features, and reviews for numerous magazines. He lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and two children.
Read an Excerpt
Ten Billion Tomorrows
How Science Fiction Technology Became Reality and Shapes the Future
By Brian Clegg
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Brian Clegg
All rights reserved.
THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY
It was November 1963 and the future was scary and wonderful in equal measures. Science fiction told me so.
The whole world, it seemed, was reeling after the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963. But for me, as a young child, it was the following day that was far more significant. Because that's when the British TV show Doctor Who began. Later, the stories would be bolstered by real science that was amazing enough to be fiction, the kind of wondrous information that filled Carl Sagan's Cosmos and astronomer Patrick Moore's show The Sky at Night, then taken to a whole new fictional level by Star Trek. Thanks to science fiction, I knew what the future would be like. Like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, I could see "Wonderful things." And I devoured them wholesale.
Movies started to have an influence too, starting with old classics like Forbidden Planet and building to the awesome experience of first seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then the books took hold. The first book I bought with my own money was H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. I still have that battered paperback. As it happened, I was disappointed with this particular tale. I didn't like the book at age eleven — and I still find it tedious — but luckily, guided by my father, a lifelong SF enthusiast, visits to the library had by then already immersed me in science fiction adventures from the golden age. Asimov, Kornbluth, Pohl, Wyndham, Bester, Heinlein, Bradbury, and their ilk were my guides to a riotous, speculative future.
Before I go any further, in case you are science fiction fan, I ought to explain why I am going to occasionally use the term "sci-fi."
Traditionally, those who read and enjoy science fiction have only accepted the abbreviation SF. "Sci-fi," whether you pronounce it "sky fi" or "sy fi" has been frowned upon. (There was an attempt to take the term into the fold in an ironic way by pronouncing it "skiffy" and applying it just to TV and movie space opera.) "Sci-fi" was originally coined affectionately, probably by superfan Forrest J. Ackerman, to draw a parallel with "hi fi" — but in practice it has mostly been used by the media, and particularly by those who don't understand the genre. However, I think it fits well with some of the subjects of this book, capturing as it does a slightly dated, but excitable, view of the topic, seen not so much from the viewpoint of fandom as in the eyes of the normal world, a world that was increasingly influenced by science fiction's imaginings.
Back when I really had no idea what to call the genre, it was impossible not to get excited (and frightened) by the extremes of technology that we see in science fiction. Looking with mature eyes at the real future that came to pass, there's a tendency to be disappointed. We are well past 2001 now and we don't have regular flights to a Moon base. For that matter, we don't have flying cars and battles aren't fought with ray guns or light sabers. But that misses the point of science fiction and its relationship with the world.
It is true that, very occasionally, science fiction has predicted something that then really happened. We often see references to Arthur C. Clarke's very accurate 1945 prediction of the geostationary communication satellite. Unfortunately, though Clarke was an accomplished science fiction author, this was a nonfiction article for the magazine Wireless World. There were also "ion drives" that propelled spaceships by repelling electrically charged particles in science fiction long before they became relatively commonplace as the thrusters used on real space vessels. And then there was the one-man prediction factory that was Herbert George Wells.
Impressively dramatic, and militaristic, predictions in science fiction came from that great pioneer of the field. Wells described the use of tanks in battles in "The Land Ironclads," a story from 1903, thirteen years before the real tanks were first built. He denied that he had any great inventiveness in this, claiming that he merely adapted existing ideas like Leonardo da Vinci's conical human-powered wheeled-and-armed vehicle. Then Wells came up with the idea of dropping bombs from airplanes, with his appropriately titled The War in the Air, published in 1908. It's true that there had already been bombs dropped from balloons, but here, just five years after the Wright brothers' first powered flight, was some impressive insight into how this new technology could transform warfare.
However, it was with a little-known (and practically unreadable) 1914 book called The World Set Free, that Wells gave his most notable assessment of the future. Here, the remarkable imagination of this uninspiring-looking Englishman brings us a story of a future where artificial radioactivity is harnessed to produce electricity and eventually, in a war in 1956 between America, England, and France on one side and Germany and Austria on the other, the world comes to the use of terrible weapons based on nuclear energy, for which Wells invented the name "atomic bombs." That's enough to get the hairs on the back of your neck rising, especially bearing in mind that this premonition came from the man who wrote The Time Machine, which is written in the first person by the time traveler.
Just how remarkable The World Set Free is can be seen by putting the picture of the future it portrayed alongside a few realities from history. The concept of radioactivity only dated back to the turn of the century, and as late as 1933 Ernest Rutherford, a massive contributor to atomic theory, was quoted as saying, "The energy produced by the breaking down of the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine."
In the next year Leo Szilard came up with the concept of a nuclear chain reaction that would make harnessing nuclear power possible; in 1942 Enrico Fermi produced the first working reactor under the bleachers of a disused football stadium in Chicago. Just three years later, on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was exploded in the Trinity test. Realistically, the remarkable success Wells had does not require a time machine or clairvoyance. He combined some powerful insights with just getting lucky, as occasionally people must. When we look across the broad sweep of science fiction, far more of what is portrayed, if considered a prediction, came to nothing.
It surely is hard to imagine a more tangible hit for science fiction when looking into the future than The World Set Free — and Wells should certainly be recognized for his achievements. You may wonder why you may not have heard of this book, or at the very least why it isn't as well known as The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds? The fact is that, by comparison with Wells's literary masterpieces, The World Set Free is a very dull read. And this reflects the most important thing to realize about science fiction. It isn't futurology.
Science fiction does not set out to predict the future — instead it's about asking, "What if?" for all kinds of scenarios. It doesn't matter if those possible futures are likely to happen or not, as long as they are interesting. The aim is to portray the human reaction to new and interesting circumstances. If the writer happens to be lucky enough to hit on a match with what really takes place in the future, that's great — but it certainly isn't the point of the stories. In the two words "science fiction," the "fiction" part has to dominate, because unless the book is a good tale, it doesn't matter how interesting or surprising the science it contains is.
The two great forefathers of science fiction, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, took very different approaches that illustrate the delicate balance between the realities of science and the dramatic requirements of fiction to perfection. Verne was, frankly, stuffily dismissive of his far younger British challenger, commenting:
I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on a very scientific basis. ... I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does not obey the law of gravitation. Ça c'est très joli — but show me this metal. Let him produce it.
As twenty-first century science fiction writer Adam Roberts has pointed out, Verne was not doing a good job of defending himself with these words. While it is true that Wells did make up the highly unlikely "cavorite," a material that was opaque to gravity, once he had that invention he then employed it logically and consistently. His story required a novelty outside of known science, but then pretty much stuck to what physics would predict for its use. Verne, by contrast, despite using technology that really did exist in a simpler form — a cannon — totally ignored physics in the way that he made use of that technology. It was perfectly well understood in his day that human beings couldn't possibly stand the g-force that they would experience in a projectile accelerated fast enough inside a gun barrel to escape Earth's gravity, however well cushioned they might be, and that they would end up squashed to a pulp.
A mirror effect to science fiction's ability to make predictions is when real life copies — or at least is inspired by — the fiction writer's art. This is, if anything, science fiction's real claim to fame and influence in the world. It is not that SF managed to predict the future, but that it was an inspiration to those who have made the future happen, both in terms of encouraging positive discoveries and warning about potential disasters. The literati may find it distasteful, but science fiction has had an influence on popular culture for as long as it has existed and has had far more impact on everyday life than literary fiction. The disdain with which literary novelists have typically treated science fiction may well emerge from jealously, because their beautifully crafted works often have a far smaller audience. Many scientists and engineers admit that they were fans of science fiction in their teens and it was this, in part, that inspired them to get involved in their profession, driven by the sense of wonder that comes from good SF.
The development of space travel was tied strongly into an archetypal fictional theme, pushed forward by science fiction dreams. When Wernher von Braun was developing the V-2 rockets that were used to attack England and Belgium during the Second World War, the military use of the technology was, to him, a mere distraction. In his mind, his efforts were always directed toward getting men into space. (This is not to belittle in any way the death and destruction caused by the V-2 program, but space travel was the reality of von Braun's inspiration.) Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Russian theorist who was arguably the father of practical rocketry, put as much effort into his science fiction writing as he did engineering.
The negative side of this inspirational connection running from fiction into the world has been the production of whole swathes of pseudoscience, driven by the imaginings of writers. Much of the flying saucer craze and the descriptions of alien visitors seem to have been inspired by their fictional equivalents. When science fiction writers described aliens as little green men, that's what people saw. When The X-Files and other shows and movies came up with big-eyed "gray" aliens that was what followed in alien sightings and abduction stories.
Arguably too, it was fiction like Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that lay behind the work of Sigmund Freud (who came up with a similar concept of the human mind having a primitive, partially controlled part, the id, that corresponds closely to Stevenson's Hyde). Science now largely considers Freud's work as fiction itself, even though it is still often used as the justification for the methodology used in analysis and counseling. And, of course, the whole Scientology movement has its roots in the work of science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.
Even though science fiction isn't a mental time machine that can give us a peek into what is going to happen to us in the future, it inevitably places its characters in a landscape of strange science and innovative technology. This book celebrates the wonderful imagination of science fiction writers and the dramatic impact of real-world science and technology in those same areas, which can be every bit as remarkable as fiction expected it to be — and was sometimes inspired by that fiction — but often turns out to work and to be used in very different ways.
There is no other type of writing that can take the basic driver of all fiction — the way that the characters react to challenges and changes in the world and themselves — and give it license to cover so many different areas as does science fiction. With the imagination of SF writers at work, the landscape, the technology that surrounds us, even the very nature of human beings can be modified to try out and play "What if?" in astounding new possibilities.
Of course there has been plenty of trash written in the history of science fiction, and plenty that was just a reworking of an existing story in new, glossy surroundings. This is an approach that doesn't even have to produce bad science fiction — the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet is a great example, drawing heavily on Shakespeare's play The Tempest as source. But science fiction at its best has also given us the chance to think about and enjoy totally new challenges for human (and nonhuman) life to face.
Despite the caricatures and much of the sci-fi output of Hollywood, science fiction is not all about spaceships and ray guns. But there is no denying that part of its appeal (especially, perhaps, for the younger reader) is the wow factor of amazing imagined technology. It is fascinating to put the science fiction imaginings alongside what the real world has delivered, from artificial intelligence to the Matrix, both considering what has happened so far and looking forward to what today's science will make possible in the future. The results can be bizarre and fascinating — we might not have Star Trek's terrifying Borg, but we do have remote-controlled beetles and home-kit cyborg cockroaches. The real thing often manages simultaneously to fall behind and to leap ahead of the science fiction equivalent. Apple's iPhone voice interaction system Siri may be no intellectual match for the talking computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Siri runs on a tiny phone, where Hal required a mainframe the size of a house.
I suppose, since I am using science fiction as a source and an inspiration, I ought to try to define what science fiction is. Fantasies about journeys into space or to strange lands (as featured in Jonathan Swift's 1726 book Gulliver's Travels) have been in existence for hundreds of years — in fact arguably Homer's Odyssey, the second oldest surviving piece of literature in the Western tradition is just such a fantasy. This is a parallel but separate strand from science fiction. While both involve a story based on "What if?," science fiction requires at least a hat tip toward what is physically possible, even if there are many bits of imaginary science like faster than light travel that are regularly invoked.
There was a strong science fiction element in gothic works like Mary Godwin's Frankenstein (she was yet to marry the romantic poet Shelley when she sketched out the story), but it was with the likes of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne that true science fiction came into being. Their stories were known as "scientific romances" — it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that the term "science fiction" itself was first used, whether in its present form or as "scientifiction," the uncomfortable mash-up devised by the SF pulp magazine pioneer Hugo Gernsback. He would define scientifiction as "a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision ... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading — they are also instructive. They supply knowledge ..."
Gernsback had a stiff, old-fashioned educational idea of science fiction's role, but the pulp magazines soon transformed his worthy intentions into a wild flurry of entertainment, wonder, and horror — despite always keeping that touchstone of science. A modern definition of SF might be something like "fiction in which science and technology is used as a setting in which to explore human (or nonhuman) behavior." The science is usually not an end in itself, though SF can certainly glory in the remarkable ideas it can present, and the technology that such original thinking can produce. At its heart, good science fiction is almost always about people.
Excerpted from Ten Billion Tomorrows by Brian Clegg. Copyright © 2015 Brian Clegg. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY,
2. BLUE PILL OR RED PILL?,
3. BUY ME,
4. FEEL THE FORCE,
5. ROSSUM'S CHILDREN,
6. DINOSAUR CONSTRUCTION,
7. SUIT UP,
8. RAY GUN READY,
9. TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER,
10. END OF THE WORLD, PART THREE,
11. ATOM WORLD,
12. BEAM ME UP,
13. DESTINATION MOON,
14. IT'S GOOD TO TALK,
16. ENGAGE CLOAKING DEVICE,
17. OPEN THE POD BAY DOORS,
18. NEVER-ENDING STORY,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
ALSO BY BRIAN CLEGG,