The Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our Times

The Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our Times

by Mark Brake


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510739369
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 423,091
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark Brake developed the world’s first science and science fiction degree in 1999. He also launched the world’s first astrobiology degree in 2005. He’s communicated science through film, television, print, and radio on five continents, including for NASA, Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum, the BBC, the Royal Institution, and Sky Movies. He was one of the founding members of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute Science Communication Group. Mark also tours Europe with Science of Doctor Who, Science of Star Wars, and Science of Superheroes road shows. His most recent book, The Science of Superheroes, publishes in spring of 2018.

Read an Excerpt



"Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living. Since the dawn of time, roughly a hundred billion human beings have walked the planet Earth. Now this is an interesting number, for by a curious coincidence there are approximately a hundred billion stars in our local universe, the Milky Way. So for every man who has ever lived, in this Universe there shines a star. But every one of those stars is a sun, often far more brilliant and glorious than the small, nearby star we call the Sun. And many — perhaps most — of those alien suns have planets circling them. So almost certainly there is enough land in the sky to give every member of the human species, back to the first ape-man, his own private, world-sized heaven — or hell. How many of those potential heavens and hells are now inhabited, and by what manner of creatures, we have no way of guessing; the very nearest is a million times farther away than Mars or Venus, those still remote goals of the next generation. But the barriers of distance are crumbling; one day we shall meet our equals, or our masters, among the stars. Men have been slow to face this prospect; some still hope that it may never become a reality. Increasing numbers, however, are asking: 'Why have such meetings not occurred already, since we ourselves are about to venture into space?' Why not, indeed? Here is one possible answer to that very reasonable question. But please remember: this is only a work of fiction. The truth, as always, will be far stranger."

— Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

[Yondu is floating in the air, hanging on his arrow]
The idea of a universe full of extraterrestrial life has produced many of the best movie taglines. "In space, no one can hear you scream," "we are not alone," "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," "the truth is out there," and, of course, "you only get one chance to save the galaxy twice." Science fiction writers and directors have thought long and hard about the portrayal of creatures from other worlds. The predatory and possessive mother in Ridley Scott's Alien, the swirling and sentient sea in Steven Soderbergh's Solaris, and the wise, benevolent sage with curious sentence construction in George Lucas's Star Wars series have three very contrasting extraterrestrial types: alien as highly evolved killer, alien as ocean-planet, and alien as guiding mentor, perhaps only lacking a little gravitas due to being a puppet.

There are huge numbers of extraterrestrial races in the Marvel Comics Universe. So much so that the Guardians of the Galaxy, a band of former intergalactic outlaws, have teamed up to protect the Galaxy from planetary threats. The Galactic Council is an assembly of leaders of different alien empires from across that Universe with major races such as the Kree and the Skrulls presiding over scores of secondary alien races, mostly humanoid, but occasionally weird such as the A'askvarii, a greenskinned race with octopus traits, three-toed taloned feet, three tentacles sprouting from each shoulder rather than arms, and closely-spaced needle-like teeth, which would make a mess of an intergalactic burger. But, just in case you thought this was all new, take a look at how long aliens have dwelled in the human imagination.

Science fiction, driven by the discoveries of science, has been conjuring up extraterrestrials for many a moon. In fact, for much longer than you'd first imagine. Take the relationship between Italian astronomer Galileo and German math genius Johannes Kepler, for example. Moved by Galileo's discoveries with the telescope, Kepler was one of the first writers to imagine alien life. (And this is in the first few years of the 1600s!) Kepler made sure that the extraterrestrials stalking the characters in his proto-science fictional book, Somnium, published in 1634, are not humans. Instead, they are serpent-like creatures, which are fit to survive their lunar, but quite alien, haunt. So, more than two centuries before Darwin, Johannes Kepler had been the first to grasp the bond between life forms and habitat, science and science fiction. But, generally speaking, before science fiction really rocketed into the creative imagination in the late nineteenth century, extraterrestrials were not normally portrayed as genuine alien beings. They were merely seen as humans and animals living on other worlds.

Charles Darwin changed all that, for Darwin essentially invented the alien.

Darwin's theory of evolution gave science fiction grounds for imagining what kind of life might evolve off Earth, as well as on it. From Darwin on, the notion of life beyond our home planet was linked with the physical and mental characteristics of the true extraterrestrial, and the idea of the alien became deeply embedded in the public imagination, so it's no surprise that the most credible extraterrestrials occur after his work. The archetypal alien, with its strange physiology and intellect, also owes much to H.G. Wells's first major take on Darwin: Wells's 1898 Martian invasion novel, The War of the Worlds. Wells's Martians are agents of the void. They are the brutal natural force of evolution, and history's first menace from space. Wells's genocidal invaders, would-be colonists of planet Earth, were so influential that the alien as monster became something of a cliché in the twentieth century — and the idea thrills us still. The alien as monster stalks the Nostromo in Ridley Scott's electrifying movie Alien, lies at the heart of each Dalek in Doctor Who, and briefly, to the soundtrack of ELO's Mister Blue Sky, consumes Drax during the surreal opening title sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

With advances in science, especially biology, early writers became more imaginative about alien life forms. Evolution traveled into space with the writings of French astronomer Camille Flammarion in 1872, barely a dozen years or so after Darwin published The Origin of Species. Flammarion's three Stories of Infinity were ingenious tales of an intangible alien life-force. If natural selection was universal, there was no reason on Earth why the random process of evolution should merely produce humanoids on other planets. Distinguished British astronomer Fred Hoyle used his science to inspire his stories, but his fiction was not forced by his physics. Hoyle's first novel, The Black Cloud (1957), is about a living cloud of interstellar matter!

Polish science-fiction writer, Stanislaw Lem, pushed the creative imagination about alien life even further. In his famous Solaris (written in 1961 followed by movie adaptations in 1972 and 2002), now an entire planet enclosed by an ocean, Solaris is portrayed as a single organism with a vast yet strange intelligence that humans strive to understand.

And then, of course, there's the depiction of the extraterrestrial as wise, benevolent teacher, here to save us from ourselves. These are the kind of aliens that show up in films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where the extraterrestrials are presented as civilized and munificent aliens of superior intelligence. In the same way, aliens such as Yoda possess an almost saintly wisdom, and Marvel's Watchers are cast in a similar vein; one of the oldest species in the Universe, the Watchers are committed to watching and compiling knowledge on all aspects of life in the cosmos.

But, here's the point about all of these different portrayals of extraterrestrial life. Even though science has made tremendous advances in the understanding of space during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, scientists still have relatively little to say about the psychology and physiology of the alien. That's the job of science fiction, which has been conducting a kind of continuous thought experiment on the matter for centuries.

British science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, knows all about this relationship. He stressed the influence of science fiction on the alien life debate when he said in 1968, "I have little doubt that the Universe is teeming with life. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is now a fully accepted department of astronomy. The fact that it is still a science without a subject should be neither surprising nor disappointing. It is only within half a human lifetime that we have possessed the technology to listen to the stars."

Clarke was very aware of the huge inspiration that science takes from fiction. In the history of the scientific debate on alien life, there have typically been two camps: physicists, and biologists. The physical scientists such as astronomers have often tended to a deterministic view of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. They focus on the physical forces in the Universe and make arguments based on the sheer number of stars and orbiting planets, which they feel is somehow statistically sufficient to suggest that other Earths lie waiting in the vastness of deep space. Fiction, for many centuries, led from the front with this same argument. And since Copernicus came before Darwin, and physics before biology, fictional accounts of alien life have usually been placed firmly in the pro-SETI, pro-life camp of the alien debate. By the twentieth century, an entire generation of future SETI-hunters was cast under the same spell, and the imaginative power of science fiction meant that a huge investment of time and money was put into the serious scientific search for extraterrestrials.

But, as the twentieth century progressed, the story changed. Some scientists thought we might, after all, be alone in the Universe. In particular, biologists began to emphasize that while physics and fiction still think along deterministic lines, evolutionists are impressed by the incredible improbability of intelligent life ever to have evolved, even on Earth. Or, to put it in the powerful words of American anthropologist Loren Eisley, "So deep is the conviction that there must be life out there beyond the dark, one thinks that if they are more advanced than ourselves they may come across space at any moment, perhaps in our generation. Later, contemplating the infinity of time, one wonders if perchance their messages came long ago, hurtling into the swamp muck of the steaming coal forests, the bright projectile clambered over by hissing reptiles, and the delicate instruments running mindlessly down with no report ... in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever."

It may be tomorrow or a decade or century from now until we discover if Guardians of the Galaxy is right. The day may come when we make the most shattering discovery of all time: the discovery of a thriving extraterrestrial civilization. When our current century dawned, we'd been imagining alien life for almost two and a half millennia, but as space agencies build flotillas of space telescopes to search for life in this unearthly Universe, the crucial questions remain unanswered.

The American space observatory Kepler, launched in 2009 to find Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, took off four hundred years after Galileo's first use of the telescope, and is of course named after that first great Copernican theorist, Johannes Kepler. Based on Kepler's early findings, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI institute, estimated that "within a thousand light-years of Earth" there are "at least 30,000 habitable planets." Based on the same findings, the Kepler team projected "at least 50 billion planets in the Milky Way" of which "at least 500 million" are in the habitable zone. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was of a similar opinion. JPL reported an expectation of two billion "Earth analogues" in our Galaxy, and noted there are around, "50 billion other galaxies" potentially bearing around one sextillion Earth analog planets.

Over those last two and a half thousand years, a stunning array of writers and scholars, philosophers and filmmakers have devoted their energies to imagining life beyond this Earth. Their task has been to try reducing the gap between the new worlds uncovered by science and exploration, and the fantastic strange worlds of the imagination. Their huge contribution has been important not only in the way that the fictional imagination has helped us visualize the unknown, but also for the way in which it has helped us define our place in a changing cosmos.

Stories rule. In the rich evolution of the question of extraterrestrial life, science fiction has influenced issues and debates in science, and in turn, popular culture has been inspired by scientific discovery and invention. The history of the alien has hinted at the revolutionary effects on human science, society, and culture that knowledge of another civilization will bring. If we may be so bold as to suggest that humanity is at least one way in which the cosmos can know itself, what more is out there to be discovered?



"If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans."

— Stephen Hawking, The Guardian (2010)

"Why should a vastly superior race bother to harm or destroy us? If an intelligent ant suddenly traced a message in the sand at my feet reading, "I am sentient; let's talk things over," I doubt very much that I would rush to grind him under my heel. Even if they weren't super-intelligent, though, but merely more advanced than mankind, I would tend to lean more toward the benevolence, or at least indifference, theory. Since it's most unlikely that we would be visited from within our own solar system, any society capable of traversing light-years of space would have to have an extremely high degree of control over matter and energy."

— Stanley Kubrick, Playboy (1968)

"The division of intelligent life into two categories — natural and artificial — may eventually prove to be meaningless. We may anticipate the synthesis of body parts ... artificial intelligent beings of the future may be very long-lived. Their civilizations might be vastly longer-lived than civilizations like our own. Such civilizations could be very advantageous for interstellar contact among advanced communities ... [and] might be able to transmit the treasures of science and the heritage of culture of a dead civilization into the cosmos for hundreds of millions of years."

— Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii, Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966)

Ian Donnelly: [narrating] "Why did they park where they did? The world's most decorated experts can't crack that one. The most plausible theory is that they chose places on earth with the lowest incidence of lightning strikes. But there are exceptions. The next most plausible theory is that Sheena Easton had a hit song at each of these sites in 1980. So, we just don't know."

— Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016)


Excerpted from "The Science of Science Fiction"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Mark Brake.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Guardians of the Galaxy: Is Space Full of Extraterrestrials?,
Arrival: How Do Humans Compare with Aliens?,
How Did Science Fiction Put Men on the Moon?,
Should Science Make a Real-Life Jurassic World?,
Interdimensional Rick and Morty: Do Parallel Worlds Exist?,
The War of the Worlds: How Did Science Fiction Convince Us Aliens Would Invade?,
Avatar: Are There Other Earths in Space?,
Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Why Are Wars in Space so Wrong?,
The Martian: When Will We Colonize Space?,
Passengers: Will Space Tourism Ever Please Jennifer Lawrence?,
Back to the Future: Will Time Travel Ever Be Possible?,
Interstellar: How Does Time Work as a Dimension?,
Looper: Will We Ever Build a Time Machine?,
2001: A Space Odyssey: Is There Evidence of Guided Evolution in Human History?,
What's the History of Science Fiction in Seven Objects?,
Mad Max: Is Society Running down into Chaos?,
Minority Report and The Matrix: Will We Ever Develop Pre-Cognition?,
Lord of Light: How Does Science Fiction Cheat Death?,
Apocalypse Now: In What Six Ways Does Science Fiction See the End of Our World?,
Man in the High Castle: What Does Science Fiction Say about History?,
Battle of New York: How Did Science Fiction Invent the Nuke?,
Is George Orwell's 1984 Becoming a Reality?,
When Will We Be Able to Boast Blade Runner-Like Flying Cars?,
Total Recall: When Will We Vacation in Cyberspace?,
Transformers: Age of Extinction: Will Robots Replace Humans?,
Avengers: Age of Ultron: When Will Machine Intelligence Come of Age?,
Jacking In: Will the Future be Like Ready Player One?,
The Internet: Will Humans Tire of Mere Reality?,
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: How Did Science Fiction Invent the Rocket?,
Dr. Strangelove: From Reagan's Star Wars to Trump's Space Force,
Gods and Monsters: Will Humans Evolve Superpowers?,
Hitman: Can Genetic Engineering Produce Super Soldiers?,
Professor Charles Xavier: Could Future Humans Evolve Psychic Powers?,
The Island: Could Cloning End in Organ Harvesting Farms?,
Blade Runner 2049: When Will We Engineer Human Lookalikes?,
X-Men: Will There be Mutant Humans in the Future?,
Brave New World: Will Eugenics be Used on Human Populations in the Future?,
Orphan Black: What Does the Future Hold for Human Cloning?,
Black Mirror and Altered Carbon: When Will Human Consciousness Slip Its Skin?,
The Amazing Spider-Man: Why is the World Hung Up on the Idea of a Super-Serum?,

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