Science and Science Fiction

This section of the site is all about the future imagined in our fictional past.  The future we now inhabit.  Science fiction, in other words.

Under the headings of Space, Time, Machine, and Monster in the navigational bar above is gathered a growing collection of articles about science and science fiction.  Each of the pieces is a cross-referenced entry in celebration of the inspiration that science and science fiction constantly give to one another.

SF, or Sci-Fi

Consider this: today, media headlines trumpet the discovery of extra solar planets, cloning experiments and the teleportation of atoms. As we switch on the television we see walking and talking robots, private jets that ferry travellers to the edge of space, and interplanetary probes that rendezvous with asteroids. Science tells us that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born.  We are the first generation to live in a science fiction world.

The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the culture we consume, and the pre-natal care our mothers took.  All these things shape our physical and mental development. All of these things were the stuff of fiction that became fact. The days when fictional scientists did unspeakable research like transplanting human hearts are long gone. The procedure is now standard in hospitals across the globe.

But there is a downside.  A crumbling environment, nuclear stockpiles, continuous surveillance, rogue pathogens and children doped up on behaviour controllers.  On such a threatened planet, science fiction has become hardcore realism.  It seems somehow laced into global atrocities, such as 9/11, and imminent threats, such as avian flu.

We need science fiction more than ever.  A dizzying display of possible futures beguiles and torments us. There are thousands of challenges that the human race must face to accommodate our burgeoning populations, feed our starving children, and ease our troubled world.

Science fiction is no longer a sub-culture. Its proliferation in the form of books, films, tv, games, and comics reflects its increasing impact. It has moved into the mainstream with the advent of the information age it helped realise.  The digital and hyperconnected globe of the world wide web.  Of the fifty highest grossing movies of all time, science fiction films account for thirty-five entries. Audiences of all ages will pay a tenner each to watch the latest science fiction blockbuster on the big screen.  Eight million viewers regularly tune in to the BBC to watch Doctor Who. Science fiction even has its own Sky channel running back to back series and films.  And in the ever-expanding field of computer gaming, science fiction titles dominate. The fastest selling media product in history was Microsoft’s science fiction video-game Halo 3, the game’s sales generating US$170 million on its first day!

When did it all begin?

Science fiction emerged along with science.  Way back at the time of the scientific revolution, Earth became an alien planet.  When Copernicus made the Earth-shattering suggestion that we did not live at the centre of the Universe, his revolution cut two ways.  It made Earths of the planets, and it also brought the alien to Earth. The universe of our ancestors had been small, static and Earth-centred.  Humanity was its guiding light.  The new Universe was decentralised, inhuman, and dark.

So, the first science fiction, stories of space voyages, were a response to the shock created by Copernicus’ discovery.  The shock of the new.  And ever since, science fiction has been a kind of human project that tries to make sense of the nonhuman Universe in which we find ourselves.  Our marginal position in space, our fate in time, our meddling with the machine, and the unraveling of the monster within us.

In fact, this is a neat way of thinking about science fiction.  At first, we seem to be presented with an infinity of nightmares and visions.  A bewildering array of different elements: aliens and time machines, spaceships and cyborgs, utopias and dystopias, androids and alternative histories.

But, on a deeper level, we can see four conceptual themes: space, time, machine and monster.  Each of these themes is a way of exploring the relationship between the human and the nonhuman aspects of the Universe, as unveiled by science.

So, this section is structured around these four themes.  It will allow us a closer look at how science fiction works, and its special relationship with science.

Consider the movie of Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact. The most dramatic episode occurs when Jodie Foster’s character, Dr Ellie Arroway, goes on a galactic space flight.  She is confronted with the visual marvels to be seen at the centre of our Galaxy.  The awe and wonder of the Universe.  She is lost for words in the face of such beauty and humbly suggests a poet may have been a better choice for such a journey.

That’s just how science fiction works.  It sometimes takes a poet to best express the taste, the feel, and the human meaning of scientific discoveries.  It’s a way of describing the cultural shock of discovering our marginal position in alien space.  An attempt to put the stamp of humanity back onto the Universe.  To make human what is alien.

Science fiction emerged as a way of thinking about science.  It speculates on the new worlds uncovered by discovery and exploration.  It uses the fantastic strange worlds of the imagination to come to terms with our conditions of life in a new and potentially revolutionary perspective.

It has shaped the way we see and do things, the way we dreamt of things to come. It helped us discover the familiar in relation to the unfamiliar, the ordinary in relation to the extraordinary, and forced us to explore the nature and limits of our own reality.

It helped us build the future we now live in.

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