Do science fiction literature and films do more than just influence technology? This seems a simple enough premise and most of us steeped in the genre would answer with an emphatic, “Yes! Of course it does.”
Deeper reflection on the subject makes me not quite as sure as I was when I, too, answered in the affirmative. “Influence” is such a nebulous term that it makes it almost impossible to quantify to what degree a work of fiction might impact those who are making the next scientific and technological breakthroughs. Can a book, film, or television show really be the spark that can make someone spend their life working to overcome a particular hurdle? Or is it more of a gentle nudge, something that is more subliminal? Is it possible that it’s technology that drives science fiction and many of us have the relationship between the two completely wrong?
Let’s look at a case study of something not so exotic that we lose focus on the question. Submarines: a pretty decent analog for a starship in a lot of ways and something that had a development closely tied to the literature of its day. The first drawings of what is accepted as a submarine were done by none other than Leonardo da Vinci. These were not flights of fancy as Leonardo was actually trying to devise a way to construct a ship that could travel under the water’s surface, but the supporting technology of his day made his machine virtually impossible to actually build.
From these initial concept drawings came a slew of attempts including a leather covered submersible boat that navigated the Thames River using air tubes and oars to the hand-cranked “Turtle” used in the American Revolution to attach explosives to British ships (something that never actually worked.) While interesting, none of them could really be called a submarine, at least not as we understand them today: a ship capable of sustained submerged travel with the ability to keep a crew alive for the duration without the need to have any part of it surfaced.
Enter Jules Verne and his masterpiece, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Published in 1870, this work didn’t actually predict the submarine per se, but it did depict features that were so ahead of its time that many credit Verne’s Nautilus (actually named for an earlier version of the submarine) as being so plausible it drove the advancements we see in modern submersibles today including Simon Lake’s machine. Lake is widely regarded as the father of the modern submarine and his vessel, the Argonaut, was the first submersible to successfully navigate in the open ocean in 1898. An interesting aside to that is the Argonaut’s successful voyage earned Lake a congratulatory letter from Verne.
What was my point again? Ah, yes … how do we know that Verne’s work had any influence over the progression of the submarine? Would Lake have been so driven to produce something so technologically daunting at the time as the Argonaut had he not been so enamored with the adventures of Captain Nemo? Possibly. But let’s move ahead a bit and look at one of the more famous cases of science fiction directly driving innovation and it’s something we all love: our cell phones.
This is a well-known story so I won’t belabor it too much. In 1983 the first commercially available mobile phone hit the market. It was a project that was driven primarily by two men: John Mitchell and Martin Cooper working for Motorola. Cooper in particular is adamant that the inspiration for the entire project was the handheld “communicator” featured on the original Star Trek television series. He was obsessed with the concept of wireless, portable, instantaneous communication by something he saw on a science fiction program. Something that was essentially a creative liberty taken as a shortcut by the show’s makers, but try to picture the world today without it. Even outside of the First World the cell phone, and its evolutionary offspring, the smart phone, is a lifeline for business and personal use. As someone with a background in avionics and an understanding of the inner workings I still marvel at how my thin, light iPhone keeps me plugged in to every aspect of my professional and personal life no matter where I happen to be (the reliability of certain unnamed providers notwithstanding.)
That was an overt and obvious anecdote of fiction directly influencing technology and, in a very profound way, how the human species interacts with each other. Don’t believe me? Go anywhere there’s a WiFi hotspot and watch people sitting at the same table not look at each other for hours on end as they update statuses, text, tweet, and post funny animal pictures. We have an entire generation that relates to their peers on a completely different level than the one before. But … the cellular telephone worked off of principles we already understood since it’s essentially just a radio and it isn’t really quite a Star Trek communicator as it has line-of-sight range limitations and requires a vast infrastructure of repeater towers and routing hardware. So again, does science fiction really drive innovation?
Digging far back to the earliest examples we find that science fiction generally tends to reflect a future based on the leading edge of what we already know is possible. For example, by 1902 we had long realized that the moon was really another stellar object that was orbiting the Earth and were already imagining what might be on the surface and how we could find out. In the film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, voyagers climb into a giant bullet and are fired from a cannon in order to travel to the moon. Absurd premise on many levels but a bullet was understood to travel far and fast, thus it was the vehicle of choice. In the 1927 film Metropolis the wondrous tech featured was operated by levers and in Star Trek: The Next Generation there were countless scenes of Captain Picard with piles of “PADDs” on his desk, essentially a giant pile of single-app iPads. We can laugh at this today but when those examples came out in the not-so-distant past they were viewed as far-fetched.
I swear I’m getting to a point, and it’s this: looking back at the original three questions I posed can we say definitively that the genre drives technology or does the state of technology drive the creators of science fiction? As with many complex questions I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. While I was looking at examples for writing this blog I began to see a definite push-pull relationship between popular science fiction and innovation. Sometimes they take turns leading the other but the symbiotic relationship is undeniable. The answer I keep coming back to, the reason we love science fiction so much and the reason it drives people to push the limits of technology, is the story. Beyond the fantastic settings and outlandish technology it’s the story that captures out imagination and allows us to take leaps of faith and forgive lapses of logic. If a writer or film maker can take us on an adventure it will stick in our minds and take on a life of its own, sometimes pushing an engineer or scientist down a path they might not have gone. Andy Weir’s tech savvy story, The Martian, would have been just a dry recitation of engineering jargon without Mark Watney and his struggle, but with those elements we have a book, and subsequent film, that has rekindled the public’s imagination and desire to go to Mars.
While the relationship between science fiction and science fact is complicated it nonetheless plays a critical role in the advancement of the species. The dreamers and the doers have different skills and perceive the world in different ways, but I fear that one without the other would lead to stagnation and halt our exploration of everything that’s beyond what we can see with our own eyes. So, here’s to hoping we’re never without dreamers and that there’s never a shortage of doers willing to try and make those dreams reality. Cheers!