Columns > Published on September 4th, 2018

"Space Odyssey": How Science Fiction Can Predict the Future

An interesting occurrence that took place recently was Catherynne Valente, author of Space Opera, tweeting about how all science fiction is political. Specifically, it is progressive. On August 19, she tweeted:

Listen up, Nazi idiots:
1. Science fiction is progressive, always has been and always will be.
2. If you're so superior start your own event and it will obviously outshine Worldcon, right?
3. Try reading books instead of burning them, you goosestepping morons.

This was in reaction to white nationalist demonstrators at The World Science Fiction Convention. Unfortunately this led to the author, who is months pregnant, getting death threats via direct message from angry science fiction fans.

The thing is, progress isn’t necessarily liberal, or even political, although more often than not it ends up that way. Where the Venn Diagram crosses is that most liberals believe there are problems in society that can only be solved by doing things differently than they’ve ever been done. Conservatives, by contrast, tend to believe there are problems in society that could be solved by reverting back to old practices. Hence the current administration and state of this country.  

...most liberals believe there are problems in society that can only be solved by doing things differently... Conservatives, by contrast, tend to believe there are problems in society that could be solved by reverting back to old practices.

Progress, however, can be problematic. Take, for instance, Lessons from the Screenplay’s argument about Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton's book, and Steven Spielberg's movie, present advances in science, such as cloning, but for conservative means. Putting animals on display and charging vast amounts of money for tourists to come visit them is, more and more, becoming something that violates liberal values.

Jurassic Park did, however, in many ways predict the future, with genetic engineering, virtual reality to assist other tasks, and more. That’s what fiction does; it has often predicted the future. In the case of science fiction, a goal is often to craft a story around something that could conceivably take place. This is done either by extrapolating the natural progression of current trends, or imagining conceivable trends that will eventually develop. People who do this have come to be known as Futurists, but science fiction authors have been doing this since the dawn of the genre.

Many authors have predicted the future, but how many have created the future? When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and published it in 1818, she was dallying in ideas that today could be construed as cloning or bioengineering. But at the time she didn’t have the terminology or even the faintest twinkle in her eye that this was a possibility. As a result, she hardly delves into the “science” of what Victor Frankenstein actually does to bring his monster to life.

By comparison, Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon may have planted the seed for later generations to seek out space exploration. The story is notable in that Verne actually did rough calculations for his space cannon that, in retrospect, are surprisingly good enough for government work. Obviously this method of space travel has not and will not ever be used, but it's still remarkable.

More than a century later cyberpunk czar William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.” Although he'd used this word in his 1982 short story "Burning Chrome", his 1984 magnum opus Neuromancer is usually given the credit due to this section:

The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games. … Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.

So in situations like this, one has to wonder who influenced who. When English scientist Tim Berners-Lee (not Al Gore) invented the Internet in 1989, had he been reading his Gibson? He'd been envisioning a global hyperlinked information system for years but the idea didn't really begin to proliferate until 1985, after Neuromancer's publication. When he wrote the first web browser in 1990, and it was released to the world in 1991, was Berners-Lee imagining himself as a "console cowboy"? Regardless, by the mid-‘90s cyberspace was a common term used for the Internet and it persists to this day. 

Arguably, however, even bigger scientific breakthroughs were influenced by writers decades before Gibson. Arthur C. Clarke, for instance, is essentially responsible for all modern telecommunications and the struggle to conquer space. This brings me to the real focus of this article, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson. Published on April 3 of this year, 50 years after the release of both 2001: A Space Odyssey the movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and its novel written concurrently by Clarke, it covers the making of both. This is an incredibly in-depth book with insider accounts and interviews from a swath of those involved, including not just the words of the now deceased creators but also Kubrick's widow Christiane; visual effects supervisor Doug Trumbull; Dan Richter, who played the opening’s leading man-ape; and several other voices and perspectives.

What this book reveals is how even before 2001, Clarke had been having a major influence on the "Space Race" and scientific advancements in general. A prolific writer, with more than 100 published books, he was praised for his ability to foresee the possibilities of human innovation and explain them to the layman. The most famous of these predictions is from 1945, when in Wireless World magazine he first proposed the idea of communications satellites that could be based in geostationary orbits in his paper "The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications". This would keep satellites in a fixed position relative to the ground, a kernel of an idea that would eventually become the space program, as the author, also a physicist, had originally envisioned these satellites as fuel depots for space ships leaving the Earth:

As such it may fill an important though transient role in the conquest of space, during the period when chemical fuels are employed.... However, there is at least one purpose for which the station is ideally suited and indeed has no practical alternative. This is the provision of world-wide ultra-high-frequency radio services, including television.

Although some were skeptical at the time, fresh out of a war that consumed the world, Clarke borrowed a phrase from William James, and suggested that exploring the solar system could serve as the "moral equivalent of war," giving people another goal to strive for while avoiding a nuclear war. 20 years later Intelstat I, nicknamed Early Bird, the first of the commercial satellites that provide global communications networks, was launched.

In the years that followed his satellite proposal, Clarke’s ideas about man’s push into space manifested in his fiction writing, leading to what would ultimately be reconceived as 2001. As Benson details, “The Sentinel”, written in 1948 and first published as “Sentinel of Eternity” in 1951, deals with the discovery of an artifact on the Moon left behind eons ago by ancient aliens. The tetrahedral object, made of a polished mineral, is believed by the narrator to have been put there to send out signals into space as warnings for when mankind becomes too dangerous. By comparison, in 2001, the monolith is activated and beams out a signal toward Jupiter when it is simply discovered, as sunlight touches it for the first time after it is dug up. Although the aliens' motivation is left vague in 2001, it's a bit more optimistic in that it's hinted mankind may be ready for the next step in evolution.

Although the book is much more verbose in its descriptions compared to the movie's spartan explanations and striking visuals, both have left an indelible mark on the scientific community. As this 2014 article explains, 2001 made many predictions that have been influential:

  • One of the most notable visions is the large, low Earth orbiting, revolving space station in the film. Although the shape is different, today's space station is permanently crewed and international.
  • Flat-screen computer monitors that were unheard of in 1968 are now commonly used on the space station.
  • The film imagines glass cockpits in spacecraft, which were present on the flight deck of the space shuttle.
  • The film also envisions in-flight entertainment in space. Today there are DVDs, iPods and computers with e-mail access.
  • Another famous scene from the movie depicts an astronaut jogging in space. Aboard the International Space Station, exercise in space is routine. In April 2007, 210 miles above Earth, astronaut Sunita Williams ran the Boston Marathon while in orbit.

Although some of the things in the film are not yet realities, some of them are in the works. For example, NASA is working to extend humanity's presence beyond low-earth orbit, embarking on an ambitious journey to Mars that should see humans on the Red Planet in the 2030s. Other ventures in space, such as hotels in orbit and routine tourist space travel are being planned by commercial spaceflight companies.

All of this is surely progress, as Catherynne Valente would argue. One would hope aspirational texts like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its adaptation by Stanley Kubrick would cross the aisle when it comes to politics, but these days the conversation has all but crumbled in on itself. 50 years ago, however, two men came together to influence a generation of thinkers, and for a brief window there they dreamed big. Michael Benson captures that perfectly in his book, and hopefully it, and other celebrations this year, will remind people of how humanity used to thirst for knowledge.

Get Space Odyssey at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

A professor once told Bart Bishop that all literature is about "sex, death and religion," tainting his mind forever. A Master's in English later, he teaches college writing and tells his students the same thing, constantly, much to their chagrin. He’s also edited two published novels and loves overthinking movies, books, the theater and fiction in all forms at such varied spots as CHUD, Bleeding Cool, CityBeat and Cincinnati Magazine. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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