Sci-Fi vs Science? 2.0

Beyond the stereotype of basement dwelling, Klingon-speaking, cosplay-wearing nerds, science fiction is of immense value. Sci-Fi writers have for years been predicting the future, inspiring technological developments, and making insightful social critiques. However, it’s not all sunshine and laser beams; filmmakers can often get science drastically wrong, leading to public misconception and even fear of scientists and their work. As we go where no blog post has gone before, we will explore examples of science fiction inspiring technology, science fiction botching fundamental scientific concepts, and science fiction making harrowing social commentary.

From fiction to fact…

One key area in which sci-fi determines our future is in technology. Many of the technologies seen in science fiction writing can be compared to magic in the fantasy genre, often serving as deus ex machina plot devices. Technology like the hyper-drive in ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ or Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver are perfect examples of this. They immediately solve any problem the protagonist has, appearing more magical than scientific. However, sci-fi stories have inspired technical engineers and inventors to make magic reality; to make what was once science fiction, science fact.

One such individual was NASA physicist Jack Cover. Inspired by the character Tom Smith from Victor Appleton’s ‘Daring Adventures in Elephant Lands’, Cover designed an electronic incapacitator weapon which he called the ‘Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle’ or Taser for short.

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First use of the taser; circa 1975 (Colourised)

Similarly, Martin Cooper who was director of R&D at Motorola in the 1970’s, claimed the design of the first mobile phone was inspired entirely by Captain Spock’s Communicator in Star Trek: “That was not a fantasy to us … That was an objective” (Ferro & Swedin, 2011, p.136). After the industrial revolution, the technological potential of science ran wild in the minds of science fiction writers, and their vision of the future has shaped the aims and objectives of a generation of scientists. Submarines, helicopters, and rockets all appeared first in the pages of science fiction; planted in the minds of children who would grow up to build the concepts that had inspired them.

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Left: Spock in Episode 0409 ‘the phantom prank caller’. Right: Realising the difference between a butt dial and a booty call.

However, science fiction is not always so encouraging. Sometimes writers are frightened by the progress of science and use their fictions to warn of the dangers of scientific advancement. One highly relevant example today is the development of Artificial Intelligence. It is the general scientific consensus that we will create AI in the next 10-15 years (Cadwalladr, 2017) but science fiction has been warning us of the dangers of AI since the 1920’s. Films like Terminator, The Matrix, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, have warned of the singularity: “a time when super-AIs improve at exponential speed, causing such technological disruption that poor, unenhanced humans are left in the dust” (Sample, 2017). One hopes that as science fiction was so brilliant in inspiring the creation of positive technology, it will also be effective in warning our young scientists of the dangers present as we move into an era where sci-fi magic becomes our new reality.

…and back to fiction…

Though science fiction has been known to make novel predictions concerning technological developments, its lack of real science calls into question its ability to predict future events. Screenwriters in Hollywood often manipulate the authority that science has in society to present a storyline based on impossible events that defy the basic laws of physics. Science fiction can, therefore, be argued to be a reflection of our society’s current state; most specifically the lack of science education that most members of the public obtain. Science fiction regularly lacks the insight into actual scientific concepts required in order to make predictions for future scientific events; there is no way that science fiction can determine our future as its projections are based on fictional scientific ‘laws’, and therefore the predictions can never be carried out – No matter how far our scientific knowledge and technological developments progress, in space no one will ever hear us scream, nor will we grow potatoes on Martian soil (sorry Matt Damon).

Science? Or baloney?

  • Matt Damon would have to bounce across the Martian surface, not walk due to lower gravity.
  • Matt Damon would die of cancer due to high levels of solar radiation usually blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Storms on Mars are not ferocious enough to lift the mighty Matt Damon.
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Ok Matt, and the rest of us over here in the realm of possibility will just sit back and chuckle smugly.

Science fiction’s distinct lack of credible science provides an insight into society’s poor standards of science education and the commonplace belief in pseudosciences and fiction as carrying the same authority as science. Having said that, one could argue that science fiction is based on a narrative and not the science used in said narrative. “Watching science as it’s really done rarely produces an adrenaline rush” (Thomas, W. 2008). It is meant for entertainment, not education, and therefore cannot be afforded some creative license when presenting impossible scientific events.

…and journeying to the centre of society.

We have seen how science fiction often predicts products of the future, but its ability to comment on present-day society is also a novel trait of the genre. To those outside of the fandom science fiction is often seen as a trivial and fabricated form of entertainment, but fans will tell you, the appeal lies in the margins of its structure.

This is especially relevant when looking at science-fiction films such as ‘In Time’, which utilises science to remark on the state of society today. ‘In Time’ de-contextualises the social-construct of time, and looks at how society would function if time were used as currency, rather than money. Replacing money with time demonstrates the contemporary issue of ever-growing wealth inequality that people face within our society. Through this concept, the film highlights the struggles of humanity, whereby people die if their ‘time’ runs out. Using time as a commodity, the characters can buy longer lives, and it brings out the social divide which we normally experience financially. Though the science may not be fundamentally accurate (Justin Timberlake stops aging at 25), there is weight in the morality of the film. Human relations and the general structure of the unequal society that we live in are exposed in the fictional setting of the film. Using science to comment on societal issues, such as social and economic inequality, often succeeds in subtly starting a dialogue concerning issues within society, that may otherwise be difficult to start.

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Checking your bank account like…

Though the surroundings and setting of the film are strictly Sci-Fi, the reflection of society is clearly visible and poses as a powerful form for structuring a commentary on sensitive topics that are otherwise ignored. The entertaining medium of science-fiction makes for an effective method of combating issues surrounding society. Another example of this exposure of current-day topics is evident in the film, ‘Interstellar’, where issues surrounding global warming are tackled in a futuristic setting. Decontextualising social issues (be it through futuristic conflicts or alternative dimensions), allows for human struggles to be the focal point for viewers without offending our contemporary sensibilities. Science fiction is therefore the ideal genre to reflect upon present-day society. Inspiration is often found in the struggles of the present, though they can be alienated and explored in new and exciting settings.

Science fiction films do have a powerful voice in many areas beyond simple science communication. Sci-Fi is a valuable medium for social commentary and as a playground for scientific speculation. There are Sci-Fi films that have successfully utilised their power to have an impact on their audience and have inspired various exciting new scientific research models. In many Sci-Fi films, creators resort to their artistic licence to present science unrealistically.  Misrepresenting aspects of science can have a negative impact on the public understanding of science, as can be seen through the public fears of specific sciences. People actually thought Jurassic Park was real… Seriously. In spite of this, science-fiction films do carry an element of truth, and represent our current status; not only in science and technology but also by reflecting upon the ways in which our society functions.

Explore far off dimensions of Sci-Fi knowledge with this further reading:

References:

Cadwalladr, C. (2017). Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so…. the Guardian. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/feb/22/robots-google-ray-kurzweil-terminator-singularity-artificial-intelligence

Ferro, D. L., & Swedin, E. G. (Eds.). (2011). Science Fiction and Computing: Essays on Interlinked Domains. McFarland.

Grierson, J. (2017). Space experts challenge accuracy of The Martian. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/20/space-experts-the-martian-matt-damon [Accessed 11 Dec. 2017].

Sample, I. (2017). AI is getting brainier: when will the machines leave us in the dust? | Ian Sample. the Guardian. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/15/artificial-intelligence-deepmind-singularity-computers-match-humans

Thomas, W. (2008). Science? Fiction! London, England: Empire.

 

By: Margot Ella Blackman, Alaw Davies, Josh Tidey, and Vaish Mohan.