Is science fiction a good predictor of the future, or – more to the point perhaps – is science itself an effective predictor of the future ? Well, it has always seemed to me that books or films that get the science right, usually end up getting it wrong in the end… simply because science is an ever evolving discipline and theories are changed all the time as knowledge improves; yesterday’s award winning discovery is often today’s discredited theory.
A good example of this is Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 A Space Odyssey. The screenplay, as everyone knows, was by renowned sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke – worked up from his 1951 short story The Sentinel, the plot of which concerns the finding of a mysterious monolith on the Moon. If any author of his day had a good grounding in the science, it was Clarke, who collaborated with NASA to bring much of the wisdom and experience of the space program at its height to the production. A beautifully produced and directed film with millions of fans the world over of which I am one; the images of the Pan-Am craft, silently wheeling through space to Strauss’ Blue Danube are burned into our collective consciousness. But is the “future” – or “the present”, should I say – anything like that ?
For instance …where are the Moon colonies ? where is the vast rotating space station ? where is the Pan-Am shuttle to the Moon with only one passenger ? in fact … where is Pan Am and where is the manned space flight program ? But the perhaps the most way off of its predictions are encapsulated in the computer – HAL – an object weighing several tons that talks and is generally treated like a person. Comical as it may seem to the 21st century mind, with our smartphones and Google glasses, but that really was how “science” saw the future of computers just fifty years ago.
In many ways, the film represents the optimism of the post-war boom when NASA was completely free of the economic realities of today that dictate that nobody is going to the moon unless someone can first tell us what is there exactly and why we have to go to the expense and risk of sending a person there. But then the reality is, of course, that Sci-Fi isn’t about the future – it’s about the present projected onto the future. Science is great for solving today’s practical problems … but as a guide to the future of humanity its frankly next to useless.
Whether its Stanley Kubrick or Al Gore –putting your faith in science to tell you what the world will be like fifty years from now is rarely the safe bet that people think it is.
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