The Influence of Science Fiction: How Ideas Can Shape the Future

What is Science Fiction?

Isaac Asimov defined the term science fiction as the “branch of literature which deals with the response of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Although this is a broad explanation, it is accurate. Science fiction as a genre deals with an incredibly large variety of worlds that differ from ours in some way. This could be because of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, or different social systems. The genre itself then looks at the consequences of these changes and how societies and individuals respond to it.

The History of Science Fiction: Illustrated by Ward Shelley (Click to enlarge)

How can Science Fiction Influence Us?

Stories have always engaged us as humans as they are extremely powerful; they move us, leave us in awe, and have to potential to make us think about who we are as people. Science fiction can also do all of this and even more; the most important ability science fiction have is the ability to inspire and influence. This genre promotes interest in scientific learning, and has inspired generations of scientists. Science fiction is also one of the only genres that depict how society could function differently. And by providing this social commentary, it allows us to image the future society we want and start working towards it.

Here is a short chronological list of a few science fiction novels that have inspired and influenced in many ways:

  1. True History by Lucian of Samosata (100s AD)

    Image credit: Illustration by Ruth Cobb

A fictional novel written sometime during 100s describing travels to the Moon, the Sun, and the Morning Star (Venus). It also includes encounters of life forms from these different worlds, advanced human technology, interplanetary warfare and imperialism.

Although Lucian intended this to be a satire piece to bring to light problems in society, the novel shows how the scientific advances at the time affected the Greek imagination. Many authors cite the novel to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction, having influenced many European writers and philosophers during the Renaissance.

  1. Utopia by Sir Thomas More (1516)

    Image credit: Penguin Classics Book Cover

Nowadays, utopias are a widely known concept; they are communities or societies that are ideal and perfect in every way. Sir Thomas More coined the term about 500 years ago in this novel, which contains the conversation between More, his friend Peter Giles, and Raphael Hythloday, a veteran traveler.

At first, they discuss the problems with the modern society of Europe, including poverty, criminal punishment, and wars. The rest of the book deals with Raphael’s travels to a hypothetical ideal island called Utopia, describing in detail the economic, social, and political structure of the community.

The motif of utopian and dystopian conditions became reoccurring in science fiction; they focus on worlds that are seemingly perfect, but are ultimately flawed in some way.

  1. Frankenstein and The Last Man by Mary Shelley (1818 & 1826)

Mary Shelley explored the potential negative effects of scientific advancements in her novels. Frankenstein looks into the consequences of creating life, and the warnings against pursuing knowledge because of its dangers. The Last Man is an apocalyptic novel set at the end of the 21st century, after a plague wipes out a great portion of the human population. It describes the ineffectuality of the medicine and science at the time, exploring the consequences if a disaster such as this were to occur. The novel is credited with being the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction.

  1. The World Set Free by H. G. Wells (1914)

    Image credit: FeedBooks book Cover

This novel has perhaps the most tangible impact on the technological world. H.G. Wells was always fascinated by new inventions. He had consistently predicted technological innovations in his novels, such as the use of airplanes and tanks in wars. In the novel The World Set Free, Wells described a new type of bomb fuelled by nuclear reactions, predicting it would be discovered in 1933 and first detonated in 1956. After reading the novel, physicist Leó Szilárd patented the idea. He was later directly responsible for the creation of the Manhattan Project, which led to the production of the first US nuclear weapons.

  1. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

William Gibson tells the story of Case, an infamous hacker hired by a mysterious organization to help with their plans. Gibson conjured up the idea of a global network of computers, incredibly close to the equivalent of the Internet. Although the early concept of the Internet already existed when the novel was written, the World Wide Web as we know it today was more than a decade away. Not only did Gibson describe the Internet, he also introduced the concept of cyberspace. In the novel, people could physically link their brain to the global computer network known as the ‘Matrix’, where data was not only visual, but also tangible. The novel considers the potential effects of the internet and commercialization of cyberspace.

Can Movies Help NASA’s Space Exploration Programs?

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It’s no question that support for NASA has been in a decline. About two years ago, NASA was faced with serious budget cuts to most of its programs. Included was a $300 million cut for the NASA Planetary Science Division (which houses the Mars Exploration Program), for the fiscal year of 2013.[1] In response to the much smaller budget, NASA announced the next Mars Mission, the 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter which would have studied the climate of Mars, and US involvement in the European ExoMars mission were being cancelled.

This has not been the first time NASA has faced budget cuts. Taking up 4.41% of the national spending in 1966, the budget has decreased over the years to a measly 0.47% this year.[2] And by making things more political, NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars by the year 2030 may not become a reality.

(credit: NASA/JPL)

But it’s not all bad news. One of the potential solutions is to improve public relations, to make society view NASA in a more positive light and eventually possibly influence government funding. One unlikely solution? Science fiction. Stories have always enthralled us as humans; we identifying with the struggles of characters, and as a result are impacted in profound ways. The stories that we consume through all forms of media are extremely powerful; they move us, leave us in awe, and have to potential to make us think about who we are as people. The most important ability media has, and the most prevalent in science fiction, is the ability to inspire. Science fiction is the only genre that depicts how society could function differently, allowing us to image the future we want, and take the first step of working towards it.

And this storytelling is exactly what NASA takes advantage of by promoting the most recent popular space exploration film in theatres: The Martian.

The movie tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut who has been stranded on the red planet after being presumed dead by his crew. With limited supplies, Watney uses ingenuity and perseverance to stay alive. Meanwhile on Earth, NASA and scientists from around the world work continuously to try and bring him home.

NASA sees this movie as an opportunity to reengage the public with space exploration and travel. They have used this publicity to also show their own goals of sending astronauts to Mars in the foreseeable future, and coupled with the revelation of water on Mars just 4 days before theatrical release, interest has never been higher.

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This was not the first time NASA has been consulted for realistic space travel in big-budget movies. Just in the last two years, Gravity and Interstellar producers have also worked with the agency. There’s no doubt that there has been a rise in space movies in the past years, but how has the public reacted? Very positive, actually. In a recent survey, more than 50% of citizens in America are in support for a manned Mars mission, and over 65% are certain that it will successfully happen before 2050.

Overall, The Martian doesn’t really make a compelling case for an increase in budget for sending humans to Mars. But what it does make is show us a captivating, optimistic, and very plausible, story about humanity. It may not be enough to overcome the obstacles of Mars exploration for the US, but it has definitely caught the nation’s interest.

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer for The Martian:

1. http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2129/1

2. http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/feb/01/nasa-budgets-us-spending-space-travel