Back To the Future

Chesley Bonestell fifties science fiction spaceshipThe BBC Radio 4 program Archive Hour was just brilliant on the weekend. Here is the synopsis:

Adam Hart Davies looks at some of the predictions made in the past by scientists, programme-makers and politicians about how future society and technology would develop. He explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from mankind’s thirst for new inventions, new technologies and new ways of life.

(Image right: Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. See more art from that era at this excellent site.)

It brings to the issue a lot of archival footage of interviews, debates, and other material. There are interviews with many interesting people, including scientists and science fiction writers. The role of science fiction (the really good stuff, not the stuff that’s purely space opera… although sometimes it is hard to know which is which without the benefit of hindsight) is discussed quite a bit too.

There are the usual discussions about mobile phones, communications satellites, and the like, well-known things that were anticipated by writers of fiction, but the programme is much more interesting than that, reflecting upon the impact of various technologies and medical techniques (e.g. heart transplants) and how they were regarded and debated at the time, since they were often seen as either assaults on, or enhancements of (depending upon point of view) our humanity. This discussion is all in aid of reflecting upon us in the present. (Consider carefully the face transplant, for example, and how people react to what that means…)

There’s also very interesting discussion of the moral/ethical responsibility of the scientist: Should we just pursue ideas and their implementation into technology as interesting problems to work on for their own sake, or should be we mindful of the moral impact -nuclear bombs are of course the obvious example here, and there are biological issues awaiting us for this century. Should that be left to the politicians?

The programme ended with a marvelous quote from Isaac Asimov (who I spent what seems like a huge chunk of my teenage years reading) about the role of science fiction. Sadly, I could not find a transcript of it anywhere, but I found a website of other Asimov quotes (worth a browse, by the way), and found something else that is in much the same spirit (but see my remarks below it):

“Of all the branches of literature, science fiction is the most modern. It is the one literary response to the problems peculiar to our own day and no other…..Science fiction is continually lumped under the heading of ‘escape literature,’ and usually as the most extreme kind, in fact. Yet it does not escape into the ‘isn’t’ as most fiction does, of the ‘never was’ as fantasy does, but into the ‘just possibly might be.’ It is an odd form of escape literature that worried its readers with atom bombs, overpopulation, bacterial warfare, trips to the moon, and other such phenomena decades before the rest of the world had to take up the problems. (Would that the rest of the world had listened sooner!) No, no, if science fiction escapes, it is an escape into reality.” (from 1957 essay “Escape Into Reality,” reprinted in Is Anyone There?)

Well, that was written in 1957, and I’d differ with him now on the statement that science fiction is the most modern form of literature, but that detail does not change the main point. I’m still dismayed a great deal by the fact that people largely do not understand what science fiction actually is, to the extent that it has such a stigma attached to it even today. So rather than maturing into a well respected form that sits alongside all the others, there is still very much a stereotype associated to the sort of people who read science fiction, and what the nature of the writing itself is. The good thing that has happened cvj sleeping, Margaret Atwood book accompanyingis that in the years after 1957, key aspects of the genre have simply leaked off into other forms of literature, and are not called science fiction at all, although there is sometimes a shining thread connecting these forms. And then there are the deliberate attempts by writers to not undermine their “legit” status by renaming what they do not as science fiction, but something else. Consider the excellent Margaret Atwood, for example. Anyway, I’ve rambled off-topic a bit.

There’s much more there to be heard in the programme. I strongly recommend it. The link is here, and the audio ought to be up soon.

So tell us…. do you read science fiction? Consider your answer carefully… Are you sure?

Finally, since I found another really excellent quote or two of Asimov’s, which resonate so much with what I say a lot here on Asymptotia about science and society, I’ll end with them, even though not exactly on-topic:

“The publications of scientists concerning their individual work have never been so copious – and so unreadable for anyone but their fellow specialists. This has been a great handicap to science itself, for basic advances in scientific knowledge often spring from the cross-fertilization of knowledge from different specialties. Even more ominous, science has increasingly lost touch with nonscientists. Under such circumstances, scientists come to be regarded almost as magicians – feared rather than admired. And the impression that science is incomprehensible magic, to be understood only by a chosen few who are suspiciously different from ordinary mankind, is bound to turn many youngsters away from science.” (from Asimov’s New Guide to Science, 1984)

“No one can really feel at home in the modern world and judge the nature of its problems – and the possible solutions to those problems – unless one has some intelligent notion of what science is up to.” (from Asimov’s New Guide to Science, 1984)


[Update: While not exactly on the same topic, I've just noticed that both Galactic Interactions and Uncertain Principles are chatting about their favourite Science Fiction movies, so go chat with them too!]

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