Finding an excuse to watch Star Trek and call it research, Russ Swan compares science fiction with real world technological advances and realises some of the most significant gaps lie within fiction rather than today’s reality.
What surprised me during my, ahem, research, was not the things that science fiction got right, but those it got wrong – and shouldn’t have.
I've been revisiting some guilty pleasures from my misspent youth, under the guise of research. In doing so I have learned something quite unexpected, which slightly changes my world view.
It has often been suggested that the almost-miraculous technological advances of recent years owe much to science fiction. The theory has it that yesterday's youthful daydreamers sought to make real the fictional worlds they encountered in the pages of pulp novels and B-movies, either by inventing it or financing it.
There is perhaps no better example than the current billionaire's space race, with two of Earth's richest people (plus Richard Branson) stroking their engorged egos with private rockets and grandiose plans to colonise the cosmos. Who can begrudge them that? It's not as if there are any virulent diseases for which we have no treatment, people with no roof over their heads or nations to belong to, or hunger anywhere on planet Earth. No, we fixed all those things. Let's go play at being astronauts.
Many other advances we take for granted have, supposedly, been spurred in the imagination by visions of the future from some of the forward-thinkers of the past. Air travel, pocketable computers, nuclear energy, and teleportation. All routine today, all first conceived in flights of literary fancy. Except teleportation! When this bug is over, and we all have to start commuting again, please let some zillionaire make that a priority.
Some of the future from times past has come true while some, disappointingly, hasn't. What surprised me during my, ahem, research, was not the things that science fiction got right, but those it got wrong – and shouldn’t have.
I've been rereading some epic sci-fi novels from the 1980s, and rewatching some of my favourite space adventures. Not only did these often fail to see what was ahead, they couldn't even see what was already there.
Whenever a Star Trek spaceship undergoes some malfunction or is invaded by a malevolent species (which is often), the command crew struggles for information about what is going on. Inevitably, some brave volunteer, along with a hapless red shirt, is sent scurrying along the Jefferies tubes down to engineering. Have they never heard of CCTV? Even when the franchise first broke in the 1960s, this was an established technology. By the late 20th century, when the 24th century Voyager was flung to the far reaches of the galaxy, it was all pervasive back here on Earth. Did it somehow get uninvented?
Plenty of other developments seem to have only taken place in our universe, not any parallel sci-fi realm. I'm reading a prize-winning novel from the 80s where our 23rd century protagonist drives a manual automobile to the spaceport, and later has necessarily short messages beamed to a spaceship in orbit around Mercury – where they are printed out on slips of paper. It's helpful to the plot that this slip is the only copy, so whoever reads it can destroy it and be the only one who is party to the secret, but really? This suggests 19th century levels of sophistication and Morse code levels of data transfer.
So, what's the lesson? I feel less disappointed by the lack of faster-than-light travel and anti-gravity devices, and curiously smug about today's instant multimedia digital communications. It comes down to this: it's cool here in the future.