Ontario is home to Robert J. Sawyer, “the dean of Canadian science fiction” as described by The Ottawa Citizen, and the man The New York Times calls a master of “bold scientific extrapolation.” Rob is a Hugo and Nebula award winner; this is like winning the Academy Award for scifi for those of us who love the genre. But you may also know him from FlashForward–his work that was turned into an ABC TV series. Not content with just fiction, Rob has also consulted for innovators such as Google, Motorola, NASA, and DARPA.
What we love about Rob is that he opens up people’s minds about cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, stem-cell research, and nanotechnology, exploring the societal impact they are going to have.
So in honour of his much-anticipated new novel Triggers, we asked Rob to tell us about his top five favourite innovations that were conceived of first in the minds of science fiction writers.
Science fiction’s job isn’t to predict the future. Rather, it spreads out for us the smorgasbord of all possible futures—it’s up to us to pick the one we want. Still, it is true that science fiction has presaged many of the technologies we use today. Here are some of my favourites:
It’s a silly canard that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet. Of course, he never said that. It’s an equally silly claim that science fiction failed to predict the Internet. In fact, it did so repeatedly. The oldest reference to something like the Internet was probably Mark Twain’s “telectroscope,” which he proposed in a 1898 short story:
The improved “limitless-distance” telephone was presently introduced, and the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues.
Something even closer to our modern Internet—and the World Wide Web that supervenes upon it—was put forth in Murray Leinster’s short story “A Logic Named Joe,” first published in 1946. He predicts massively interlinked computers providing answers to questions on any subject at any time from anywhere. Leinster’s narrator, an aw-shucks repairman, describes technology eerily reminiscent of what we now rely on 66 years later:
You know the logics setup. You got a logic in your house. It looks like a vision receiver used to, only it’s got keys instead of dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get … Say you punch “Station SNAFU” on your logic. Relays in the tank take over an’ whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin’ comes on your logic’s screen. Or you punch “Sally Hancock’s Phone” an’ the screen blinks an’ sputters an’ you’re hooked up with the logic in her house an’ if somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was mistress of the White House durin’ Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R sellin’ for today, that comes on the screen too … everything you wanna know or see or hear, you punch for it an’ you get it.
And really, after all, is “Joe” any sillier a name than “Google”?
These days, many of us rely on tablet computers including Apple’s iPad and Research in Motion’s PlayBook. Ironically, the computing company whose name we don’t associate with such devices was the one to first vividly propose them. The astronauts in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey are clearly seen using tablet computers that bear the IBM logo.
Last year, I got to see 2001 on the big screen for the first time in decades at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and was amused to note that IBM even almost had the right name; you can just make it out when seeing the movie that big: “NewsPad.”
The “pad” name was also presaged by Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Picard and his crew constantly used tablet computers called PADDs (for “Personal Access Display Devices”). The distinctive look for Trek’s simulated tablet-computer displays, designed by Mike Okuda, is now commonly seen on iPads and Android tablets sported by geeks: there are apps to make them mimic the ones from the Enterprise.
In the novel version of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke describes one of the astronauts using a tablet computer:
When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug in his foolscap-size newspad into the ship’s information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. In a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased … one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information.
In other words, science fiction even predicted that surfing the web could become an enormous time sink. See, we warned you! Now, if you’ll just kindly read on …
There’s a debate going on among science-fiction fandom right now: should Martin Scorsese’s wonderful movie Hugo be nominated for the Hugo Award—which coincidentally happens to be the name of the science-fiction field’s top honour? The question hinges on whether there’s anything science fictional in the film. Those who want to argue that there is point to the wonderful automaton that Hugo Cabret and his friends repair and restore in the movie. But, in fact, such clockwork mechanical men really did exist in 1931, when the movie is set—although, of course, they lacked any volition or autonomy; they were really just very elaborate windup toys.
But today we do have real robots—everything from the Roomba that vacuums your floor to the rovers we send tooling around Mars. Not only did science fiction give us the notion of robots, it even gave them their name, which comes from the 1920 play R.U.R. by playwright Karel Capek; the initials in the title stand for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and his play deals with servant androids that rebel against their human masters—a science-fictional prediction that hasn’t come true … yet.
The most-famous robot stories in all of science fiction are those by Isaac Asimov (who coined the term “robotics”). When Honda built a walking-and-dancing robot in 2000, it was named Asimo. We’re sometimes told that’s merely a coincidence, and that the robot’s name is an acronym for “Advance Step in Innovative MObility.” Riiiight. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, the super computer was named HAL (also supposedly a pretty dubious acronym, this time for “Heuristic ALgorithmic”). But the initials HAL are alphabetically one step ahead of IBM. Clarke denies that was intentional—and I believe him … about as much as I believe Honda.
Most scholars have come to agree with British critic Brian Aldiss, who contends that the first work of science fiction was Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus. Its main character is a scientist—Dr. Victor Frankenstein—who is applying what he knows of chemistry and biology to a scientific problem: how to reverse the putrefaction and decay that occurs after death.
(This means that science fiction’s bicentennial will be upon us in six short years. I don’t know about you, but I’m planning a party!)
If Shelley was science fiction’s grandmother, then its father was H.G. Wells, and he took the biotech ball and ran with it, producing his haunting 1896 novel of chimera life forms, The Island of Doctor Moreau. And Aldous Huxley gave us one of our first tastes of genetic engineering with his humans of various castes grown in glass containers, in his 1932 novel Brave New World.
It’s often been suggested that this will be the biotech century, and perhaps it will. But science fiction got there well in advance, and the fact that we are proceeding with prudence and caution in these areas is something we have science fiction to thank for.
When people talk about all the things science fiction correctly predicted, they often cite moon landings and submarines (suggested by Jules Verne) or surveillance technology (made famous by George Orwell).
But I think the most important thing science fiction predicted is that there will in fact be a future. Ever since the advent of nuclear weapons (predicted in such detail in the magazine Astounding Stories that the FBI demanded a recall of one of its issues—a demand the publisher refused), through the cold war and the war on terror, to now as we stand at the brink of catastrophic climate change, science fiction has always said that humankind does have a future that stretches ahead of us for hundreds, thousands, and even millions of years.
Whether those visions will come true remains to be seen; the job of science-fiction writers was merely to put options on the table. But the possibility that the human journey has only just begun is the most wondrous prediction of all.
Robert J. Sawyer’s latest novel is Triggers, from Penguin Canada.