Growing up, I was fascinated by space — next to the Blue Ranger, Bill Nye and Beakman were my idols. At night I would lie in bed and dream of becoming an astronaut, staring at the glow-in-the-dark star peppered ceiling of my spaceship wallpapered room. The adventures available to me in space seemed limitless.
Looking around now, life seems strange enough. So much of what exists today would’ve seemed impossible half a century ago, or in some cases, even 10 years ago. What was once science fiction can, in a sense, become reality.
As a genre, science fiction has become incredibly stereotyped. The term conjures up images of 1950s B-Movies with flying saucers, giant monsters and mad scientists roaming around alien worlds. Yet, in many cases, science fiction has actually predicted and even influenced scientific and technological advancements in our world.
Fly Me to the Moon
Of all the classic science fiction tricks, space travel is among the most common. Stories of aliens speeding millions of miles in earthbound flying saucers or fantastic spaceships such as Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon from Star Wars or Star Trek’s USS Enterprise can be found readily. Most of these tales contain technology that doesn’t seem likely to appear anytime soon, if ever.
Amidst the abundance of absurd B-Movies, two film releases in 1950 predicted the possibility of a lunar landing 19 years before it occurred. Although there were novels and films that touched on the subject much earlier, such as “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and H.G. Wells’s “The First Men in the Moon” (1964), “Rocketship X-M” (1950) and “Destination Moon” (1950) were the first to realistically depict the possibility of a lunar landing. A low budget rush release, “Rocketship X-M” detailed a crew of eight’s journey to the moon. However, a fuel error leads the crew off-course, and they land on Mars, where they discover the remains of a Martian civilization with an inexplicable predilection towards art-deco design.
Meanwhile, “Destination Moon” (released a mere three weeks later) chose a more logical path, actually featuring a lunar landing. Unlike many films of its age, the moon is discovered to be a desolate, tranquil place. There are no strange monsters or civilizations of art-deco-loving “moon people” living underneath the surface. There are a number of notable comparisons with the actual 1969 Apollo 11 mission, including dialog by lead astronaut, Dr. Charles Cargraves, that contains considerable similarities with Neil Armstrong’s famous words. Notably, the film also predicts the US-Soviet Space Race that would kick off seven years after its release with the Russian launch of Sputnik.
In the past 200 years, the introductions of photography, as well as sound in talkies and cinematography have vastly impacted culture and changed the face of art. Immense strides have been made in each of these fields in the past 50 years, and many science fiction works have depicted these, for better or worse.
Set in an anti-intellectual dystopian future, Ray Bradbury’s 1951 novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” takes place in a world where knowledge is disdained and books are burned. In order to convey his message, Bradbury also comments on this future world’s entertainment advancements, making a startling number of predictions that have held true. Protagonist Guy Montag’s wife constantly uses “thimble radios” in her ears to listen to music anywhere. This is a direct parallel to modern earbuds associated with MP3 players such as iPods. Additionally, the kitchen of Montag’s house contains “talking walls,” essentially wall-sized, high definition flat screen TVs used to display the “family,” an ongoing, large-scale soap opera. Bradbury uses both of these devices to criticize society’s electronic escape from reality, a topic that is even more relevant today.
A scene in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” accidentally predicts improvements in audio technology. Originally meant to be a subtle gag,
narrator Alex is seen inserting a miniature cassette of Beethoven’s ninth symphony into a high-end stereo system. At the time of release in 1971, high-fidelity audio
equipment was mostly limited to bulky and expensive reel-to-reel tape, and the prospect
of such a small device reproducing high-quality audio was laughable. The tape
label even reads “Deutsche Grammophon,” the name of a well-respected classical
music record label.
In his 1948 novel “Nineteen Eighty Four,” George Orwell introduced the world to the concept of “Big Brother,” an ominous figure who oversees the fictional state of Oceania. The concept has stuck and comparisons are often made whenever politicians suggest controversial legislation or decisions. Among the plethora of tools at Big Brother’s disposal lay closed-circuit television systems, which monitor and observe nearly every foot outside and inside of Oceania. They are constantly scrutinized for potential subversives. Although closed-circuit TV has existed on a basic level since before Orwell published “Nineteen Eighty Four,” CCTV has only recently caught on as a crime reduction technology in cities and shops worldwide. Even though these cameras are hardly as nefarious as Orwell’s, they have raised privacy concerns, including many of the same concerns voiced in his writing.
The topics of robots, computers and artificial intelligence (AI) have existed only for a relatively short time, yet they remain one of the most popular topics of science fiction.
In 1921, Czech writer Karel Čapek wrote “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” and in doing so, coined the term robot. In Čapek’s play, the robots are sentient androids of a sort and are designed to accomplish difficult or unpleasant tasks. Eventually, the robots learn to think independently and revolt, quickly taking control of the earth.
Another famous example in a similar vein is the computer HAL 9000 from Arthur C. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). A rogue computer onboard of the spaceship Discovery, HAL can talk and interact intelligently with the ship’s inhabitants and is remembered for its infamous line in Kubrick’s film adaptation, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
In 1968, the field of AI was relatively new and unexplored. As a primitive attempt at AI, a text-based “psychotherapist” named ELIZA had been made in 1966, but it only responded by evaluating keywords. Even though AI hasn’t increased to nearly the point of HAL, significant strides have been made in its direction.
Humanoid robots do exist today, such as Honda’s ASIMO; however,
they lack the humanistic appearance of Čapek’s robots or the terrifyingly perfect AI of HAL.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Looking at contemporary science fiction, it’s difficult to say what the future will bring. Rather than predictions of the future, science fiction films have more to say on the era they’re from, capturing the zeitgeist or spirit of the times. Many recent films have dealt with apocalypse (“Armageddon,” 1998), climate change (“The Day After Tomorrow,” 2004), scientific discoveries (“Jurassic Park,” 1993), the definition of reality (“The Matrix,” 1999) and dystopian futures (“V for Vendetta,” 2005, and “Watchmen,” 2009). These topics show a changing spirit of sorts, reaching out and questioning reality, and rediscovering what our limits, hopes, fears and dreams are. Nothing can predict the future, but that shouldn’t stop us from raising our eyes to the sky and dreaming of what lies ahead.