Science Fiction: It's the Gift of Foresight

By Webber, Tom | The Florida Times Union, July 10, 2012 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction: It's the Gift of Foresight


Webber, Tom, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Tom Webber

There are words so iconic that they have immediate recognition. To list but a few:

"These are the voyages. ..."

"May the Force be with you."

"You unlock this door with the key of imagination."

"I'll be back."

Before men walked on the moon, before computers controlled our lives, before rockets carried astronauts into orbit, before satellites whirled overhead, and before humans learned to live and work in space, there were the masters of science fiction, who envisioned such accomplishments long before they became reality.

As we emerge from the dawn of the 21st century, we find ourselves living in a time that was once thought fantastic and impossible, wondrous yet unobtainable, the mere fantasy of dreamers of long ago.

Although science fiction in its many forms is primarily intended to be entertaining, the medium can provide insight into science and technology. In fact, many authors, such as Arthur C. Clarke, had backgrounds in science and engineering and that knowledge, and their expectations for the future, can be seen in their works.

There are those who would argue that while science fiction may be visionary by design, it is prophetic by accident. After all, nobody knows what the future might bring.

I disagree. These creative people do have a gift of foresight. Besides, it is the nature of humanity to accept challenges. So, should science fiction portray a technology or society that is desirable, there are those who would embrace that possibility and endeavor, through invention or reform, to make it a reality.

That is, science fiction can become self-fulfilling.

It also inspires. There are many scientists, engineers, mathematicians and astronauts who have said that it was a fascination of science fiction that motivated them to pursue their fields. They got a glimpse of what could be and chose to be a part of it.

Yet, sadly, it is often treated as a lesser form of literature, art and entertainment. Indeed, no science fiction movie has ever won an Academy Award for Best Picture, although several memorable and outstanding works have been nominated, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey;" "Star Wars;" "E.T., The Extraterrestrial;" and "Avatar."

But it takes a very imaginative intellect to craft entire worlds, characters and technologies and to draw audiences into that creation.

Mark Twain, for example, gave us wonderful and amusing stories that we could relate to in one form or another. But the settings, people and time periods were familiar.

Contrast this to Frank Herbert's work "Dune," in which the entire nature of the universe 80 centuries from now - including technology, society, government and religion - had to not only be conceived in Herbert's mind but described to the reader in an engaging fashion.

That is a skill that should be revered, not slighted.

Science fiction also makes us look at ourselves, examining and challenging our beliefs and social orders. Consider the great works "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury and "1984" by George Orwell. Both warn us to the dangers of certain fanaticisms.

But it can provide a positive outlook as well. For example, think about the "Star Trek" franchise created by Gene Roddenberry. In his vision all races work together as mankind "boldly goes." If we reflect on its 1960s origins, this idealism, while refreshing, was radical and ambitious in nature.

When considering that the science fact of today was the science fiction of yesterday, one does wonder what truly lies ahead for our children and their children. Can we see their future in the science fiction stories of today?

Turn the page. Only time will tell. ...

Tom Webber, the Times-Union's Sky Guy, is the director of the Bryan-Gooding Planetarium/Alexander Brest Space Theater at the Museum of Science & History. …

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