Time Helps Science Fiction Turn into Fact

By Scanlan, Dan | The Florida Times Union, December 30, 1999 | Go to article overview

Time Helps Science Fiction Turn into Fact


Scanlan, Dan, The Florida Times Union


Three American astronauts stationed on Mars die in an explosion. A rescue mission is launched to save the lone survivor. The year is 2020.

Sound like science fiction?

Maybe, since it's the plot of producer Brian De Palma's upcoming March film, Mission to Mars, one of two new movies set on the planet. The other is Red Planet, set for a summer 2000 release.

But don't forget, writer Jules Verne introduced readers to a submarine called the Nautilus in his 1872 novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. In 1958, the world's first nuclear sub with the same name became the first to cruise under the North Pole.

In 1901, H.G. Wells wrote First Men in the Moon. In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto its dusty surface.

And yes, even the ubiquitous cellular telephone of the 1990s may have been predicted in 1964, when Star Trek's Capt. Kirk whipped out his communicator, flipped open its mesh top, and uttered, "Beam me up."

So it looks like many science-fiction authors made predictions that came true. But did they?

Noted science-fiction author and Naples, Fla., resident Ben Bova says many did. His own novels have predicted space stations and cloning, and now we have Dolly the cloned sheep and the first segments of the International Space Station in orbit. In fact, he said it is "hard to think of much that hadn't been predicted" in science fiction.

"Just turn around and look -- computers, space flight, antibiotics, cloning, organ transplants and artificial satellites," he said. "I predicted some in my own works. One was the space race of the 1960s. I predicted that in the 1940s. I predicted the advent of video games and electronic books, which I called cyber-books."

But South Georgia science-fiction author Jack McDevitt disagrees, saying "we miss the boat pretty regularly."

"There is a famous cover to Startling or Amazing Stories in the late 1940s that showed a pirate climbing out of a spaceship hatch with a saber in one hand and a ray gun in the other, and between his teeth he is holding a slide rule," he said. "There have been so many sf [sci-fi] stories written about the future that we have to get something right. I don't think they are any better than anyone you might drag off the street." Yet since science fiction became a genre in the late 1800s, many writers have apparently predicted the future quite well.

German science writer Willie Ley wrote Journey into Space in 1926, detailing a multi-stage rocket. NASA scientist Werner Von Braun would use that idea for his Saturn V booster that took men to the moon.

Robots were predicted in science fiction as far back as the 1920s, while mechanical men chased Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s. They also appeared in many of Isaac Asimov's novels such as The Caves of Steel in 1954 and Bicentennial Man in 1976, which just recently opened in movie form starring Robin Williams.

Now, simple robots are used to build cars and even high-tech electronics gear, while Sony sells a robot dog named Aibo that can scamper, growl and go to "bed" to recharge. Honda has even built a robot called P3, which walks upright, climbs stairs and opens doors.

What about genetic engineering, where scientists tinker with the very stuff of life to design a better tomato or solve birth defects? J.B.S. Haldane's 1924 essay, Daedalus, or Science and the Future, predicted scientists would invent a new form of algae to end hunger and children would be born from artificial wombs.

Cloning, which uses cells from one organism to grow a copy, is commonplace. …

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