By Eric S. Rabkin
In March 1990, Motorola (MOT ) promoted a combination wristwatch and pager with the catchphrase "It's Not Science Fiction Anymore." The ad boasted that Dick Tracy's most famous, futuristic accoutrement was finally within reach. Then the future arrived. Today's palmOne (PLMO ) Treo is a telephone, alarm clock, calculator, scheduler, text messager, and camera. It's also an e-mail client that gives us access to global digital libraries or our own business documents, serves as private device or speakerphone, and beams business cards and applications to nearby colleagues. When we have nothing else to do while stuck in traffic, it can use plug-in modules to reveal our exact position on the planet, suggest alternate travel routes, and offer games to play alone or with friends scattered far across the Net.
The amazing thing is, we don't find this amazing. We're living in a science fiction world. The headlines of our newspapers trumpet cloning experiments, the teleportation of atoms, computers controlled by brainwaves, robots that walk and play musical instruments, private planes that carry passengers to the edge of space, space probes that rendezvous with asteroids, and implantable devices that restore hearing to the deaf. When miracles like these are the baseline, how can fantasy measure up? More simply put: Why on earth should we read science fiction? Here are some of the reasons:
TO MINE NOT-YET-PRACTICAL IDEAS: A science-meets-fiction Web site called Technovelgy.com lists over 650 inventions in the works of 65 science-fiction authors. In the writings of Robert A. Heinlein alone, Technovelgy finds the first appearance of personal RFID transmitters, robotic appliances, noise-reduction chambers, and the idea of mass-customizing consumer products such as clothes. Among inventions yet to go commercial are pneumatic people movers known as "bounce tubes" and cryogenic sleeping chambers. If we ever colonize the moon, engineers will be taking fresh looks at Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966): Colonists send minerals and other commodities back to Earth in huge pods, bound by iron rings, that are accelerated through a series of magnetic boost gates along rails that rise at one end -- pointing Earthward.
Arthur C. Clarke was a master of innovation. His The Fountains of Paradise (1979) describes a cable system tethered at the Earth's equator and rising to the point where the system's center of gravity maintains a geostationary orbit. That balance point would provide an upper platform for electric cars running up and down the cable. The cars could carry spacecraft out of the earth's gravitational field, eliminating the need for rocket launches.
Several U.S. startups are now trying to design such a "space elevator," which was first described in the technical writings of Russian engineer Yuri N. Artsutanov in 1960. But it was Clarke's novel that specified the exquisite details, including crystalline carbon fiber for the cable and "spider" construction methods.
Ideas like this one are often born at the border of science fiction and engineering. And the genesis may be blurred further by the fact that many influential fiction writers are accomplished scientists -- Robert L. Forward, Gregory Benford, and Vernor Vinge, to name just three. So it's no surprise that novelists, scientists, and engineers may all have a hand in new technologies such as solar sails to power spacecraft on interplanetary flights. The sail idea was shuttled among fictional and technical writings before the Japanese space program actually tested one this summer. Likewise, ideas for "terraforming" Mars to give it a livable atmosphere have long been seriously debated at NASA, where many admire writer Kim Stanley Robinson for the meticulous scientific projections in his 1990s novels Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars.
Earthbound tales of the future also showcase inventions. Many novels, such as Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (2000), explore nanotechnology. Travelers in Stephenson's world are identified by airborne nanosensors as they enter the gates of fortress cities. Books, in this world, are built of nanoparticles. These books can learn about their readers and modify their contents to better teach or entertain them.
TO LEARN THE LEXICON OF THE FUTURE: In The Futurological Congress (1971), Stanislaw Lem writes that "A man can control only what he comprehends, and comprehend only what he is able to put into words." Karel Capek faced that challenge when he dreamed up humanlike creatures, born in vats, that rise up against their masters in his 1920 play R.U.R. He called them robots, derived from the Czech for labor, and the word entered every major language. In a similar spirit, William Gibson named cyberspace in Neuromancer (1984). What words await us? In Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space (2000), people swallow "medichines" that assemble themselves in the body to treat diseases. Ursula K. Le Guin dreamed up "ansibles," devices that use novel physics to communicate across galaxies. And in Lem's futurology, cops in a "psychemized" society spray a drug called Euphoril for crowd control.
TO EXPLORE SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES: Innovations change our behavior. Trains make us run on time. The automobile begat the highway begat the suburb begat the shopping mall begat children spending time wandering in Consumerland after school instead of playing in the neighborhood. Science Fiction tells us where such inventions are heading -- and where they will take our children. Scientists or engineers may predict, for example, how implants of neurons might confer special abilities. But it takes stories like Revelation Space to flesh that out, asking who will be able to afford the implants -- and who might be forced to have them.
In Beggars in Spain (1991), Nancy Kress imagines a "genemod" technique that makes sleep unnecessary. Instantly the time available for work and study increases by 50%. Since the treatment is expensive, the advantages are distributed unevenly. The sleepless class evolves over decades into an envied, feared, and sometimes hated minority. Sure enough, today, use of an antinarcolepsy drug called Provigil, from Cephalon Inc. (CEPH ), is spreading among people with no such medical complaints, and more drugs like this are on the way.
And then there is Robinson's Mars series. It speculates about the technology required to terraform a planet so people could live there. But the books also describe a bitter environmental struggle pitting "greens" who believe they have the right to transform Mars against "reds" who will do anything to keep it pristine. Does science fiction really influence everyday events? The U.S. Marine Corps thinks so: Its Commandant's Reading List includes Sun Tzu's The Art of War alongside Heinlein's militaristic Starship Troopers (1959).
TO INSPIRE YOUNG MINDS: Science fiction not only entertains but also inculcates in young fans a passion for science. Donna Shirley, who managed a billion-dollar Mars Exploration Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was captivated as a child by Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and Clarke's The Sands of Mars. After reading Clarke's serious accounts of space flight, domed cities, and the reshaping of Mars itself, "It was clear to me that space exploration wasn't just fantasy," recalls Shirley, now the director of the Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame in Seattle, funded by info tech entrepreneur Paul G. Allen. "I thought, 'Gosh, I could do this."' In a world where science and engineering can begin to tackle almost as many challenges as the mind can imagine, we need science fiction to bridge the gaps, bedazzle us, and make the future real.
Eric S. Rabkin is a professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan. His next book is Mars: A Tour of the Human Imagination (Spring, 2005)