How do today’s cutting-edge ideas, discoveries and inventions inspire the literature, art and games of tomorrow? Ahead of their series of Into the Unknown inspired conversations between scientific and cultural figures, we asked the New Scientist to introduce The Tomorrow Club events.
Next, author Simon Ings explores the dreams our stuff is made of and asks why the present looks so futuristic ahead of his discussion on The Dreamers’ Club.
Long before we can build something for real, we know how it will work, and what it will require by way of materials and design. The steampunk genre gorges on Victorian designs for steam-powered helicopters and the like (yes, there were such things), with films like Hugo (2011) and gaming apps like 80 Days (2014) telescoping the hard business of materials science into the twinkling of a mad professor’s eye. Always, our imaginations run ahead of our physical abilities.
At the same time, science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why our dreams of transcendence through technology *fail*: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. Blade Runner didn’t so much inspire the current deluge of in-yer-face urban advertising, so much as realise our worst nightmares about it. Short Circuit (1986) knew what was wrong with robotic warfare long before the first Predators took to the skies.
Science fiction takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital
So yes: science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama: polished, chromed, complete, not infrequently camp. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam. Science fiction takes finery from the prop shop and turns it into something vital: a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are, and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.
Sometimes, in this game of ‘It’s behind you!’ less is more. Futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of the distant space city Alphaville (1965) and yet Alphaville is all dialogue, all cut — nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.
The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said: We’re bolting this together as we go along
More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand: tinsel and Pan Stick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Doctor was tearing up the set, and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned. Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who (1963) was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick, a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the whole point. It said: We’re bolting this together as we go along.
What hostile critics say is true: science fiction sometimes is more about the machines than about the people. Metropolis director Fritz Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond (1929) and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building one eleven metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily they ran out of money.
The technocratic ideal might seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the Moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines: the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B-9 from Lost in Space, perhaps. Once Star Trek‘s Federation established heaven on earth (and elsewhere), however, then we hit a sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched his show to Desilu Studios as “wagon train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: the Moving Picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you actually reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness. If the teleportation device is not the point of your story, then you may as well use a rappelling rope. Why spend your set budget on an impressive looking scanner — why not just have your actor point out of the window? The day your show’s props become merely props, is the day you’re not making science fiction any more.
This is what’s wrong with that endlessly trotted out formulation ‘science fiction is becoming science fact!’ While science fiction may throw off real artefacts now and again (is that a tricorder in your pocket?) it *never* becomes science fact.
Does writing down a dream stop you dreaming?
New Scientist Presents The Dreamers’ Club took place on Thursday 29 June with Simon Ings, Matt Smith, editor-in-chief of 2000 AD, space-flight expert Piers Bizony, author of The Making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and speculative architect Liam Young, co-founder of think tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today
See all the events in the New Scientist Presents: The Tomorrow Club series.
Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction takes place from 3 June –1 September.