Debate

So does sci-fi really deliver the goods?

For

Works of science fiction do offer inspiration to scientists and technologists in the real world
Kevin Warwick

Professor of cybernetics

Profile: Kevin Warwick

Kevin Warwick is professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, where he carries out research in artificial intelligence, control, robotics and biomedical engineering. He is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the IET. He is the author or co-author of more than 500 research papers and has written or edited 27 books.

Against

Works of science fiction do not offer inspiration to scientists and technologists in the real world
Chris Riley

Writer, broadcaster and filmmaker

Profile: Chris Riley

Chris Riley is a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker specialising in the history of science. He makes frequent appearances on TV and radio, broadcasting on space flight and astronomy. He is a veteran of two Nasa astrobiology missions and is the author of the ‘Haynes Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual’.

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I’m very positive towards science fiction. Too often in science everything is defined by equations, which leads us to think that we know all we need to know. I think that sci-fi opens that up, and I find that as a scientist it opens my eyes to other possibilities. When you’re doing research that’s important.

I’m sometimes asked how I feel about people who are essentially from the world of the arts commenting on my world. I look at this two ways: first, if you’re talking about fantasy sci-fi then that’s a different ball game and that isn’t really on the table for me. But second, and more generally, a lot of sci-fi has a serious, present day scientific basis to it, where the authors are starting to look outside the box. If there isn’t seriousness of intent then I find it hard to believe. But when it’s done with science ‘as we know it’, and the author is attempting to extrapolate on that in unusual directions, then I can find the results quite credible.

Take the movie ‘Terminator’, for example. There are bits of it - the creation of a cyborg - that really resonate with me. Then there are other concepts such as the time travel where maybe I don’t go along with that. So I tend to cherry-pick the bits that are scientifically believable.

One of the potential benefits of sci-fi is that it takes technology into the consciousness of people who otherwise might have no interest in it. Importantly it can prepare people for the future in a way that scientists maybe can’t. Perhaps if we’d had a sci-fi version of Dolly the sheep we could have prepared people for what was going to happen in that direction. Perhaps if sci-fi had looked at GM crops there would have been a better public understanding of what that meant. And, of course, it can introduce youngsters to some of the exciting possibilities of a life in science.

I think scientists are just as much visionaries as sci-fi authors such as the classic novelists HG Wells or Jules Verne. It’s just that what we do is much closer to home. We’re looking a year or two ahead while authors writing about the future are looking at least decades ahead. Karel Capek wrote stories about nuclear war long before it happened. Ray Bradbury said that he didn’t write to speculate about the future, but to warn people of it.

Realistically, only a certain amount of sci-fi will turn out to be spot on and some of it will be way off. But you have to remember that we are dealing with potential scenarios, with the possibility that the sci-fi portrayals will alert people, as Bradbury hoped, to accidents waiting to happen and provide them with enough foreknowledge to avert them.

As a kid I read ‘The War of the Worlds’ and what that did was bring home to me that the creatures from another planet were not going to be little green men and that you can’t bargain with them or reason with them. To my mind, that’s probably what the future is going to be like and that’s quite scary. I was a bit disappointed that humans won out in the end, because in reality this may not be the case. I was looking at this from a scientific point of view, but it was a completely engrossing story line.

When people visit my lab, a reaction I hear a lot is that my work reminds them of sci-fi. Some of the things I do in terms of robotics can be scary to some people. But if it helps them to think of it in terms of sci-fi and it opens up their minds or it gets some kids excited then that’s a good thing.

You’ve got to remember that as scientists we can push the frontiers and we shouldn’t feel restricted to just dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s. The exciting bits are quite often the bits that feel a bit like sci-fi. But to have my lab compared that way doesn’t bother me at all.

Our job as scientists is to change the world and if we can get a bit of inspiration from sci-fi, then that’s all that matters. I tell you what: if we could make films about science as exciting as ‘Dr Who’ or ‘Star Wars’, that would be brilliant.

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It seems to me that science fact and science fiction are two really significant things that the human species does. There is cultural crossover between them, and that is because of the nature of us coming from an intelligent technological civilisation. That’s not in dispute. But I’m a professional storyteller. What that means is that I’m really interested in good stories. In sci-fi movies, a lot of the stories are disappointing. I’m on the lookout for narratives with that perfect curve that make you remember it for days and days, if not years, after it.

What I’ve found is that there are enough fantastic stories, documentaries about or reporting on science fact. I hope my work reflects that. But I’ve never thought that I’ve exhausted these stories sufficiently to warrant going down the fictional route. This probably means that I’m missing out to a certain extent, as there is some fantastic sci-fi out there that has profound things to say about the human condition and which points us to different futures. A lot of it is philosophy rather than science, but it has common values that resonate with any interested human being. But there are only a certain number of hours in a day, and so I decided to devote my life to science fact.

Back in 2004 I made a sci-fi drama documentary film for the BBC called ‘Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets’. This was an imagined journey around the solar system that was very much inspired by science fact. There are plenty of other examples, apart from my work, of where sci-fact has informed sci-fi. Arthur C Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the movie of which was released in the 1960s, came out at a time when the Apollo and Gemini programmes were achieving incredible things at a fast pace in Earth orbit.

Star Wars’, which came along a decade later in 1977 certainly borrowed from the industrial scale of engineering Nasa had risen to, in order to make Apollo a reality. George Lucas sent his designers to look at the vehicle assembly building at Nasa to inform their set layouts. This is something that’s rarely talked about: the pollination of inspiring imagery and storylines in science fiction from science fact is perhaps as common as the other way around.

We are coming up to the 45th anniversary of the manned Apollo missions, and certainly little of what Clarke imagined of our human future beyond the Earth has happened. In fact, it’s probably a lot less than we could have predicted based on the progress of events in the 1960s. So a lot of sci-fi is nowhere near becoming reality. In terms of inspiring looks and designs, sci-fact definitely has a role to play in inspiring sci-fi.

In terms of the philosophical exploration of how societies will be ordered, sci-fi presents an easy route to doing this. Societies tend to take a long time to catch up with philosophical theories. When it comes to looking at the ethics behind the way in which technology might be pushing the frontier of science, then fiction is a very good way of looking at that. But from my perspective, it’s very much a case of fact being stranger than fiction.

Over the years I’ve been striving to tell stories of great human endeavour and adventure in factual terms. You don’t need to enrich your story-telling canon by going down a fictional route because there is enough factual truth out there to describe what humans have already done and what we are aspiring to do.

I do admit that the great and deep imaginings of what might be possible all start with fictional roots. Classically the Space Race was informed by lots of writing that came before it. I wrote a book about the Lunar Rover last year, the introductory chapter of which is set deeply in the literature of sci-fi that spans from the birth of the motorcar through to driving it on the Moon. The decades before that actually happened were all etched in sci-fi, and then of course the sci-fact caught up.

For me the two can’t be separated completely, because the boundary is very blurred.

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