Science Fiction in the Real World

My name is David Keener, and I’m a science fiction fan.

I know what you’re thinking.



“Why on Earth do you read such garbage?”

“Why do you fill your head with all of this useless, impractical information?”

Contact - by Carl Sagan It’s clear that there’s not a lot of respect for science fiction. Despite the fact that 9 of the top 10 movies at the worldwide box office are science-fiction; and 18 out of the top 20; and 26 out of the top 30 movies. And despite the fact that science-fiction-related books appear regularly on the New York Times best seller list.

You can see this disrespect in other places as well. The movie, Contact, starring Jodie Foster, is about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). It’s about what happens when an alien species sends a message to Earth…but it’s not science fiction.

According to Best Buy, it’s a drama.

Avatar - Written and directed by James CameronThis is my favorite example. The movie, Avatar, directed by James Cameron, is about a native revolt on an alien planet.

It’s also not science fiction, according to Best Buy. It’s an action-adventure.

So, it’s clear that science fiction doesn’t get much respect.

Well, I think that’s wrong.

Let me give you some examples of why I think that’s wrong.

From the Earth to the Moon & Around the Moon - by Jules Verne In 1865, Jules Verne wrote a novel called From the Earth to the Moon (followed by a later sequel called Around the Moon). In it, a group of would-be space-farers travel to Florida, for the same reasons that Nasa is there, and they build a giant cannon in order to launch their spaceship into orbit. Where they have to deal with real technical problems, like the lack of air in space.

Now, Jules Verne got a few details wrong. It was 1865, after all.

When you see a shuttle launch, you’re seeing a lot of force applied over an extended time in order to get that ship into orbit. Using a cannon, however, all that force is applied at once. What would have arrived in orbit would have probably been a slightly crumpled ship, with something resembling red paint on the back wall.

Not good. Not good at all.

But 104 years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

2001: A Space Odyssey - by Arthur C. Clarke In 1934, an engineer turned science fiction writer named Arthur C. Clarke, wrote a paper in which he suggested that a geo-synchronous orbit would be an ideal place to put a satellite because it could function effectively as a communications hub. A geo-synchronous orbit is one in which the satellite orbits around the Earth at the same speed that the Earth is rotating, so the satellite appears to stay stationary in the sky.

He was right. Today, communication satellites are a multi-billion dollar a year business.

And, by the way, Arthur C. Clarke went on to write 2001: A Space Odyssey and to co-host the Apollo moon landing with Walter Cronkite.

I don’t think these things are coincidences. I think Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke helped to popularize space exploration and technological development. I think they influenced and inspired future scientists and engineers who helped make the things that they wrote about actually happen in the real world.

In a way, science fiction has some interesting similarities to science itself. Which is probably not really a surprise.

In science, you create a theory. Then you devise experiments to test the theory, and to prove or disprove it.

Science fiction has rules, too. With a science fiction story, an author essentially asks you to allow him certain assumptions in order to make his story plausible. Once you’ve given the author these prerequisites, however, everything in the story should flow directly and consistently from those assumptions.

Jurassic Park - by Michael Crichton Let me give you an example. How many people have seen the movie, Jurassic Park, or read the book by Michael Crichton?

In Crichton’s story, the only assumption he makes is that it’s possible to retrieve dinosaur DNA from mosquitoes trapped in amber 65 million years ago. If you have the DNA, then it’s not too much of a stretch to think that it would only take technology slightly beyond what we have now to clone dinosaurs. And if you can clone dinosaurs, then you can populate a park with them…and they can escape and eat people.

Now, so far, I’ve only discussed technological assumptions: space exploration, communication satellites and dinosaur DNA. But science fiction can cover non-technological assumptions as well.

Interplanetary Hunter - by Arthur K. Barnes Take this book, Interplanetary Hunter,” by Arthur K. Barnes. It was published in 1956, and (ahem!) stolen from my Dad’s science fiction collection in 1974.

It collects a group of related stories that appeared in the pulp magazines in the 30’s and 40’s. Specifically, the first story appeared in 1937.

It features a group of professional hunters who go from world to world hunting and capturing exotic alien species for zoos. One of the top hunters is Gerry Carlyle, a female.

Folks, this was written in 1937, 74 years ago. And only 17 years after women were first given the right to vote. One of Barnes’ assumptions for his story was that, in the future, women would be far more empowered than they were in his day.

In 1937, women weren’t expected to have careers, especially not a career in a male-dominated field like hunting. What a ground-breaking story. 74 years ago.

When I read science fiction, I feel like I’m part of a world-wide extended conversation with thousands and thousands of other people, many of whom are running thought experiments to determine the effects of various technologies, or extrapolating social trends into the future to try to figure out what might happen. I think that science fiction directly inspires and influences people, who go on to help shape the real world that we live in.

So, the next time that somebody disparages science fiction in front of you, I want you to tell them about Jules Verne and Arther C. Clarke. And Arthur K. Barnes 74 years ago. I want you to tell them that science fiction is the Literature of Ideas and the Engine of Innovation.

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A Little Inspiration: Ocean House

I’m always either designing things, mostly software programs in one of a couple different languages, or writing. When you spend a lot of time doing the same things, it’s easy to slip into a rut without realizing it. Something that I find useful to combat this is to look at interesting designs in other totally unrelated fields.

Ocean House

This is an architectural concept drawing for an “ocean house” that I found on the web (I have no idea where now, because I saved this image a long time ago). I like the image because it challenges the traditional ideas of what a house on the water should look like.

First, there are no wooden stilts in sight. Second, the house isn’t modeled after a sea shanty, a New England fisherman’s cottage, a native hut or anything else. It’s a large, square, two-story modern building rising out of the water, attached to shore by a wooden dock (probably the only traditional element in the image).

Even there, though, the house isn’t perfectly square. The frame is square, but the living quarters are offset diagonally from the frame, creating some interesting angles and shapes, including a triangular wooden deck. The overall effect creates an interesting and thought-provoking architectural design because it challenges the general concept of what a house on the water should look like.

Now, carry that idea of challenging traditional concepts over to the software realm. What concepts are embodied in a project? Can those concepts be bent or twisted in new ways to create something totally different? Can they be combined with something else to make something entirely new?

For example, when blogging became prevalent, the folks at Twitter came up with the novel idea of “micro-blogging” as a way to make blogging more accessible to people who didn’t have the time or inclination to maintain a full-scale blog.

That’s why I like looking at designs in other realms unrelated to software. It’s a way to inspire myself to come at problems from a different angle, to combine things in different ways or sometimes just to play the “what if” game when trying to conceptualize a new project.

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John Berkey’s Cloud Walker

Since I showed the front book cover in a previous blog entry, here’s the full version of John Berkey’s wrap-around cover illustration for Edmund Cooper’s The Cloud Walker. The book is a pretty good post-apocalyptic adventure story. I’ve always liked the juxtaposition of technologies in the painting, as well as the sense that we’re seeing the aftermath of a tremendous battle.

The Cloud Walker - Painting by John Berkey, for the book by Edmund Cooper

Berkey was generally noted for his highly stylized paintings of spaceships and high technology. I’ve always been intrigued by this painting because it shows those same techniques used to illustrate lower technology subjects such as ocean-going warships and a combat balloon. I think it exposes a certain unexpected versatility in Berkey’s capabilities.

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