Spaceflight pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert H. Goddard, and Hermann Oberth all claimed their careers were inspired by reading Jules Verne. If you read interviews or memoirs from almost any space scientist they will say they were inspired by science fiction. I imagine if you asked scientists working with robotics and artificial intelligence the same kind of questions, they would also say they were inspired by science fiction too. Millions of people work in fields that were once considered science fictional. Do we still need science fiction to inspire students to study these endeavors? In fact, isn’t science fiction now a distraction?
Are there new theoretical ideas in science fiction stories being written about today that would inspire young people to grow up and make them real? Science fiction has always served two purposes. First, it speculated about reality. Second, it was escapist entertainment that helped us escape reality. Of the new science fiction produced today, how much of it helps us speculate about reality and how much helps us escape?
If you really cared about space exploration aren’t there enough nonfiction books to study to fill lifetimes? More than that, you can major in space sciences and actually work in the space industry. Why read about robots when you can build them? Why read about AI minds when you can be programming them? Why read stories about life extension and cyborg enhancements when you can be working to make them happen?
Science fiction has always helped us imagine tomorrow, either to inspire us to create better futures from our dreams, or avoid the nightmares by extrapolating on our sinful ways. Yet, how much science fiction is written today that is actually useful? Is science fiction best use today to let us pretend we aren’t here? The world has a lot of problems, peoples’ lives are filled with stress. So escapism is a needed commodity.
Hasn’t fantasy supplanted science fiction? Star Wars is immensely popular, but has it ever speculated about anything real? Isn’t it just a spaced theme Disneyland? And doesn’t most hard science fiction speculate about futures so far ahead that they are fantasies too? How often do we get books like The Windup Girl or Aurora that make us think hard about the future? Books like Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale are still incredibly useful but how often do we get genuine warnings like them? All too often modern dystopian novels are just escapist adventures for teenagers.
Do we need any more novels advocating space travel when the world is full of public and private space programs? Do we need any more novels about conscious machines when we’re speeding ever faster towards building them? Has the only value of science fiction become another opiate of the masses?
Where are the modern science fiction visionaries who are imagining things we haven’t imagine but need to build? What books being written today will be mentioned by future scientists as their inspiration for creating new technologies and social systems? Or has science fiction imagined all the possibilities already?
I hope readers can provide me with long lists of relevant stories and novels. Can you think of any SF story about something you want to see created in the real world that people aren’t already working on today?
James Wallace Harris. 10/1/19
[I got the idea for this essay while watching Last Call For Titan! on Prime Video last night. I realized while listening to the interviews with the scientists who built the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft as well as the authors of Beyond Earth who advocate human missions to Titan that we don’t need science fiction anymore. Not when real people can accomplish what they did with the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and plan future missions to Titan.]