What SF Does

Shock! Horror! The Guardian’s Jenny Rohn has discovered science fiction writers not only failed to predict everything that has happened in the past 50 years – some of what they did predict was wrong!

An even more glaring bubble-pop happened when I was watching Blade Runner (The Director’s Cut) the other day. I could forgive Rick Deckard slouching against a wall reading his (paper) newspaper – it somehow worked in the retro ghettoized futurescape of LA’s Chinatown. But the smoking! Indoors! In your place of employment!

Nor does Robert Heinlein escape unscathed.

But then you read “Star Trek style ‘tractor beam’ created by scientists” on BBC News and the Guardian’s myopic vision regains its original sharpness as you’re reminded – science fiction imagines the future rather than predicts it. Sometimes what is imagined comes to pass.

Or in the case of Star Trek technology like the tricorder and the tractor beam, science fictional imaginings motivate scientists and engineers to try and make them come to pass.

In 2011, researchers from China and Hong Kong showed how it might be done with laser beams of a specific shape – and the US space agency Nasa has even funded a study to examine how the technique might help with manipulating samples in space.

The new study’s lead researcher Dr Tomas Cizmar, research fellow in the School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews, said while the technique is very new, it had huge potential.

He said: “The practical applications could be very great, very exciting. The tractor beam is very selective in the properties of the particles it acts on, so you could pick up specific particles in a mixture.”

“Eventually this could be used to separate white blood cells, for example.”

Cizmar warns that the technology involves a transfer of energy that works on a microscopic scale “but on a macro scale it would cause huge problems.” So this is not, in fact, a “Star Trek style ‘tractor beam’” – although I won’t predict there isn’t one in our future…

[Thanks to Janice Gelb, Martin Morse Wooster and Andrew Porter for the story.]

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8 thoughts on “What SF Does

  1. The article has it wrong about Heinlein, as it wasn’t Google being predicted in Friday but the very concept of hypertext itself, and more specifically Wikipedia in particular. Not to mention the accurate depiction of cellphones in Space Cadet from 1947. Nor the fact that those predictions Heinlein got wrong weren’t even in an SF story, but an essay of factual predictions from 1950…which if it proves anything, proves that SF wasn’t ever about making predictions of the future in the first place. I always figured it was something to do with depicting/commenting upon aspects of the modern world by extrapolating them into totally invented non-historical worlds, but that’s just me.

  2. Well, that saves me from writing “What SF Does, Pt. 2” tomorrow morning. Rereading my post, I started to remember how much there is to be said for the view that sf is never about the future, it’s always about the present. In fact, Ray Bradbury felt similarly, for as he artfully said —

    “I often use the metaphor of Perseus and the head of Medusa when I speak of science fiction. Instead of looking into the face of truth, you look over your shoulder into the bronze surface of a reflecting shield. Then you reach back with your sword and cut off the head of Medusa. Science fiction pretends to look into the future but it’s really looking at a reflection of what is already in front of us.”

  3. Despite her advocacy for Lab Lit (the other/better, obviously more accurate science fiction), she certainly plays fast and loose with reality. She checked out “literally thousands” of SF books from the library during the Clarke/Le Guin/Heinlein era? Really? Wish I’d known of those housands back then, I’d have read them all instead of waiting months for something new to appear on the shelves.

  4. Just as interesting as his conceiving the portable personal telephone (you can’t call it a cellphone as there’s no indication in Space Cadet that the cellular technology we use today is what’s in play) is that Mr. Heinlein also conceived bad telephone answering machine manners in Methuselah’s Children (Bork Vanning leaving a message for Mary Sperling that he’s going to show up at her apartment in the morning unless he hears otherwise from her, a message she doesn’t receive until just before Vanning said he would arrive).

    And, amazingly to me, it’s just been announced that the first technique in extending life by a significant amount has been discovered: exchanging old blood for new blood, a total transfusion — the first longevity discovery on Earth after the Howard Families left was exactly that!

    Now all we need is whatever quantity of blood is required, grown in vitro by the Public Health Service as was in the book.

  5. @Steve: Depends on her personal timeframe. All three authors were publishing new work into the 80s, or beyond (Le Guin still is, of course.) Whether a library would own thousands of sf books is another question.

  6. Going over in my mind the old “giant brain” computers that relied on vacuum tubes, I kind of sense that sceince fiction also projects techonlogical advances as ithe writers become aware of them. The invention of the transistor changed the make up of the robot. (Electro was a fraud, as it was operated from outside.)

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