Writing is a craft. We talk of crafting a story, and of wordsmiths who forge metaphors from the white heat of their imaginations. The creation of fiction, therefore, involves a process akin to that of making art. This process involves the mind constructing a fabrication which will more clearly define our reality, or even go beyond our understanding of what reality is.
Any fiction will, therefore, be rather more than reality, creating, as it does, a heightened, more dramatic sense of events; even if the storyline is based on something which really happened. In science fiction, this sense of heightened reality is taken to extremes, taken, in fact, often to the point of departing from reality altogether. In that instance, we are verging upon fantasy.
However, most science fiction, by its very nature, tries to ground its narrative in some scientific plausibility, often extrapolating from the current and most recent developments in science. Which means that science fiction is one of the most easily datable forms of literature, since our understanding of science is constantly being updated as new knowledge is gained.
This is most notable in the type of stories known as ‘planetary romances,’ popular even up until the late 50’s, which set protagonists on habitable planets in our own solar system, which, as we now know, is not even remotely possible. The romanticized wet jungle Venus and arid, canal-covered Mars, both hosting civilisations and life cycles as varied as Earth’s, are a thing of the past. Our solar system is a much more hostile place than we had, at first, anticipated.
In recent years, there has been a certain nostalgia for that vanished vision of how our universe could have been, since the shattering of the illusion. So much so that there have been some small ‘revivals’ of pulp style science fiction. And, as in S.M. Stirling’s book, scientific reasons (within the confines of the story) for why Venus and Mars could have evolved to be the Venus and Mars of the pulps.
Now, turning to Mars consider Ray Bradbury. That exemplary wordsmith; the poetic master of science fiction. Unfortunately, his writing is also dated. Take for example the Martian Chronicles. Compare this to something rather more contemporary; say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars trilogy, and you see at once the inherent flaw in creating literary science fiction.
But Bradbury will always be read. His art, his gloriously crafted works of fiction are pure literary genius. Yet the content will, of necessity become more dated with each passing decade. (Though some of his visions are still highly disturbing today, for example ‘Fahrenheit 451’)
Yet, compare Bradbury’s colonists discovering a habitable Mars, with remnants of a vanished civilisation, to Robinson’s terraforming epic, set against the harsh rugged backdrop of a well-mapped Mars. No canals in sight. Instead the well realised, and scientifically explored Great Rift Canyon, Tharsis Bulge, and Olympus Mons.
However scientific accuracy does not necessarily make for a more enjoyable read. I would choose Bradbury over Robinson every time.
This contrary nature of ours, in part, accounts for the revival of the more romantic pulp-type stories, and also, the rise in popularity of the fantasy genre itself. The more we discover about the workings of our world, the more we retreat into fictions of wholly unreal dreamscapes. Some of which, today, with the semi-mystical theories being dreamed up by scientist, to explain the continually weird workings of quantum physics, could, in fact, come true.
As has always been the case, the boundaries between the genres is blurred. Which, in the best literature, is as it should be. The term speculative fiction is therefore more commonly employed these days. In fact, even though he is associated with the science fiction genre, Ray Bradbury considered himself a fantasy writer.
He said that this was because he believed: “science-fiction describes the ‘real’ while fantasy describes the ‘unreal.'”
Reality is the touch stone of literature. But what happens when literature becomes the basis of how we envision our future. This is the grand role science fiction plays in our lives. As another great science fiction author, Issac Asimov, explains:
“A few years ago, the idea of a computer you could put in your pocket was just science fiction.”
And now we have mobile phones, which have a processing power greater than that of all the computers combined, which helped send Man to the moon.
Innovations in space flight take their cue from stories. The mission to the moon was a romantic leap of faith by scientists who had grown up with the marvellous tales of such exploits. Private companies offer trips into space because it has been a collective vision dreamed of by Humanity since even before the dawn of the space age.
As much as writers craft their ideas into fabulous flights of fantasy, so too, do scientists and engineers craft the physical fabric or our reality into the shapes these visionaries, long ago, dreamed up. How many ideas which were ‘just science fiction’ a hundred, fifty or only twenty years ago, have become real, tangible objects, or even commonplaces in our everyday world.
Atomic bombs were predicted long before they were ever used, Solar power, first used in early spacecraft, are now a feature of our homes, Planet finding telescopes have notched up a grand total of 3,706 exoplanets discovered to date, which were next to impossible to detect as little as 30 years ago. And the list goes on. From small wonders like the water bed to the first artificial satellites (first predicted in 1869). And, of course, the computer in your pocket…