BEN BOVA: Feb. 13, 2011 ... Science fiction at its best is ‘history that hasn’t happened yet’

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It puzzles me that people will pay heed to stock-market analysts and weather forecasters, yet they will not read science fiction.

After all, if you want to predict the future, science fiction has the best track record of all.

We live in a world that was predicted by science-fiction writers half a century ago: television, nuclear power, robots, space flight, cloning, life-extension therapies, computers, cell phones … you name it, and science-fiction writers were dealing with it decades ago.

I often think of my stories not as science fiction but as historical novels that haven’t happened yet. But give them enough time and they will. I’ve been working at this business so long that many of my books actually have become history.

The strange thing is that science-fiction writers (including me) aren’t really trying to predict the future. In fact, most of us don’t believe there is a “the future” to predict. The future isn’t inevitable, immutable. It’s created, moment by moment, by the things we do. Or fail to do.

For example, think what might have happened if Winston Churchill had been prime minister of Great Britain in 1938. Instead of Neville Chamberlain’s feeble attempts to appease Adolf Hitler, Churchill might have rallied the British people in 1938, as he did later, in 1940. Instead of allowing Hitler to gobble up Czechoslovakia — which encouraged him to invade Poland — Churchill might have forced the Nazi dictator to stay his hand. World War II might have been averted.

Or consider that if the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba had been successful in 1961, and Fidel Castro overthrown, astronauts might never have gone to the moon. President John F. Kennedy launched the Apollo program, in large part, to draw public attention away from the fiasco in Cuba.

Science fiction deals with such “what ifs.” In fact, “what if” is an excellent way to begin a science-fiction scenario.

I visualize the history of the human race as a vast migration of peoples across the landscape of time. The science-fiction writers are the scouts who go out ahead of the main body and send back reports: don’t go that way, it’s a quagmire; head in this direction, it’s easier and more rewarding.

Alas, most people don’t read science fiction, and they miss the opportunity to see the future in all its variegated potential, the opportunities that await us tomorrow, the dangers, the glories and the sorrows of the many possible futures that we build for ourselves.

How do science-fiction writers do this? What do they have that others don’t?

First, they have an interest in science. Some of them are practicing scientists and engineers and write fiction as a sideline. Others, like myself, are writers who try to stay abreast of what the scientists and engineers are doing.

I’ve worked in a high-powered research laboratory — as a marketing director. My job was to find funding for the scientific staff. Before that, I wrote teaching films for high school students about physics, working with leading physicists and even a few Nobel laureates.

I’ve been around scientists and engineers most of my adult life, long enough to know how they think, how they work. I have a layman’s understanding of real science, and what I don’t know I can learn by asking some of the friends I’ve made over the years.

The second attribute that science-fiction writers have is the fact they are writing fiction. It’s not enough to know the science; you have to show how human characters behave. Writers populate their stories with men and women, and the stories attempt to show how new discoveries, new inventions will affect their lives.

Thus we get, in the best science-fiction stories, visions of how tomorrow will be different from today, and how these differences will affect us.

And that’s what makes good science fiction so powerful: it is based, at heart, on the idea that the world changes. Change is inevitable. If we want to pick our way through the changes that are coming, we must understand what those changes might be and how they will alter our lives.

Science fiction is the literature of change.

Bova is the author of 124 books, including “Leviathans of Jupiter,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.

The strange thing is that science-fiction writers (including me) aren’t really trying to predict the future. In fact, most of us don’t believe there is a ‘the future’ to predict. The future isn’t inevitable, immutable. It’s created, moment by moment, by the things we do. Or fail to do.

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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