The ever-quickening pace of our society has resulted in many things, but one of the most lamentable is the superficial nature of what we mostly read. Supermarket tabloids have always been lambasted for their absurd headlines designed to catch the curious shopper’s eye, but now we can all surf dozens of online headlines at a glance, and they usually range from apocalyptic, to titillating to just plain dumb. It seems this is a growing trend in the way we read today, which increases the importance of the third reason why science fiction is great: it encourages us, indeed demands for us, to use our brains.
The early years of science fiction set the bar high, as authors with solid scientific understanding set out to tell tales that made science the centerpiece. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells may have created some “science” that’s laughable in the light of today’s knowledge, but at the time nobody knew what the surface of the Moon was like, or what lay at the centre of the Earth. These authors not only asked the questions, but gave their readers imaginary answers that forced us to think beyond our everyday experience. Could people really live underwater in private yachts like the Nautilus in Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? Could an enemy of overwhelming power really be defeated by the common cold like the Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds?
As scientific discovery progressed, so did the focus of science fiction authors, but they never stopped challenging their readers to think beyond what was already known. As we learned more about our solar system, for example, stories about space exploration like Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey made popular the idea of orbiting space stations and humankind visiting our neighbouring planets. As the fundamental nature of the Universe itself was uncovered, readers were invited to stretch their minds wide by Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero taking a spaceship and her crew to the very end of time and beyond. Isaac Asimov created the term “robot” to describe an artificial life form created by humans, and in so doing popularized the notion that life was not necessarily confined to biology.
The laws of physics certainly aren’t always adhered to in science fiction, but even when Einstein is flouted he’s often done so in a very intelligent way. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek had no time for such limitations as slower-than-light travel or the integrity of the strong nuclear force, but even so this space opera has managed for decades to explore thoughtful and sometimes controversial questions about our human existence. And Star Trek even sometimes tries to offer explanations as to why the laws of physics have changed, grabbing hold of modern theories when they suggest a hint of how warp drive or transporters might actually exist.
In my first novel, Virtues of War, I wanted to stay as close to the current laws of physics as I could, and I found a great ally in the theory of Dr. Lisa Randall from Harvard, who had proposed a fourth spatial dimension beyond the three-dimensional “brane” in which we exist as a solution to why gravity is so different and so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces of nature. I don’t think the concept of a fourth spatial dimension is going to be discussed on its own merits at coffee shops and soccer games too often, but with luck, having introduced “stealth ships” that can travel in this fourth dimension known as the Bulk and can be battled by heroic young space pilots like Jack Mallory, I might have brought this esoteric concept of astro-physics slightly closer to the popular consciousness.
One of the most intriguing results of this thought-provoking genre called science fiction is that so many ideas that were imagined by authors have become reality. A modern nuclear-powered submarine really could travel around the world submerged for 20,000 leagues. Robots have become ubiquitous servants in our industrial society. Space stations orbit the Earth and probes have visited every planet in our solar system. True, we haven’t invented transporters yet, but flip-phones sure look a lot like Captain Kirk’s old communicator. And while we haven’t travelled faster than light yet either, scientists think they might have discovered particles travelling faster than Einstein’s intergalactic speed limit. So who knows…?
Science fiction isn’t just about exploring the far reaches of our knowledge – it pushes past that and inspires us not only to think hard, but to think new. Science fiction writers are artists, inspired by scientific reality but driven by their imaginations, and it’s their dreaming that in turn inspires scientists to ask questions, to take risks, and to create wondrous new things. And even for those of us who aren’t scientists, science fiction forces us to keep our brains engaged, to stay curious and to think about things beyond the latest celebrity scandal or playoff game. Science fiction keeps us smart, and that’s why it’s great.