Which came first: the science or the sci-fi?

In the world of science, fiction often lends a hand to fact
Your favourite sci-fi franchise today may hold the innovations of tomorrow.
Your favourite sci-fi franchise today may hold the innovations of tomorrow. TUNECHIK83 /CC FLICKR

Technology is at the forefront of our lives, from the smartphones in our hands to the technological innovations sprouting from industries like healthcare and computer programming. A lot of these advancements began with an abstract idea, and sometimes these ideas can be found in the pages of your favourite sci-fi novels.

Great classic novels have demonstrated how a once absurd fantasy can become reality. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, for example: though the novel is read as a gothic horror story about reanimating a monster built from multiple corpses, Frankenstein the scientist is a literary representation of a changing scientific landscape that dates to the early nineteenth century.

The importance of chemists who “penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places,” as said by one of Shelley’s characters, is clear. Her fascination with bodies pieced from multiple donor parts foreshadows organ donation and transplantation today, which would have been considered horrifying and unnatural during the 1800s.

Fantasy has been woven with reality throughout the history of science fiction. In 1920, for example, a Czech author named Karel Capek published a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots, where artificial people are created to work for humans but ultimately rebel, causing the human race to go extinct.

This was the first time English speakers were exposed to the word ‘robot’ ­— translated from the Czech word ‘robota’ — and it sparked an interest in sentient machines, which scientists continue to develop today. A modern representation of this can be seen in Japan, where lifelike humanoid robots are becoming caregivers for the elderly. One robot called Palro works with elders to stimulate brain function and act as a companion for them.

Even familiar, everyday machines are becoming self-sufficient. Artificial intelligence, for instance, has made great strides, including recently developed self-driving cars at U of T.

Artificial intelligence is not a recent idea, either. In 1964, science fiction author Isaac Asimov published an essay titled “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014,” speculating upon the possible new inventions that might be at the World’s Fair 50 years in the future, including a car with “Robot-brains” that could operate on its own.

The time it takes to develop new technology can often be much longer than what our predecessors eagerly foresaw. In the 1989 film Back to the Future II, Marty McFly mounts a levitating hoverboard, depicted as a common mode of transportation in the year 2015. Evidently, this has yet to become a reality.

However, some companies have begun hoverboard construction. In 2015, Lexus designed a hoverboard that uses an electromagnetic field to levitate the platform in a skateboard style. Using superconducting materials, permanent magnets, and liquid nitrogen to cool down the superconductor and emit a mystical smoke, the board is kept afloat.

Science fiction is not only a vehicle for technological innovation, but it is often used as a critique of societal changes that come with advancing technology. Notably, Feed by M.T. Anderson, a contemporary sci-fi novel, portrays a dystopian America where people have computer networks called ‘feeds’ embedded in their brains. They are overwhelmed with advertisements and become easily manipulated by corporations looking to make a profit. Remarkably, Anderson wrote this book in 2002, and its plot has become eerily accurate over time, down to the information, or ‘feed,’ we receive on our social media accounts.

It is undeniable that developments in science and technology have played a crucial role in influencing how their counterparts are portrayed in books and media. In turn, fantastical ideas from authors and other creatives have also shaped the innovations we have today. Science does not occur in an isolated realm and will continue to interact with the stories and ideas around it, so long as sci-fi exists.

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