Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Technology and Society--Science Fiction and the Final Frontier

My favorite movie (before Forrest Gump came out) was Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey  which came out in 1968. I had been a big reader of science fiction since I would read, devouring short stories and novels by the likes of Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, later on, Vonnegut and Adams.  The film showed a not-too-distant future with a Pan Am shuttle up to a “Millenium Hilton” hotel on a space station. I went to see it with some friends at the Uptown Theater in Washington and we spent most of the time afterward discussing the significance of the monolith. (No clue!) We more or less took for granted that private commercial access to space would be routine 33 years later and we would have a colony on the moon and cool interplanetary spaceships and malevolent sentient computers (“Stop it, Dave, you’re hurting me…”).

Well, of course it didn’t work out that way, and all the sci-fi imaginings seemed to fall short of the reality. Human space travel was hard, darn it, and far too expensive for anyone except for a  couple of super powers. We went to the moon and haven’t been back since the end of the Apollo program, operated the space shuttle, which gave access to low earth orbit, but not as routinely as we thought, and built an International Space Station. All these were technological achievements of the first order, but they weren’t Pam Am shuttles to Hilton hotels in orbit.

Somewhere about 1980 I stopped thinking of science fiction as having predictive value and started thinking of it as present social criticism, as with the likes of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Asimov’s I, Robot, or Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Minority Report,” which was made into a chilling movie by the same name. If I had thought more about it, I would have realized that sci fi had been predicting the technological future for quite a while.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote about a system of synchronous communications satellites in 1948. The original Star Trek communicators look like nothing more than flip cell phones. GPS devices, routine travel by jet aircraft, materials such as Teflon and carbon fiber used in the construction of the Boeing 787, and the advent stealth aircraft, all were impossible imaginings in the 1950’s, in many ways the golden age of sci fi. 

I was enthralled by the Walt Disney version of the moon rocket (which in one iteration was a TWA craft) and while it didn’t work out exactly the way they showed it, we did get to the moon. And we did put up a space station. It isn’t doughnut shaped and music doesn’t play while it orbits, but it’s been up there since the first part was orbited in 1998.

Recently, Popular Mechanics and Smithsonian magazines had feature issues about the predictive value of science fiction. And last week’s New Yorker was a science fiction issue. Talk about things I thought would never happen—there’s one for you.

Last week, the Space X Company launched a Dragon supply ship to the ISS, the first time a private company had done that. And so, in a sense, Kubrick’s vision of space travel by private companies is closer than it was. There’s to be a manned Dragon launch to shuttle astronauts to the ISS. And so, there are predictions found in science fiction coming true. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

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