Then and now : how science fiction precedes science

Jun 21, 2019

Humanity is curious by nature. Ever since we first looked up at the sky, we have been fascinated with the possibility of reaching those distant lights. Lacking the ability, we wrote stories about what it would be like on that wild frontier. The what-ifs, the hows. But it wasn't until 1817 that these stories stopped being about gods and magic and delved into the concept of science. Man, not gods, were the source of power. Since then, science fiction stories have led the way to scientific advancement.

In 1914, H.G Wells described a future in which scientists had discovered the power of the atom and more specifically, atomic powered bombs. On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated near Alamogord, New Mexico. The book was titled The World Set Free and was published in 1914. Although the library doesn’t have this book in the collection anymore you can read H. G. Wells’ other books that the Johnson County Library does own.

However, this isn’t the first time science fiction has inspired scientific advancement. For that, you’ll have to go all the way back to the beginning of the genre with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In that classic tale, she talks about a scientist who can reanimate dead tissue using various fluids and electricity.  On April 17th, 2019, an article was published in Nature magazine titled the Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem. In this article, researchers were able to activate cell functionality in pig brains. As gruesome as it might seem, one can only be reminded of Shelley’s monster.

However, not all scientific advancement has been as explosive or gross. The invention of the internet was first described in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer. Artificial intelligence? That would be I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. In fact, his introduction of the three laws of robots has been featured in other science fiction such as the character Data in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Recently, Tesla made headlines when it released its first autonomous car. However, in 1941 Robert Heinlein introduced a self-driving car in Methuselah's Children. Unfortunately, much like H.G. Well’s novel, the library no longer has this in its collection. However, you can read Heinlein’s other novels and stories. Specifically, Starship Troopers where soldiers wearing powered armor fight against humanity’s enemies. If this sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be wrong. DARPA released its first combat exoskeleton in 2014. And as early as December of 2018, the Lockheed Martin ONYX exoskeleton was to be field tested by the U.S. Army.

In 2008, Marvel released the Iron Man movie. In it, Tony Stark develops a suit of armor covered in a titanium gold alloy. It was reported to be one of the hardest substances ever created. Most people probably had never heard of this material before and even scientists couldn’t find a way to create it. Until they did. And like most scientific advancement, it was an accident. But, the end result was a substance four times the strength of titanium. All they need is a power supply and Iron Man can move from fiction to reality.

Other scientific advancements include fuel cells, which are used in some cars. This was first mentioned in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. Although a much-debated topic with stories going back to ancient times, many people consider Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon to be the first example of spaceflight in the modern genre of science fiction.

Want more science fiction? You can find these stories and more at the Johnson County Public Library.

Reviewed by Library Staff