For thousands of years, humans have advanced far past subsistence and evolved into a highly intelligent species, led by curiosity and yearning for answers to the unknown. This has fueled the persistent desire to question and discover new information, expand upon our knowledge and increase our thirst for innovation. Millions of people are fascinated by the impossible, and often this allure is projected in media and literature. Science fiction is a genre based on imaginary or futuristic technological advances, and major social or environmental changes, which frequently portray space or time travel and life on other planets.
The dramatic rise in popularity for the genre began around the 1960s due to influencers like Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, and continues today with instigators like Andy Weir, author of the popular science fiction novel The Martian. According to the data from publishing industry analysis blog Author Earnings, science fiction and fantasy book sales have doubled since 2010. But why is this genre so popular?
The curiosity for the unknown begins at the core of human physiology. This has sparked interest in the relationship between imagination and reality and has stretched the limits of the physical world. From these ideas, scientists have encouraged the study of these seemingly impossible ideas and found ways to learn whether or not they really are impossible. One thing that affects how people view science fiction is how it is represented in media.
From television shows, to news articles, to sci-fi novels, years of development have led us to the following question: To what extent does the representation of science fiction in media enhance scientific curiosity and innovation?
Why are we Drawn to Science Fiction?
“We often assume that the technologies we use daily come solely from ingenious innovators working in research labs with a mission to solve problems and invent new products. In fact, several of the most pioneering and novel ideas came from people who had little to do with science and technology, but who had the inspiration and talent to imagine future worlds without the constraints of the present moment.”
—Emmanuel Tsekleves, Science fiction as fact: how desires drive discoveries
The simplest answer to this question can be described in one word: escapism – the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. It is a concept that creates an escape within a novel, which initiates the draw to science fiction. This element is typically associated with the joy of reading in any genre, which allows us to get entirely immersed in the world of a good book, or even movies and video games. This aspect helps to harness the ideas of science and exploration, and influence people to continue entertaining the ideas of the universes that they admire so much. However, this only explains a fraction of the appeal of science fiction.
Pushing the limits
Science fiction is just that – fiction. Besides the excitement of fantasy worlds, what use is it for society to be attached so strongly to something that does not exist? Although these worlds are beyond our own, there are some ideas in sci-fi that may be possible after all. Physicist and bestselling author Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible discusses the possibilities of common science fiction themes.
He classifies theoretical physics into three classes of impossibility: Class I impossibilities, which are not possible with current technology, but do not violate any known laws of physics, including teleportation, antimatter engines, and certain types of telekinesis; Class II impossibilities, that sit on the edge of our understanding for the physical world, and could be recognized as possible in the distant future, such as time travel and wormholes; and Class III impossibilities, which violate known laws of physics, and would alter what we know about the physical world.
This implies that many of the concepts that are suggested in science fiction may be possible with certain progressions. Keeping in mind all that has been accomplished in technology in just the last few centuries, it is not far-fetched to believe that the future may very well prove that science fiction may not be so fictional after all.
The excitement of the genre attracts readers, but its effects run much deeper. Oftentimes, science fiction is written with a social purpose. Contrary to popular belief, science fiction is not necessarily written as a means to predict the future. Instead, it is generally written in attempt to guide technological development in a certain direction or warn readers of the dangers that may come with certain changes in the world, be it environmental, political, or other areas of influence. In the words of Zach Berkson, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, “Science fiction invites us to consider the complex ways our choices and interactions contribute to generating the future.”
There are generally two styles of social settings portrayed in literature: utopias and dystopias. Utopias can be used as suggestions for societal improvement, and dystopias used as warnings to the effects of societal downfall. Both can be informative to the public by encouraging us to think about what may happen to our world if we continue to behave in certain ways. Whatever the goal of the work may be, there is potential for most any science fiction work to have an influence on society and give it a bigger purpose to humanity.
The golden era of Science Fiction
The 1960s and 1970s were a prominent era for science fiction, especially due to events like the moon landing and increasing popularity of the television, and led to countless ideas for technology that have more recently been brought to reality. Dozens of articles have been written by news websites like BBC and CNN describing inventions that were “predicted” by science fiction, which led to the creation of modern technology.
Ideas from Entertainment
In 1969, the show Star Trek brought several ideas into the minds of sci-fi lovers. The Star Trek Communicator led to the invention of the flip phone, which of course evolved into the smartphones that are used daily around the world. In more recent years, the PADD and headsets used by the ship members inspired both the Apple iPad, which is also popular worldwide, and Google Glass, which is becoming more advanced as more updates are being added to it.
A major influencer of many home-based technologies was The Jetsons, a popular cartoon which first aired in 1962. The Jetsons’ Food Machine has led to online ordering hubs, which are not only convenient but also allow easier ways to buy food for those who are disabled or have other problems which prevent them from going to the grocery store. The Jetson family also owned a Robot Vacuum, which has led to the convenient smart-vacuum, the Roomba, and a Sleek TV which led to flat-screen televisions.
Science fiction is not only interesting to many people for its fantastical components, but also spreads ideas which can help enhance scientific knowledge across the public. One of the most famous examples of this would be the Star Wars series created in the late 70s, which has had one of the largest influences on the science fiction community and is still growing today. The series brings back a sense of nostalgia for viewers for decades, and as stated by The Charger, “for many fans, ‘Star Wars’ is more than just a film franchise; it’s a part of people’s childhoods.”
They continue by stating, “the story may take place in a sci-fi setting, but it remains relatable to struggles that people face in their own life. Everyone has faced a struggle in their life, even if it’s not as dire as the Death Star.” This is an important aspect of any story, which may explain the success of this series. Another part of the reason “Star Wars” has managed to grow its fan base is by having more inclusive storylines.
Furthermore, there are countless spin-offs and additional storylines related to this universe, with countless different opportunities for new ideas and additions to the story, giving it a lasting impact that seems like even after over 40 years, the series will never die, and instead will continue inspiring viewers for years to come. This is a different kind of influence, a social one, that has affected the audience.
While an idea may seem as simple as it’s shown in fiction, it can expand into an idea that could improve life for countless people. For example, there have been several advancements in military artillery which were inspired by science fiction. The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), created by the U.S. military, was designed to ward off bullets and contains internal antennas and computers designed to give better situation awareness, which was inspired by the armor of Marvel Studios’ Iron Man.
Beyond Earth, the moon landing in 1969 was a major event that sparked interest in science fiction and outer space in the public. Through the years, space travel has become more prominent, and has followed suggestions from science fiction such as The Replicator from Star Trek, which led to the idea of 3D Printers, which is currently being tested to print spare parts in space to avoid the expenses of shipping out excess materials, and can also which can be used to make body parts, like replacement skulls, which helps in the medical community.