Do you enjoy stories set in the future? This kind of writing is called science fiction, or speculative fiction. To speculate is to think deeply, to try to work something out, and so in speculative fiction writers are trying to imagine what the future would be like.
“I’m not interested at all in these stories, they can’t be true!” someone might say. And yes, they are obviously not true as the future hasn’t happened yet. But like all stories, there can be truth in them. And, in terms of imagining the future – well some people think scientists should read science fiction to get ideas of the possible consequences of today’s science. Scientists are focusing on tomorrow’s results, whereas writers are thinking about the ethical, moral and social impact that new inventions can make further into the future.
The job of writers is to imagine, “What if…”. Science fiction writers use the tools they have today – the inventions, discoveries, knowledge – to imagine how these will impact the future. There are many novels set in the future where wars are about water, or civilisation has collapsed because of climate change. Even if these aren’t going to happen exactly as the writer imagines, they are certainly relevant warnings to today’s world.
Sometimes science fiction can get it right! In 1880, an author predicted something like credit cards, at a time when the only currency was hard cash. In 1940 another author predicted the end of the world war being an atomic explosion, which then throws the world into a nuclear arms race. This is exactly what happened after the Second World War ended in 1945 with America’s bombing of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Then you have probably heard the phrase “Big brother is watching you”, and we are seeing the truth of it more and more with things like CCTV, and digital spying and data collecting. The phrase actually comes from a book called 1984, written by George Orwell at a time before computers had taken over so much of our lives.
There have been many stories about technology such as robots or computers taking over the world. This might seem like crazy fantasy in the past. But lately, famous scientists such as Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking have spoken out, warning that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the biggest threats to humankind. They are seeing the real possibility of how computers could actually be destructive to humanity, as we are building instruments that are cleverer than us, and which could eventually make decisions that are not to our benefit. These many stories we have about technology taking over could alert scientists to be aware of the dangers of their day-to-day work, and possibly use this thinking to point their research into different directions to find solutions to the danger that AI poses, and to find ways of developing tools that will have benefits for humanity instead.
Scientists themselves can get ideas from science fiction. Writers’ creative imaginations can even spark new ways of thinking in science itself. And, some scientists say that it was reading science fiction as a child that got them interested in science in the first place.
Of course often science fiction gets things wrong. When computers were first invented, one writer imagined that as they got more and more powerful, they would get bigger and bigger. But the opposite has happened. Today our small phones are more powerful than the first computers that took up huge rooms. We are not flying in our own private planes or living on Mars (yet?!).
However science fiction isn’t only about prediction. It’s about playing with what is happening currently, and often making a comment about the consequences of some of our actions today. The stories can often even be a comment on current attitudes. For example, a story about aliens coming to earth, and then being killed, can show how our society treats outsiders, and anything we don’t understand.
So although science fiction may be set in a future that will never happen, it can certainly help us to develop our understanding of the world we live in today.