Daring to Dream: Why the World Needs Science Fiction

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While researching the theory behind the Alcubierre Drive, which forms the scientific basis for faster-than-light travel in Aurora Rising, I again came face-to-face with an issue which annoyed me immensely back during my aspiring-astrophysicist days.

Fully half the Wikipedia entry for the drive is taken up with all the reasons why it is impossible; the latter half of nearly all “serious” articles on the concept the same. Now, I readily admit that currently, not only are we not capable of producing the technology required for such a drive, we don’t even possess the theoretical scientific knowledge necessary to do so.

So. What.

Our current state of knowledge no more makes it impossible to develop FTL travel than the state of electronics in 1800 (non-existent) made the invention of the computer and the internet impossible. Did scientists and engineers in 1800 know how to build a computer? Certainly not. Could they even conceive of how such a contraption might come to be? Not likely. Yet here we sit today.

My issue isn’t with the statements of scientists, philosophers or journalists that something isn’t currently ‘feasible’ or ‘realistic.’ I understand scientists must work within the bounds of what is known, albeit often pushing those boundaries ever further out. Their work depends on logic, fact and provability. And before we can get from where we are now to FTL travel, there are a thousand tiny, individual scientific and technological advances which must occur, and each tiny one must be researched, discovered and developed by scientists and engineers.

 My problem is with such people saying something—anything—is impossible. The history of the advancement of humanity is littered with people turning the impossible into the possible. We call them “dreamers,” until they turn their dreams into reality; then we call them “innovators” and “visionaries.”

Perhaps it is the nature of the work, but far too few scientists and engineers are dreamers. Perhaps it is the nature of humanity, but far too few individuals are dreamers. And the simple fact is, we depend on dreamers, innovators and visionaries to drag everyone else along behind them into the future.

So where does science fiction come in? In short, science fiction is the anecdote to the pervasive pessimism and short-sightedness in society. Science fiction refuses to recognize the argument that “it can’t be done.” Science fiction proclaims it is okay to dream.

  • Lucian of Samasota wrote of space travel to the moon in the 100s in True History (now he was a dreamer).

  • Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, almost forty years before we achieved even Earth-bound powered, controlled aviation.

  • Isaac Asimov began the Foundation series, in which interstellar space travel is commonplace, two years before we launched the first rocket into space.

A counter-example ripped from the headlines proves the point quite well. Charles Stross primarily writes hard and singularity science fiction, but in 2007 he published the first novel in a near-future trilogy, Halting State (the second novel, Rule 34, was published in 2011). Last week he announced there would not be a third and final novel in the trilogy, because reality has already caught up with his vision. Virtually everything he imagined in 2006 could occur in the coming decades has in fact already happened.

Nevertheless, science fiction is not strictly—and need not be—a precise predictor of future technology. The genre is rife with examples of “uneven” advancement. The Millennium Falcon can travel between the stars faster than light, but it takes the archaic ‘navicomputer’ multiple minutes to compute the coordinates every time it makes a jump. Neuromancer envisioned the internet, personal hard drives and artificial intelligence, but failed to predict any kind of cell phone technology. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here—it's just not evenly distributed.” (As an aside, it’s this type of thing which keeps me up at night—in a world with FTL travel, cybernetics, cloning and instantaneous communication across the stars, what technological advances which in retrospect will be blindingly obvious am I missing? Alas, at least I will be in good company.)

But most of what science fiction has predicted in the past has in fact become reality. No, we can’t yet travel to other star systems, but we can travel in space and to other planets; at this point the difference is one of degree, not kind.

  • For a century, Einstein’s theory of special relativity has been assumed to preclude travel at faster than the speed of light. Now scientists are positing it might, in fact, allow for that very thing.

  • When the Alcubierre Drive was first theorized in 1994, it was believed such a drive would require an amount of mass-energy equal to that of Jupiter (1.9 x 10^27 kg). In 2012, however, a group of scientists announced that by modifying the design slightly, the mass-energy required could be reduced to the size of the Voyager 1 spacecraft (700 kg)—a reduction on the order of 10^25.

Yet despite all this evidence to the contrary, you continue to see in article after article the assumption that travel even approaching the speed of light is “of course, impossible.”

I’ve used space travel as the focus of this post, but the observation applies to nearly anything which doesn’t yet exist. As a futurist, I see it all the time in discussions of longevity and extension of human lifespans. It occurs in the field of electrical engineering, where heat issues are currently placing an upper limit on the number of transistors which can be imprinted on a computer chip of a given size; this is somehow assumed by many to impose an absolute limit to the amount of processing power/space.

Scientists and engineers must, for the most part, work within the rules as they exist today. But in order for those rules to change, grow and every so often completely transform—for the impossible to become reality—we need someone to dream.