Great Sci-Fi, Wrong Future – WIF Bookshelf

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These Science Fiction

Novels Got the Science

Very, Very Wrong

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas[.]” He may have been biased, but he wasn’t incorrect. There are two genres of science fiction. Hard science fiction is usually scientifically rigorous, while soft science fiction uses elements of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. World building in science fiction is often creative, but  it doesn’t always reveal humankind’s future. Here are 10 inaccuracies found in science fiction.

10. Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein

Concept: Relativity

Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity says time is relative, and one’s perception of time varies based on how quickly one is moving. Since general relativity and special relativity are theories, their applications are less concrete than the uses for technology in some science fiction on this list. We use special relativity to explain why astronauts living in space are moving more quickly — and aging more slowly — than people on Earth. Special relativity is important to the plot of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Heinlein also uses the Twin Paradox as a plot device.

The Twin Paradox is a thought experiment that is only made possible because of the theory of special relativity. Imagine two identical twins. One remains on Earth, while the other travels to a star six light years away using a rocket that travels at six times the speed of light. Before the traveling twin leaves Earth, both twins reset their watches to zero. When the traveling twin reaches the star, her watch says eight years have passed. When the twin on Earth reads her watch, she will find 16 years have passed by the time the traveling twin reaches the star. From the perspective of the twin on Earth, the traveling twin’s rocket takes 10 years to reach the star. The light that will show the traveling twin at the star will take an additional six years to return to Earth, making the trip to the star take 16 years. To the traveler, whose rocket moves at six times the speed of light, the star she is traveling to, which seems six light years away to her twin sister on Earth, is only 4.8 light years away. It takes another 4.8 years for light to travel from Earth to her rocket, so she perceives the trip as taking roughly eight years.

Robert A. Heinlein is respected as a gifted science fiction writer. He was named the first Science Fiction Writers Grand Master in 1974. He also pursued graduate degrees in physics and mathematics at UCLA. Because of his scientific knowledge, his explanations of special relativity and the Twin Paradox are mostly correct. He applies the theories correctly, with one minor inaccuracy. In his novel, the traveling twin and the twin on Earth are communicating in real time via intercom. Once the traveling twin is moving at the speed of light, he hears the twin on Earth as though he is speaking more slowly. By contrast, the twin on Earth hears the traveling twin as though he is speaking more quickly. In fact, each twin would only be conscious of his own perception of time.

9. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Concept: Colonizing Mars

In Ray Bradbury’s 1950 collection of vignettes, humans have successfully colonized Mars. Bradbury explores which impulses, noble and ignoble, humans obey regardless of which planet they’re inhabiting. As of 2019, NASA is still planning to send astronauts to Mars. The topographical features that led Bradbury and other science fiction writers to imagine it might be possible to colonize Mars by the mid-20th century, though, have been revealed to be misleading.

By 1960, astronomer Carl Sagan had discovered that Mars is consistently freezing due to its lack of atmosphere, and the canals on Mars were not, as had previously been hypothesized, former waterways.

8. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Concept: Reanimating Dinosaurs

Unlike the saddled dinosaurs calmly coexisting with humans in the Creation Museum’s exhibits, the destructive dinosaurs in Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel are a cautionary tale for humans. A course of action made possible by scientific advancement isn’t necessarily a wise one. However, despite the intricately detailed scientific plot of the novel, resurrecting dinosaurs isn’t possible.

The science of paleontology dates from the 19th century, and dinosaur footprints and fossils have consistently been recognized as historically important. To resurrect dinosaurs, though, paleontologists would need viable dinosaur DNA in order to reassemble dinosaurs’ genetic codes. Dinosaurs dominated the Earth roughly 66 million years ago. Even if their DNA was found, it would be too decayed to be useful in reassembling a genetic code. That’s good news for anyone getting tired of holding onto their butt.

7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Concept: Reanimating Humans

Defibrillators can be used to revive someone who has gone into sudden cardiac arrest. However, it’s impossible to revive someone who has already been hanged, like the scientist Victor Frankenstein does in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. During the 19th century, there was scientific research that seemed to support the possibility that corpses could be revived through the use of electricity. In 1781, a surgeon, Luigi Galvani, dissected a frog while standing near a static electricity machine. When an assistant touched a nerve in the frog’s leg with a scalpel, the frog’s leg spasmed. Galvani built a bronze and iron arc, and he attached the frog’s leg and the static electricity machine to it. The frog’s leg twitched whenever it touched the metal. Galvani formed a hypothesis: he believed the frog possessed what Galvani called animal electricity. The bimetallic arc conducted the animal electricity to the frog’s nerve, making its leg twitch. The plot of Shelley’s novel is an exploration of what might be possible if humans, too, possessed animal electricity.

After reading Galvani’s work, physicist Alessandro Volta replicated Galvani’s experiment. He observed the same result, but he reached a very different conclusion. His hypothesis, which we now know to be accurate, was that the metal was acting as a conductor for the electric current from the static electricity machine. When the current touched the frog’s leg, the frog’s leg twitched.

6. Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Concept: Human Cloning

Jodi Picoult’s 2003 book My Sister’s Keeper explores the question of whether it’s morally defensible to expect one sibling to become an organ donor for another. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, organ donation is a social requirement. Human clones are created solely to become organ donors. There are many science fiction novels featuring human clones. While the question of how humans determine quality of life will always be a valid one, human cloning isn’t currently possible. Further, there is no way to guarantee that a clone will be as healthy as the animal from whose cells the clone was created.

In 1996, Dolly, a sheep, became the first successfully cloned mammal. The average lifespan of a sheep is 12 years, but Dolly was euthanized in 2002. At six-and-a-half years old, she had already developed a progressive lung disease. She also had shorter telomeres than other sheep of a comparable age. Telomeres are pieces of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes. Since telomeres shorten as cells divide, they are considered an indication of an animal’s age. Based on Dolly’s lung disease and the length of her telomeres, scientists speculate that she was actually born six years old, the same age as that of the sheep from which she was cloned.

5. Babylon Babies by Maurice Dantec

Concept: Designer Babies

In Maurice Dantec’s 1999 novel, a woman is carrying genetically modified twins whose birth might forever change the human race. Unlike most of the scientific advancements on this list, this one isn’t currently impossible. In 2018, Chinese researcher Jiankui He created the first babies with artificially increased resistance to HIV. Afterward, the embryos were implanted in the mother’s uterus, and the babies were born healthy.

Technically, these weren’t designer babies, because their parents weren’t selecting particular genes. However, the same gene editing techniques could be used to create designer babies. Gene editing in embryos is permitted in Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, China, and Sweden. Gene editing is scientifically possible, but there’s not international consensus regarding whether it’s ethical. Consistent gene editing could allow certain countries to practice genocide or produce physically and intellectually enhanced soldiers that would give them an advantage during international conflicts.

4. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Concept: Utopia

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1979 novel The Dispossessed isn’t the only science fiction novel depicting a utopian future for humankind. Though no author who has imagined the future as a utopia is right (so far), Le Guin’s utopia is unique for two reasons. First, her world has an anarchic planet, Anarres, that’s rich in resources. It’s a colony of an arid planet, Urras. Even in a utopia, inhabitants of Anarres are deprived of their own natural resources. Second, the novel’s protagonist, Shevek, fares better than his real world model. Shevek was modeled on a family friend of Le Guin’s, J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Shevek makes the citizens of Anarres question both the limits of their personal autonomy and the consequences of exercising it. By contrast, Oppenheimer’s expertise made the first atomic explosion possible in 1945. Unfortunately, he was stripped of his job title, chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, when he opposed the United States’ development of a hydrogen bomb. Asking the American government to critique its own use of personal autonomy cost Oppenheimer his professional reputation.

3. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Concept: Time Travel

H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella isn’t the only story involving time travel. However, Wells popularized the idea that humans could invent a machine that makes time travel possible. Technically, time travel exists. As previously mentioned, Einstein’s theory of special relativity says time is relative, and one’s perception of time varies based on how quickly one is moving. Astronauts living in space are moving more quickly than people on Earth. Therefore, an astronaut living in space for a year will age slightly less than people who are living on Earth during that year.

The Large Hadron Collider moves protons at almost the speed of light, essentially propelling them into the future. The kind of time travel that Wells writes about — the kind that’s controlled  by humans and measured based on a Western European perception of time — isn’t possible. In 2015, Ali Razeghi, the managing director of Iran’s Center for Strategic Inventions, claimed he had invented a machine that could accurately predict five to eight years into a person’s future. His claim was debunked when he declined to release the design for his time machine.

2. The Xenu Files by L. Ron HubbarL.Rond

Concept: The Origin Of Humanity

Unlike most of the entries on this list, The Xenu Files isn’t a novel. L. Ron Hubbard was a writer of popular science fiction short stories, but he’s most famous for founding the Church of Scientology. Scientologists pay a minimum of a quarter of a million dollars to audit Scientology courses. Once they reach the level of Operating Thetan 3, they are permitted to read the religion’s origin myth. According to the 2015 HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, the origin myth, which was handwritten between 1966 and 1967, is stored at the church’s Advanced Organization Building.

According to Hubbard, Xenu, the dictator of the Galactic Federation, needed to solve his planet’s overpopulation problem. He sent his own subjects to Earth, then called Teegeeack. There, they were strapped to atomic bombs and hurled into volcanoes. The spirits of Xenu’s subjects, called Thetans, cling to contemporary humans. The only way to rid oneself of Thetans is through the Scientologists’ practice of auditing. In auditing, someone talks about events from his or her previous lives while an auditor reads an e-meter (a lie detector). The person’s truthfulness, as determined by the auditor, shows how susceptible the person is to Thetans.

If these religious practices seem like they belong in a science fiction novel, perhaps that’s because science fiction readers were the original intended audience for Hubbard’s ideas. After failing to convince doctors, psychologists, and explorers to integrate his ideas into their professional practices, Hubbard appealed to the science fiction readers who were fans of his work. He and his editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., developed the system of dianetics, a term used to describe the methodology of Scientology. Hubbard’s first article about dianetics appeared in a 1950 issue of the magazine Astounding. Campbell, who owned the magazine, primarily published science fiction short stories, including Hubbard’s. Later, Hubbard used one of his science fiction short stories, “Masters of Sleep,” as a prolonged advertisement for dianetics. In his 2012 post for The Village Voice, Tony Ortega says Scientologists might be more susceptible to Hubbard’s origin story in The Xenu Files because many of them have vividly experienced past lives during auditing. For Hubbard’s early readers, the process was much simpler. They encountered information about dianetics in the same magazine that had published Hubbard’s science fiction.

1. The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

Concept: The Future

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, isn’t noteworthy because her book contains prescient predictions. The North Pole isn’t a portal to another planet. We haven’t discovered a planet that we can verify is lit by the brightest stars ever created. No human has been transported to another planet, then declared war against her own home planet (unless alien victors have compromised our collective memory of the event).

No, Cavendish isn’t noteworthy because of how she envisioned the future. She’s noteworthy because of when she did it. Written in 1666, The Blazing World is widely regarded as the first science fiction novel. A respected poet, playwright, biographer, and essayist in her own time, Cavendish also created a genre. As Bronwyn Lovell says in her 2016 article for The Conversation, “Science Fiction’s Woman Problem,” science fiction is still a male-dominated genre. Still, Cavendish ensured a future for female writers by creating a space for them.


Great Sci-Fi, Wrong Future

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 … You Never Knew About

Famous Sci-Fi Authors

 10. William Gibson Doesn’t Care About Technology

ROME - MAY 26: U.S. Author William Gibson attends the 7th editition of the Festival of Literature at Literature House on May 26, 2007 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Elisabetta A. Villa/WireImage)

Anyone familiar with cyberpunk would recognize the name of William Gibson. He invented the genre with his 1984 novel Neuromancer, which paved the way for movies like The Matrix. In fact, the Wachowskis borrowed the term “matrix” from him. One would think that a literary pioneer would be attracted to technological advancements and be an early adopter of new gadgets.

But while Gibson is intrigued by the way technology shapes humanity and society, the technology itself doesn’t interest him. He said that even as a boy he was never into the idea of robots. Back in 2010 he was still sending out faxes. Despite the fact that many sci-fi fans consider him the literary godfather of cyberspace, he’s never been interested in computers as technological objects. He’s claimed that his favorite technology is the latest word processing software, and he was very slow to adopt e-mail and the Internet.

9. Michael Crichton’s First Love was Medicine

Michael Crichton, author of ``Next,'' a novel about the high-stakes world of genetics speaks at the National Press Club where he was presented the NPC mug which he shares in common with Angelina Jolie, Richard Dreyfus and Joan Collins Washington DC, USA - 28.11.06 Credit: Carrie Devorah / WENN

Everyone knows Michael Crichton as the author of science-driven novels likeJurassic Park and Congo, which were turned into blockbuster movies. But most forget that he was behind the creation of ER, one of the top medical dramas of all time. In fact, he had been shopping the idea of a medical drama to TV studios since the 1970s. After directing Westworld, he wrote a documentary-style movie about how things really go down in an emergency room. Since the idea of realism in TV dramas was ahead of its time, he had to shelve the concept until the 1990s, when he and Spielberg came together to produce ER.

When Crichton was in medical school he wrote a different type of work featuring medicine. Novels such as Drug of Choice and Zero Cool focused on doctors and scientists put into spectacular mystery situations. Although firmly based on scientific principles, they featured a pulp sensibility lacking in his later works. Publishers have re-released these James Bond-type works following his passing.

8. Frank Herbert Disliked Homosexuality

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The relationship between Dune author Frank Herbert and his son Bruce was a difficult one growing up. It became even more difficult when Bruce started living in a drug house and began dating men in the 1970s.

If you’ve read the Dune series, you have a sense of Frank Herbert’s view of homosexuality. In the first novel, Baron Harkonnen is a loathsome ephebophile with sadistic tastes. In God Emperor of Dune and Heretics of Dune, he negatively described homosexual forces at work in fictional armies. To him, such behavior was unseemly and immature.

Despite the tension that occurred for years between Frank and Bruce, they reconciled enough that Bruce and his then-boyfriend showed up at the Dunefilm premiere in 1984, a little over a year before Frank Herbert’s death in 1986.

7. Philip K. Dick was Pro-life

Philip K Dick

Philip K. Dick never liked abortion. In 1961, his then-wife Anne terminated her pregnancy because she had just had their daughter Laura. Although he begged her not to go through with the procedure, she believed she couldn’t raise two small children at the same time, especially with Dick’s constant money troubles. His anger at the situation shows in his then-unpublished novel, The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, where he modeled the couple on his own family.

He was also furious when he heard the result of Roe v. Wade. To vent his feelings, he wrote the short story “The Pre-Persons.” In it, the government doesn’t consider a person a legal entity until the age of 12. In order for the country to consider someone a person, they must learn certain tasks like algebra. It ends in a twist when the father, who was considering giving his son to the abortion truck, offers himself up as he has forgotten algebra even though he once was a math professor. Dick received a lot of hate mail, but said that his beliefs on the matter were firm. In fact, he donated money to a pro-life group despite the fact that he lived in poverty until his death.

6. Marion Zimmer Bradley was Complicit in Child Abuse

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Bradley’s most famous work, The Mists of Avalon, was particularly popular among feminists, who loved that she took on the legends of King Arthur from the female characters’ perspectives. A hit miniseries was even based on the work. But when she died in 1999, revelations revolving her relationship with ex-husband Walter Breen burst forth.

In the sci-fi community, it was common knowledge that Breen was a child molester. The law had charged him twice, with the second conviction sending him to prison. However, it wasn’t known that Bradley had been subject of a civil lawsuit. It was believed that she had helped him procure young girls or turned a blind eye to his abuse, which also occurred against Bradley’s daughter, Moira Greyland.

Then another bombshell dropped in 2014. Greyland said that not only had her mother been complicit in the abuse, but she had participated as well, abusing her from the age of three to 12. She described her mother as violent and cruel. This probably shouldn’t have surprised Bradley’s associates, as in her 1998 disposition on the Breen case she stated that she believed young teens should be able to have sex with adults.

5. Ray Bradbury Became a Staunch Conservative

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When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, he was concerned about government censorship. Looking at the examples of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, he was worried about a totalitarian spirit surfacing in the United States. However, another major theme is political correctness and mass media swallowing up the pleasures of critical reading. In the novel, the public abandons reading because it’s too difficult, and because different groups view certain books as too offensive. By the time of his death, Bradbury argued that this was the principal theme of the novel.

His political beliefs changed over the years, particularly during the tumultuous 1960s. His parents raised him as a staunch Democrat, but after becoming disgusted with the foreign policy of Lyndon Johnson he voted Republican in 1968. Although he registered as an independent, he voted for the Republicans in every election with the exception of Carter in 1976. Shortly before his death he began supporting the Tea Party movement, saying “There is too much government today.”

4. Dr. Jerry Pournelle Is Buddies With Newt Gingrich

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If you’ve followed Newt Gingrich’s political career, you’d recognize that space exploration has a special place in his heart. During the 2012 Republican primaries he talked about a moon base. In his second term in the House of Representatives he proposed the NASA Policy Act of 1981, which offered a pathway for statehood for a potential American moon colony. Later, he proposed taking away farm subsidies and using those taxes to invest in space travel. Gingrich claimed that the works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke showed him the possibilities of space exploration. However, he also received direct advice from a modern titan of science fiction.

Since the 1980s, Jerry Pournelle has served as an advisor on Gingrich’s scientific proposals. When Gingrich published his first book, Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future, he consulted Pournelle about the possibility of climate manipulation from the moon and space tourism. Pournelle is the first name in the list of acknowledgements. Gingrich even hired Pournelle’s son as a congressional staffer.

3. Robert A. Heinlein Hated Bigotry

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If you came across reviews of Heinlein’s work, you’d assume that Heinlein was a racist, misogynist, authoritarian. Some think that Starship Troopers lauds fascism. But Heinlein had strong black, Latino, Asian and female protagonists before it was politically correct. How did his personal actions reflect his views?

In 1964, Heinlein supported the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Heinlein had met and befriended the Senator when Goldwater was visiting Colorado for a hunting trip. Heinlein was impressed that Goldwater had taken the initiative to start hiring African-Americans at his business even though it might upset customers. He also appreciated Goldwater’s efforts to desegregate Sky Harbor Airport. When an associate suggested that African-Americans willing to campaign for Goldwater should form their own committees, Heinlein told the associate that he should treat them equally. Heinlein’s political views are complicated, but his progressive views on race were always clear.

2. A Bunch of Writers Formed a Space Advisory Council

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In 1980, many astrophysicists believed that the incoming Reagan administration would take space policy more seriously than the last. So a group of military personnel, entrepreneurs, scientists and sci-fi writers formed the Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy, largely under the leadership of Dr. Jerry Pournelle and his frequent co-writer, Larry Niven. Soon, technically proficient science fiction authors packed the meetings: Poul Anderson, Greg Bear, Robert A. Heinlein and prolific publisher Jim Baen joined the meetings, which at times ran up to 90 people.

The group helped formulate policy that defined the 1980s. The Citizen’s Advisory Council provided much of the material that resulted in Reagan’s famous speech that endorsed the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative satellite system. Although the government failed to complete SDI, the threat of it brought the Soviets to the negotiating table.

1. Orson Scott Card Loves Video Games

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Even if you’re not a regular sci-fi reader you’ve likely heard of Card’s Ender’s Game. The story revolves around Ender Wiggin, a young boy who Earth recruits for an ongoing war against aliens. He believes he’s training in a simulation, but in reality he’s sending real troops into the line of fire.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Card has an interest in video games. In aninterview, he mentioned that he had to stop playing Civilization II because it was encroaching on his family life and the time he spent writing. He estimated that there were about 20 novels never written because of his addiction, and he even compared himself to a recovering alcoholic.

Card’s interest in gaming goes back to the early ’80s. When Card took the position of book editor at Compute!, he reviewed games and wrote a column on programming. He followed the progression of the game industry and made contacts with other professionals. George Lucas noticed the success of Ender’s Game, and invited Card to work with LucasFilm games. Card served as a dialogue consultant on The Secret of Monkey Island and The Dig. In recent years, he collaborated with a publisher to produce Advent Rising, a he wanted to bridge the gap between literary storytelling and video game plots.

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