Hilary Boden discusses the links between science fiction and the real world


Science fiction can illustrate scientific inventions and developments which are incredible and startling, but the genre is also scattered with eerily accurate predictions about the modern world. Considering the sheer number of science fiction (SF) texts, it’s statistically unsurprising that some of the inventions imagined would inevitably reflect upon the future. But it is still worth examining a few of the incredible similarities which fiction shares with some of our most important scientific advances:


The Atomic Bomb

In 1913 H.G. Wells wrote a novel entitled The World Set Free filled with multiple descriptions of atomic bombs, as the following excerpt illustrates:

“From the first detection of radio-activity to its first subjugation to human purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century[…]He set up atomic disintegration in a minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity […]the invisible speck of bismuth flashed into riving and rending energy, Holsten knew that he had opened a way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to worlds of limitless power”

Thirty years before the first atomic bomb was even tested, this foresight is incredible. Wells’ bombs explode for days, he indicated that remaining in an area where these atomic bombs were detonated would induce health problems, and the areas were uninhabitable for some time after. Critic Patrick B. Sharp acknowledges that Wells was inspired by science, with a basic knowledge of atomic physics. He studied and extrapolated the research of a British chemist, Frederick Soddy, who specialized in radioactivity. But what is perhaps the most intuitive about Wells’ depiction of the atomic bomb is the human and social implications he alludes to: the ‘narrow and dark’ way to ‘worlds of limitless power’ ominously prefigures the power struggle and harrowing events of the Second World War.


The Moon Landing

Jules Verne’s 1865 story From the Earth to the Moon depicts a fictional first mission to the moon. Written over 100 years before the Apollo 11 Spaceflight of 1969, it bears a striking resemblance to actual events. Verne describes a mission launched in December from a base in Florida, consisting of a crew of three men in a large aluminium capsule. The Apollo flight might have been launched in July, but nevertheless three men: Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, were sent into space in a Command Module made of a welded aluminium inner skin and a thin aluminium face sheet. In the story, the spacecraft is called the Comumbiad, whereas NASA’s Command Module was called the Columbia. The similarities become even more striking when considering that on return, Verne’s crew lands in the Pacific Ocean, and Apollo 11 did exactly the same on July 24th 1969.


The Internet

Mark Twain did not limit his writing to only the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he also occasionally wrote science fiction stories. In his 1899 story The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, he depicted a fictional invention called a ‘telelectropscope’, a telephone based system which linked people all over the globe with audio and video:

“The connection was made with the international telephone-station, and day by day, and night by night, he called up one corner of the globe after another, and looked upon its life, and studied its strange sights, and spoke with its people, and realised that by grace of this marvellous instrument he was almost as free as the birds of the air, although a prisoner under locks and bars.”

The protagonist seems fully absorbed in the ‘on-line’ world, and somewhat reminiscent of the amount of time I myself spend on my laptop! He has been accused of murder and sentenced to death, but uses this internet-like system to track down his ‘victim’, and he is able to watch live feed of him in a crowd at an event in China, thus proving his innocence. This seems a far more constructive use of the internet than Facebook…

These three examples with their uncanny parallels to reality throw up the question ‘Does the fiction inspire the science?’. Even if it’s statistically likely that elements of science fiction would naturally come about, the texts themselves are still valuable as a thought experiment in themselves. Each fiction allows insight into how people react and evolve to new scientific advances and technology, their commentary on the relationship between man and science provides something to learn from.


 Hilary Boden

Image credit – National Archives