Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Predictions in science fiction novels

From the website geekandsundry
Which science fiction movie or novel is most prescient today? This question is related to other posts I've written about future predictions (or past predictions about today). For example, "Past predictions of the future" (October 20,2015); "Back to the Future today" (October 25, 2015); and "Predicting Obsolescence" (January 12, 2016).

This was a question asked of guest contributors to the Room for Debate section of the New York Times recently. Six contributors explain their choices.

Since my students like science fiction movies (some even like science fictions books!), they could discuss the ones they've seen (or read) and talk about to what extent any of the science fiction has come true. They could compare similarities with books on this list. Perhaps some of the students have read one of the choices, or have seen a movie version of one of the books.

Link to the Room for Debate page:

The introduction to the 6 short articles is:

"This year, NASA confirmed the existence of liquid water on Mars, raising the possibility of Martian life; a genetically engineered animal can now be sold for human consumption, as in a tale by Margaret Atwood; and a Silicon Valley research institute was formed to create a computer with the intellectual ability of a human, and to confront the threat such artificial intelligence poses to humanity.

Scientific discovery and invention often leads to comparison with speculative or dystopian fiction.

What science fiction movie or novel seems most prescient today?"

Here are the choices and a short excerpt of the reasons:
  • Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury): Ray Bradbury ... wrote "Fahrenheit 451" in 1953, and yet it speaks directly to today. In terms of technology, Bradbury accurately extrapolated, from that era's nascent television culture, something that eerily predicts the Internet. The book imagines a world flooded with information, pouring into citizens' ears and eyes through ear buds and wall-sized flat-panel screens.
  • The Martian (Andy Weir): "The Martian" is the story of an American astronaut who must jury-rig his own survival on Mars after he is accidentally left behind on the planet during a windstorm. The experimental trajectory of his actions are (sic) very true to scientific inquiry and practice, as were some of the elements of his team's space travel.
  • The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin): N.K. Jemisin's latest novel, "The Fifth Season" explores a science that is oddly neglected in science fiction: the geophysics of exoplanets. Though we have plenty of stories about the physics of space travel and the biology of alien life, very few authors tackle the actual rocky, gassy, molten stuff that planets are made of. Jemisin does it brilliantly, crafting a tale that is both intensely moving and scientifically complex.
  • The Body Snatchers (Jack Finney): "The Body Snatchers" gave us the term "pod people" -- for alien beings that can disguise themselves as humans, killing those whom they emulate, until they've used up and destroyed a civilization. The reason for the story's popularity is obvious. The thought of a strange, soulless force from outside, taking over our bodies, is terrifying. It's scary enough in fiction, but even in 2015, modern day "body snatchers" in state legislatures and Congress are trying to take over women's bodies.
  • Book of the New Sun (Gene Wolfe): A failed interstellar culture, Wolfe's society has fallen backward from fear into inscrutable religious ritual, mistaking technology for magic and, worst of all, elevating torture to spiritual ecstasy. Every time I see a tweet in support of torturing America's enemies, or poo-pooing science and its calls for caution, or praising Donald Trump, I flash forward to Wolfe's wondrous dystopia.
  • Use of Weapons (Iain Banks): This book is the epitome of the best kind of science fiction, which is always about us in the here-and-now, rather than "them" in the there-and-then. It provides the distance needed to see ourselves more clearly. ... (Banks's) civilization, the Culture, and its special action executive arm, Special Circumstances, has the knowledge of foresight that America's best and brightest did not. They use their weapons for the utilitarian good. Nonetheless, they use their weapons and they use them up. And their weapons are people.

Related to this is another article, "Science Fiction that Predicted Our Dystopian Present" on the website "geekandsundry":

This article chose 3 books that predicted aspects of the present. The choices (and reasons) are:
  • 1984 (George Orwell) - government surveillance
  • Twilight Zone (example given: "Number 12 Looks Just Like You") - body image and conformity
  • Fahrenheit 451 (again!) - reality TV

Since there is so much material linking language with themes relevant to our engineering students, it seems a shame not to take advantage of it.

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