Prophets of Science Fiction is a documentary television program that aired on the Science Channel for a single, eight-episode season between 2011-12. Produced and hosted by Ridley Scott, each episode focused on a different writer of sci-fi, exploring their life and work and attempting to correlate the fictional science of their stories with the factual applications in the real world. Thanks to Netflix, i discovered this terrific program (which is also streaming on the Science Channel’s website). Frankly, i was pleasantly surprised to find the program suggested by Netflix, as their algorithm’s analysis of my viewing habits - Dexter, Breaking Bad, Star Trek, The Writer’s Room and the like – somehow comes up with picks like Benchwarmers and The Croods. As a fan of the genre, i’ve often been amazed at how concepts and constructs from works of the past have so clearly come to fruition in the present. Ideas like the flip-open communicators from Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future to Daniel F. Galouye’s total environment simulator, presented as works of fiction some 50 years ago, are not only real parts of the world we live in today but in many cases even more mind-bending than their speculative counterparts.
Unlike the hyperserialized programs that are the usual culprits of the binge-watching phenomenon, Prophets of Science Fiction does not take viewers on an emotionally-invested roller coaster ride with a cathartic ending that compels the audience to watch successive episodes. My experience with the show found me frequently nodding off before completing a single installment, but this was due more to queuing it up when i should have been going to sleep. Nevertheless, the complete 5-plus hour series did keep me coming back night after night for its blending of re-enactments, expert interviews and animated recreations centered on the worlds these imaginative writers created.
Sporting the first true scientist in the series, Episode 3 of this terrific series spotlights H.G. Wells. Often referred to as the father of science fiction, Wells produced several cornerstone works in the genre including The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. The latter held the most intrigue for me, as i’d read somewhere years ago that originally Wells attempted to publish a scientific paper on the real-world possibility of time travel, but having it rejected he adapted it to a work of science fiction. This is covered in the episode, which describes Wells’ attempt to get a paper on his theory of a four-dimensional universe published in a prestigious journal. The editor, however, found it to be too confusing and convoluted. Disheartened, Wells took his essay and turned it into the story we all know, making popular the very idea of time travel that had been preceded only by the 1881 story The Clock That Went Backward.
On a side note, the re-enactment of the scene between Wells and the editor is actually played quite well, with the actor portraying Wells doing an excellent job of showing both his enthusiasm for the concept and his disappointment at the rejection. The re-enactments on Prophets are typically well done, with good use of period costumes and limited sets to put the sci-fi authors into a real context. Tangentially, i wonder if school curriculum these days make use of all the great historical re-enactments out there? Thinking about my own elementary school days, i recall more than once wondering what it was really like at the times we were reading about in our text books, which tend to gloss over a lot of details and go for the big picture stuff. i remember thinking about how the text would say something about an event in, say, 1905 then the next paragraph in about 1920 – that’s a lot of time in between!
But i digress, the term “time machine” itself – today a common sci-fi trope – had it’s origin in Wells’ story. And, in keeping with the theme of the program that yesterday’s sci-fi writers visionary tales often become today’s amazing breakthroughs, it was just reported that a team of researchers in Australia effectively simulated the behavior of time-traveling photons. As fellow blogger Erdrique commented in a recent post about commercial space travel, we are seeing things today that many people – myself included – never thought we would in our lifetime. Now, we regularly hear things about 3D printing advancements, huge leaps in communication technologies, suborbital transportation, the Internet of Things…and now even time travel itself!
In his debut novel, Wells’ The Time Machine presents the quintessential science fiction story that blends technology’s possibilities with social commentary and man’s desire to change the course of his own past to make a better tomorrow. In this novel, Wells’ protagonist primarily travels forward in time, avoiding many of the time travel paradoxes we are familiar with today like the grandfather paradox. The end of the novel does see him return to his own time though. Interestingly enough, as Wells’ theory in based on the four-dimensional universe concept, his time traveller literally only travels through time and not space – arriving at each of his destinations in the same location. To this day, many of the notions of time travel both scientific and speculative are drawn from the same well, or in this case, Wells. i wonder if perhaps a breakthrough will occur when researchers begin to think outside of this conceptual model.
For Wells, his literary contributions are primarily motivated by a common question, one that all too often occupies my thoughts too: will mankind annihilate itself? Personally, i think we’ll simply make ourselves obsolete at some point through the exponential advancement of technology and artificial intelligence, but that’s the subject for another post at another time. Wells, whose writing took place during the Victorian era, took the technologies of the time to what he thought might be the logical outcome. He pondered not only how scientific knowledge would affect the future, but what humankind would do with that science.
Herbert George Wells and his Martian walking machines – illustration by Richard Morden
Poet Robert Browning’s famous line “ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp — or what’s a heaven for?” is meant to inspire people to bigger and better things than they believe possible, but Wells’ stories offer a caveat to this by asking is perhaps mankind sometimes reaches too far.
Like the previous two writers highlighted on the program, Wells blends his own creative imagination with the science of his time to speculate on possibilities. Naturally, fiction requires drama to drive a story forward so this results in often dangerous scenarios, a perfect example of which is The War of the Worlds. Sparked by a conversation with his brother about the British Empire’s violent colonizations, wherein military forces descend on native people as if they are nothing more than primitive pests, Wells imagines what might happen if visitors from another planet arrived on Earth. At the time, Mars was particularly close to Earth and astronomers first noticed the channels on the surface of the red planet. Mistranslated as “canals,” this led many – Wells included – to wonder if perhaps there were civilizations there which might one day come to Earth with not-so-friendly intentions in the same manner that earthbound nations act upon each other. That is to say, their arrival and reaction to the primitive people they find here might not be so peaceful.
One of the underlying terrors of the story, which in the decades that followed would become an all-too-real situation, is the idea of large scale warfare that involves not just soldiers, but civilian populations. Unfortunately, this is a trend that has only continued to escalate and one need look no further than the headlines of this very day in fact, where the Gaza conflict is seeing both sides – Israel and Palestine – causing scores of casualties within each others’ urban populations. And this conflict, awful as it continues to be, is itself dwarfed by other Middle East aggressions like in Syria, where the death toll is estimated at 170,000 – one-third of which is civilians. Wells, who was intensely interested in sociology, would likely be as shocked and horrified by modern man’s violent struggles as we are when we read the news and wonder “how do we let these things happen?” Chemical warfare, tanks, laser weapons – all hallmarks of Wells’ work that are terrifyingly existent in the real world. Just a mere 19 years after WotW is published, Einstein develops a theory of laser technology that is eerily reminiscent of the Martians’ heat-ray weapons that use rotating lenses. Now, i can impulse-buy laser at the drug store to amuse my cats with or opt to have them shot into my eyes to correct my vision. Fortunately, we’re not disintegrating each other out there. Not yet, anyway.
Rob Gregory, director of laser systems at Textron Defense Systems, read WotW as a kid, and while he thought the concept was scary, it was also a compelling one that he now works to develop as just one of many DoD contractors. Once again, the sci-fi of youth leads young people to grow up and become engineers and scientists themselves, taking the concepts that fascinated them and asking if it can really be done. It is interesting to me that the larger context of the dangerous knife-edge these breakthroughs caution us about seem often ignored, but i guess for some the old saying about breaking eggs to make an omelette holds water?
Replace the death machines with colonial soldiers and the running, screaming people with natives from any number of places – could we expect any different from extraterrestrial visitors?
“The terminology you’ll hear is ‘speed of light engagement’,” said Gregory in an interview segment on the program. “If you can engage an object of interest or a target with the speed of light, then there’s essentially no delay between when you decide to fire and when you start to engage that target.”
Here, he’s talking about defense systems like those used to intercept airborne rockets and the like. In this sense, the use of lasers if for defensive purposes. As of the air time, lasers are already capable of disabling immobile targets by directing massive amounts of energy at them. But Textron researchers estimate within the next few years (so, like…now) fast-moving objects can also be targeted by lasers. In fact, there’s already some capability to take down mortars and drones using vehicle-mounted lasers.
Ultimately, WotW ends with humanity’s survival – but not through our own ingenuity. The Martians, despite their highly advanced technology, succumb to illness and biological vulnerabilities and show that superior technology does not equate to invincibility. Quite the opposite in fact, as several of Wells’ other works show that it’s our own dark nature – often enhanced by technology – that leads to our downfall.
The best examples of this in Wells’ work are the classic novels The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Both of these stories have at their heart the same basic question, an examination of what mankind will do when freed from societal constraints. Left to his own will, without restrictions on his morality – are we good, or evil?
In The Invisible Man Wells examines what people would do when no one is watching. And if you’ve read the story you know, they get into quite a bit of trouble.
With The Invisible Man, Wells really hits his stride with a story that skillfully combines his interest in science and human nature. But despite the violence and terror that follows the stories eponymous character, scientists today work to unlock the secrets of invisibility. The program elaborates on then-current research involving metamaterials, which affect how light reaches and is refracted by objects. As recently as a couple of months ago, work in this area has continued to blossom and thanks to 3D printing, the nanofiber “cloak” is becoming closer to practical reality than ever before.
“The only concern would be the use that may go with this, and that’s something that scientists need to prevent,” said Majid Gharghi, one of the researchers developing the invisibility technology. “It’s going to change a lot of things in our lives.”
“We just have to be vigilant of what we are doing,” added professor Xiang Zhang, whose nanoscience research lab at UC Berkeley is working on the project.
Like Wells, these scientists understand that there is a possible dark side to man’s achievements in science and technology. For his part, Wells often explored the path that suggested mankind would abuse whatever scientific might it acquired – something history has proven all too true. But we also have the capacity for great good, and that’s the line we’ll always walk.
Perhaps his most disturbing story, The Island of Dr. Moreau looks at the perversion of medical science without restriction. In Wells’ time, experimenting on animals is a new and controversial aspect of medical science, known at the time as vivisection – surgical experiments on living creatures. In the story, the disgraced titular doctor retreats to an isolated island where he creates chimeric creatures, human-animal hybrids using scientific methods.
Once again, Wells explores the dark side of scientific research, which has his Dr. Moreau operating without ethics to literally transform animals into an approximation of humans. Little reason is given for his efforts other than the pursuit of knowledge and the ability to do so – basically he is doing it only because he can.
In contract, scientists like the University of Nevada at Reno’s professor Esmail Zanjani work towards medical breakthroughs that can be of benefit to humans. In his case, he works to use sheep as essentially organ farms, growing organs suitable for use in human bodies.
The sheep in question are kept in what is shown to be a humanitarian environment, and live their lives as happily as a sheep may. But in listening to the work being done, especially describing how in some cases a sheep’s brain has shown partially human qualities, i can’t help but think of Moreau’s beast-folk or even characters like Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the just-released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Once we start messing with nature like that…i’m not sure which is scarier – that animals become more humanlike or that we humans can have such a bestial or savage side.
When posed the question whether or not the sheep’s behavior becomes any more humanlike, Zanjani says no, although he admits his work is ethically complex. Whether or not a scientist should do something is an issue he believes in the hands of society as a whole – not the individual scientist, as Dr. Moreau has decided. In this regard, the message in Wells’ stories becomes clearer. He offers his speculative tales not as warnings, but rather as challenges to society that we always have a choice in what we will accept or reject, and therein i think is the message we should all take away – that when we see or hear things that we feel are unjust in the world, we need to realize that we are a part of that world and have some obligation to it.
The final segment of this episode deals with Wells’ darkest story, one whose shadow has haunted humankind ever since. In The World Set Free, he envisions mankind’s devastation at our own hands when this novel accurately predicted the development of the atomic bomb – years before it would actually come about. Even with his scientific background, it is astonishing that Wells would conceptualize such a weapon just shortly after the discovery of the decay of radium.
Because so many of his ideas about mechanized warfare and man’s violent use of technology has already come to pass, Wells became a leader in the pacifist movement. In a scary twist of life imitating art, The World Set Free actually changed the course of human history when Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was so fascinated by Wells’ story that he set about to find out if such a thing as the fictional “atomic bomb” were truly possible. And we all know how that turned out.
Perhaps it was his horrifically accurate assumptions about the dangers of atomic power that led Wells in his later years to produce Things to Come, using the new medium of cinema to present his ideas to the public. In the film, a global war involving chemical weapons wipes out most of humanity and leads to a drawn-out conflict that, in time, people forget the reasons why it began in the first place.
Much later in the movie’s timeline, the same forces of science and technology that caused Earth’s devastation lead to it’s ultimate salvation. A technocracy emerges to lead the world into a prosperous age, a sentiment whose descendants can be seen in other visions of the future like the Star Trek universe.
Throughout all of Wells’ work, he deftly blends his true scientific background with wildly imaginative creativity to weave tales that, while dark and disturbing, portray science as humanity’s most powerful tool. But they also carry a warning to us that we must use our tools responsibly, else we’ll face dire consequences.
As the episode wraps up, futurist David Brin describes his admiration for Wells by explaining his often contrary attitude.
“If he was around optimists, he’d point out the devastating flaws in human nature. And when he was around cynics, he would talk about the possibilities that we would overcome our racism, and overcome our sexism and all of these things.”
i like this description the best, because to me it says he was a person who really sought the push humanity to be their best by challenging our own ideas about the direction we’re headed and participate together to move forward towards the future.
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Have you watched Prophets of Science Fiction yet? If not, i highly recommend heading to Netflix or sciencechannel.com and checking it out. Episode 4 focuses on Arthur C. Clarke, and a conversation with my favorite space lawyer provided some up-to-date info on some of this legendary sci-fi writer’s speculations that are now a reality. If you do hopefully check out Prophets of Science Fiction, i hope you also take the time to enjoy these writers’ stories as well!