Prophets of Science Fiction, part three – H.G. Wells

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 phenomenonProphets 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.

Prophets of Science Fictino

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

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?

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.

Moreau

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 ApesOnce 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.

world set free

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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!

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Prophets of Science Fiction, part two – Philip K. Dick

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 phenomenonProphets 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.

Prophets of Science Fictino

This is the episode that provided the hook to reel me in.  A huge sucker for PKD, i read The Man in the High Castle years ago.  That introduction to Dick’s surreal perspective and reality-questioning led me to discover his other works and truthfully expanded my appreciation for science fiction in general.  Perhaps due to the frequency with which the constructs of these sci-fi writers from decades ago seem to be popping up in everyday life now, i particularly enjoy their stuff.  So naturally when i came across this television show focused on exploring that very idea, well, how could i resist?  In true binger form though, i began at the beginning of the series – despite the non-serialized nature of the program.

The episode opens with a series of questions any body marginally familiar with sci-fi tropes has been exposed to in their experience.  These are the Big Ideas of science fiction.  The existential stuff you come to beyond the whiz-bang technology and exotic settings.

What is reality?

Did the past you remember actually happen?

Can you exist in two realities at once?

Are you who you think you are?

In the 44 novels and 100+ short stories he’d written, Philip K. Dick asked put those questions to the characters in his dark, paranoid and technologically pervasive worlds.  He sought through their actions and reactions answers to the questions that plagued him in real life.  Certainly, i’ve wondered about such things before.  If the popularity of his work is any indication, no small amount of others have as well.  And because of Hollywood’s fascination with the author, groundbreaking films based on his work like Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall have cast these ideas out to even wider audiences.

The most amazing thing about Dick’s stories are that they’re written during a time computers were something only experimental laboratories had and the only ubiquitous thing about phones were the coiled cords they all shared.  Despite this, he writes about worlds where connective technology has such a vast effect on society and culture that our digital reality becomes more salient than the truth.

To be fair, it is not much more amazing relatively than Shelley’s creation is to modern medical science like in episode one.  But for me and my generation, to witness the development of communications technology into things like the Internet and cellphones, it is astounding how far ahead Dick imagined back in the 60s.  It got me thinking though, perhaps that’s why writers and artists so often gain acclaim or notoriety posthumously – because it’s not until their visions are becoming part of reality naturally that people look back and marvel at how far ahead they saw.

One of the best things about the Prophets show is the detailed background information they explore about the writers themselves.  As someone who likes to think of himself as a writer, it’s endlessly engaging to me to see how and what other writers invest into their work.  Their philosophies, fears, feelings and even their personal interests.  For example, Dick was a big believer in the work of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, and his characters sometimes describe things in Jungian terms.

Perhaps his most well-known work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – notable in pop culture largely through the classic sci-fi film Blade Runner.  Thematically similar to other stories that explore the nature of what is real, and what it even means to be real, the scenario depicted is fascinating to me especially in context of today’s achievements in artificial intelligence.

In the story, androids indistinguishable from humans – some of whom are not even aware that they aren’t human – struggle with the same hurdles of mortality and morality.  Pretty heady stuff for a tale told in 1968.  Now flash forward to today, and we’re starting to address issues related to the emergence of artificial intelligence that sound like headlines taken from The Onion.  Like this one:

UN debates a preemptive ban on killer robots

Admittedly, we’re straying into Asimov territory here and that’s not until episode five.  If we back it up a bit though, “killer robots” aren’t even the most dangerous sort of AI.  Just the most overt.  One of the things that has people like researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute treading lightly these days is the idea of even innocuous AI turning deadly.  For instance, imagine a superintelligent program designed to play chess.  Like any smart program, it seeks to perform its duty the best and most efficient way.  Now consider that this program realizes the only way it will not be able to fulfill its programming is if it is turned off.  So it postulates what would cause that and decides “humans can turn me off.”  So, if there’s no humans around…

…and that’s the sort of logical step some researchers warn could easily make life difficult for humans in an AI world.  In light of that, i’m happy to report that of the several futurist news feeds i read, the issue of AI emotional/moral is often included in ongoing research.  At the same time, i’m both fascinated and terrified that these are the issues of today vis-a-vis tomorrow.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? starts to ask these questions at the same time as HAL 9000 was giving Dave Bowman a hard time (something episode four will take a closer look at).  To me, that dives at the heart of great science fiction: the question of what it means to be human.  Without getting into my own philosophy on the nature and evolution of AI, i’ll leave it to Batman TAS which asks if these sorts of creations have “a soul of silicon, but a soul nonetheless.”

In the episode’s creepiest segment, android designer David Hanson describes “bio-inspired engineering.”  This multi-disciplinary approach to design allows people like him to create exceedingly lifelike replicas (Replicants?) of humans.  Within his workshop, festooned with pieces parts of androids like heads and hands covered in “frubber” (face-rubber designed to simulate flesh), Hanson demonstrated his favorite creation – a Philip K. Dick android.  My first thought upon seeing the mechanical visage was that Dick would likely freak the hell out were he to come face-to-artificial-face with his own doppelganger, and not just because of the “uncanny valley.”  Paranoid to begin with, the idea that he could be replaced by a facsimile would likely cause some sort of episode.

When human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some human observers

When human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some human observers

With his prophetic sci-fi cred established, the episode proceeds to delve into the man himself to reveal the source of his lifelong interest into the nature of memory and reality.  The source for much of his inquisitiveness lies his relationship with a twin sister who died weeks after being born.  However, throughout his life, Dick continues to have visions of her so vivid that he begins to question what it means to be human, in terms of what our brains <think> they know.

Taking this into consideration, his stories have a tragic element to them.  His characters, who often ask what makes them who they or discover that what they knew was false, are his way of imagining a world where his sister is still alive.  We’ll Remember It For You Wholesale, upon which the film(s) Total Recall were based, technology changes our perception of the truth. Maybe, underneath the paranoid laden fantasy, is a man who only wishes to live in a reality where his perceptions feel more real and less like a delusion – a convincing reality based on memory, whether real or not.  Neurobiologist Andre Fenton, who describes the process and perception of memory, suggests that this isn’t so far fetched.

Although the episode went on to discuss several other stories, it did not mention my favorite Philip K. Dick stories The Penultimate Truth and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said In our current climate of 24-hour news, political mistrust and seemingly endless wars, the former spoke to me most clearly…and it had some time travel, too.  Likewise, our culture fascination with fame coupled with the power of our digital lives makes the latter a chilling examination of how a virtual presence can sometimes be more important than a physical one.  These would have been great topics to cover as well, but the episode focused primarily on his stories that were adapted to film, including A Scanner Darkly and the others i’ve mentioned.

The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17

The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick by R. Crumb from Weirdo #17

The episode also discusses a profound moment in Dick’s life – documented artistically but underground comic artist R. Crumb.  Answering a knock at his door from a woman passing out Christian literature door-to-door, Dick is struck by a pink beam of light while speaking with her. Afterwards, he experiences hallucinations and periodic visions that he perceives come from a trans-temporal intelligence.  Sounds kooky, i know, but at one point it does result in taking preemptive action that saves his son’s life.  And provides geeks like me with enjoyable reading material for years, to boot.

As i continued to watch this episode, an idea became increasingly clear in my mind, that Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry are like the two sides of the proverbial coin.  Roddenberry, for his part, represents that rare perspective in science fiction where technology has only served to better mankind and foster a free society.  In start contrast, Dick’s vision of future technology is one in which it’s used to control and subvert humankind.  Now, granted, it probably feels this way to people at all times in history, but in the here and now it seems like we’re really in the thick of this dichotomy.  Maybe it’s because our technology is advancing so rapidly that literally every day there is new information about things i only dreamed about in my youth.  Just the other day there was a breakthrough in teleportation research for crying out loud!  But for every awe-inspiring tidbit of innovation we hear about, there is the Dickian part of me that wonders if we’ll someone lose our humanity in all of this.  Or maybe it’s just the fear that everything we believed about what it really means to be human is changing, and these are just the growing pains.  i’d like to think we’ll fall on the Roddenberry side of the fence on that one.

Either way, what blows my mind when it comes to sci-fi like Dick’s has always been that he posed these questions and described scenarios that were wholly unknown at the time.  There was no Internet, no such term as virtual reality, no conceivable way to alter memories.  Now we have all of those things, and even the more outlandish concepts like precognitive crime units like that in The Minority Report are beginning to emerge, at least through algorithmic means.

Can time travel and alternate realities be that far behind?

*     *     *     *     *

Have you watched Prophets of Science Fiction yet?  If not, i highly recommend heading to Netflix or sciencechannel.com and checking it out.  Episode 3 focuses on H.G. Wells, who introduced us to concepts like time travel and eugenics and interstellar war for the first time.  After that is Arthur C. Clarke, and my conversation with my favorite space lawyer provided some up-to-date info on some of his 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!

 

Prophets of Science Fiction, part one – Mary Shelley

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 phenomenonProphets 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.

Prophets of Science Fictino

For the series initial offering, the focus was on Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.  The show opens by explaining that Shelley was essentially the creator of the science fiction genre, something i had never really thought of before.  It makes perfect sense though, as Dr. Michio Kaku – the theoretical physicist featured in i think every single science-related program – explains that Frankenstein, and science fiction in general, asks what happens when “the best intentions of science goes haywire and technology fights back.”

In the case of Shelley’s most famous work, she examines those questions through a story that brings together her own personal tragedies and her academic upbringing.  While struggling to develop an idea for a ghost story, Shelley has a nightmare that she describes in the foreword of the book’s 1831 edition.

Frankenstein inside cover

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

But it was not simply a scary dream that brought about the creation of one of literature’s most enduring creatures.  Instead, it was Shelley’s intuitive melding of what are now considered the three elements of any great work of science fiction, packaged in a way that offers more than just an entertaining read.  At their core, sci-fi stories seek to offer a morality tale that goes to the heart of the purpose of technology.  They do this by giving a plausible account of modern science, a humanistic critique of that science, and a possible prediction of what could happen if that science is uncontrolled.

In the case of Frankenstein, popular culture tells us that the tale is one of science gone wrong.  But in Shelley’s view, that’s not the case.  Her story – and personal view – is that controversial science is acceptable, but only if you take responsibility for the outcome, something at which her protagonist Victor Frankenstein fails.  Fixed only on his goal of reanimating dead flesh, his quest is motivated by the devastating loss of his wife – an analog of Shelley’s own sense of loss, that of her mother days just days after giving birth to her, and the loss of her own children as infants.  In fact, a dream she had wherein she held one of her deceased babies near a fire, the warmth of which brought it back to life, served as another springboard to the idea that energy or the “spark of life” could give rebirth to the dead.

What Prophets does, that i found most intriguing, is use the writers’ works as a fulcrum to examine the past and the future.  The program does an excellent job of showing how that and other events in Shelley’s life lead her to pose the questions she does, and like the best works of art we learn that their creator has injected much of themselves into the work.  For Frankenstein, we learn that events such as her mother’s and children’s deaths play heavily into the story she fashions for Victor Frankenstein, and the science behind his endeavors flows from the leading science of those times such as the work of Italian physicist Luigi Galvani.  His work with electricity, which included experimenting on cadavers, was considered cutting edge and the term “galvanization” is named after him and his work.  And therein lay the scientific foundation for Frankenstein – taking those concepts one step further by asking “what if…?”

This is where Prophets starts to get  really interesting, by flashing forward to the modern day, where electrical stimulation research has progressed more than Shelley may have imagined 200 years ago.  Fascinated by the power and possibility of science, her speculations terrified her and she rightly believed others would feel the same fear.  But in the context of what we know today, the show focuses on the hopeful work at a UCLA lab using electrical stimulation to give a man paralyzed by a spinal injury the potential to walk again.  This is where the show’s title, which is perhaps a bit dramatic, speaks to the forward-thinking nature of science fiction writers. Did Shelley, with her 19th century academic curiosity, foresee the possible uses of electricity in biomedical applications in some prophetic fashion?  Certainly, she understood intellectually what her Victor Frankenstein character was trying to do, as well as the danger in unleashing something more powerful than he could fully appreciate.

And that is often the danger of science both fictional and real – that our reach will exceed our grasp.

Science fiction writers like Shelley, and likewise her creation Dr. Frankenstein, in a sense  play gods.  They create universes and lives through which they ask questions about life and let their characters try to answer them. In her book, Victor is immediately frightened by his creation and his responsibility, casting the creature aside.  In this respect, Prophets doesn’t disregard the potential negative implications of man’s scientific research either.  Likening Frankenstein’s creature to work in artificial intelligence, the program notes the creature’s vast intelligence – an unanticipated outcome.  Akin to the supercomputers like IBM’s Watson, the creature was able to think intelligently and learn through observation, prompting the narrator to ask “how will the world change when computers become smarter than humans?”  Certainly, it is a question worth considering – something you’ll have to revisit The Long Shot for when i get around to Episode 5’s Isaac Asimov.

Perhaps, like a recent Wired article discusses, mankind will conduct Frankensteinian experiments on ourselves, zapping our brains with electricity to enhance our own lives (for you science fiction writers, there’s an idea worth exploring).  Or maybe we’ll evolve through some sort of synthesis with machines into an entirely new race, if research like The Blue Brain Project’s attempt to reconstruct a mammalian brain piece by piece by physically connecting computers to real brains’ neo-cortical columns is successful.  There’s even a branch of research called mitochondrial replacement resulting in what’s being colloquially called “three-parent babies” that detractors are saying is a slippery slope towards a “Frankenstein future.”  Other genetic research is getting ever-closer to allowing people to design their own children, and breakthrough work from the Human Genome Project already showing successes in creating synthetic life.

At the end of the day though, the truly astonishing thing that Prophets brings to light is not some quasi-religious revelation these writers have that give them visions of the future.  Instead, it’s the notion that their works are a coalescence of their fears, knowledge and curious natures about mankind’s use of technology.  That so many of their ideas later bear real fruit is not precisely the point.  Instead, i consider books like Frankenstein as both an inspiration for aspiring scientists – many of whose fascination with science fiction led them to careers in science – and an ethical guideline to offer caution to keep research in check.

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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 2 focuses on my personal favorite sci-fi writer: Philip K. Dick and i’m looking forward to watching it again before sharing a write-up at The Long Shot.  And with all the news of commercial space flight and colonies on Mars, my upcoming conversation with a leading voice in space law should provide some intriguing insights into Episode 4’s Arthur C. Clarke.