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Science Fiction into Science Fact? 892

Posted by Cliff
from the our-imaginations-turned-into-reality dept.
Selanit asks: "I'm a student of English literature at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, with a pronounced interest in all things tech as well. Next term I'll be taking an Independent Study course which combines the two -- the topic will be 'Influences of Science Fiction on Real-World Tech.' The professor and I are still trying to assemble a reading list. So here's my question: what science-fiction novels have had a particularly noticeable effect on the development of technology? I'm mainly interested in books that have been written since World War II. The line of inquiry is not limited to computers; any kind of link between sci-fi and hard tech will do (e.g. Cap'n Kirk's communicator == prototype mobile phone). Books that have lent a name to a technology are also interesting (like the 'Little-Endian, Big-Endian' terms which were lifted from Gulliver's Travels, or 'Babel Fish' from Douglas Adams)."
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Science Fiction into Science Fact?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:34PM (#2614455)
    Read some of the early Heinlein. He invents a lot of stuff, well before it's time. The waterbed, I believe was just one of the things in a long line... :-)
  • by doubleyou (89602) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:35PM (#2614467) Homepage
    Heinlein was writing stories about going to the moon way before we actually did it. And as far as realism goes, he was pretty close to the mark (as opposed to say, Jules Verne, who also wrote about going to the moon, but wasn't quite as informed).
  • Two (Score:2, Informative)

    by Byteme (6617) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:37PM (#2614483) Homepage
    I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.

    Flash Gordon by Alex Raymond.

  • by mscherotter (67370) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:39PM (#2614510) Homepage
    Ender's game details a future earth with a worldwide "internet" which allows people (in this case children) to communicate and express their ideas anonymously and let the quality of their ideas, not their age, determine their acceptance.
  • Re:Asimov (Score:2, Informative)

    by deepsky (11076) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:39PM (#2614518) Homepage
    In Asimov's Second Foundation (1953) there is the "Transcriber". Now known as "voice recognition"!
  • Earth, by David Brin (Score:2, Informative)

    by Nick Arnett (39349) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:40PM (#2614523) Homepage
    A venture capitalist suggested that I read Brin's "Earth" years ago. Since then, I've re-read it twice, getting more out of it each time. A lot of the ideas he covered as non-fiction in "The Transparent Society" were present in "Earth." Of course, it's hard to measure how much Brin [davidbrin.com] influenced the world with his vision of the effects of networking, v. how much he simply foresaw many of its effects. I know it influenced me considerably and I passed on many of the ideas in my talks at many of the early Web-related conferences.
  • Dreams... (Score:2, Informative)

    by depth_13 (454306) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:45PM (#2614575) Homepage
    Although it will probably be brought up again, Peter Disch wrote a pretty decent book that was reviewed here on Slashdot a while ago called "The Dreams our Stuff is Made Of" that examines the impact that science fiction has had on both our technology and society at large.
  • by Capitalist1 (127579) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:46PM (#2614579)
    It's in a story called "Waldo", and the book as it sits on shelves will most likely be "Waldo & Magic, Inc.".
  • Orson Scott Card (Score:2, Informative)

    by Gorppet (307960) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:50PM (#2614625)
    Ender's Game:

    • Adaptive games
    • online discussion forums
    • instant messaging (the smart desks)


    I'd include email, but that was already invented (although I doubt he knew about it)
  • Re:The Forever War (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:53PM (#2614656)
    Actually the term "robot" is usually traced to Karel Capek's play "Rossum's Universal Robots", written in 1920 (http://www.uwec.edu/Academic/Curric/jerzdg/RUR/). Since Asimov wasn't born until 1920 (http://www.clark.net/pub/edseiler/WWW/asimov_FAQ. html#non-literary3), it seems inappropriate to give him credit.
  • Re:Robots (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mr. Slippery (47854) <(tms) (at) (infamous.net)> on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:57PM (#2614696) Homepage
    For the term "robot," try Lem instead.
    None of the above. "R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots)", Karl Capek, 1920 [uwec.edu]; his Robots are biological, not electromechanical.

    Here [czech-language.cz] is one translation of the Czech play.

  • Danny Dunn Anyone? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Leif_Bloomquist (311286) on Monday November 26, 2001 @02:58PM (#2614703) Homepage
    Often overlooked is the Danny Dunn series [sfsite.com] from the 50's and 60's. This series had some far out stuff (anti-gravity paint, time travel, the "Honey I shrunk the kids" machine.)

    However, some really spot-on predictions were:

    -The Home Computer ("The Homework Machine")

    -X10 (not the cameras, "The Automated House")

    -Miniature Submarines (proper name for these? was in "On the Ocean Floor")

    -Teleoperation / augmented reality (I can't remember which one, had a tele-operated machine that looked like a butterfly)
  • Asimov and "Robot" (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:06PM (#2614762)
    Asimov did not invent the word robot. However, he is credited with "robotics" and "positronic", as in a robot's positronic brain, as opposed to electronic.
  • by Hanno (11981) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:09PM (#2614788) Homepage
    A snippet from a BBC News article [bbc.co.uk], May 11 2000:

    Science fiction powers space research

    The European Space Agency (Esa) is studying science fiction for ideas and technologies that could be used in future missions.

    A panel of readers is currently combing sci-fi novels and short stories published in the early decades of the last century to see if technology has caught up with ideas that were futuristic when first put into print.

    Any good ideas turned up in the search will be assessed by scientists to see if they can help the agency in its ongoing mission to explore space.

    Knowledgeable fans of science fiction are also being encouraged to send in suggestions to help Esa spot sources of good ideas.

    (Follow link above for rest of article, interesting.)
  • Origins (Score:2, Informative)

    by mugnyte (203225) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:09PM (#2614794) Journal
    To me, there's already a big source [vcu.edu] of this type of information. The members there would also help.

    I'd like to think there's interesting analogies in some of the following most popular books:

    Dick Tracey/Batman/Superman comics - compare that gear to today. Law enforcement isn't too far from it.
    Brave New World - Tech advances versus the animalistic nature of mankind
    1984 - modern homoginization of media and the "social herd" concept.
    Day Of the Triffids - agricultural bioengineering driven by money, although quite a bit of B-movie sci-fi in there.
    Foundation - psychohistory akin to reviewing patterns of internet usage and predicting outcomes
    2001 et. al - Moon mining and the possibility of so-called precious metals becoming commonplace

    Clarke, Asimov, Huxley - these were some of the earliest predictive sci-fi writers - even if they didn't know it at the time. There were TONS of pulp sci-fi books in the 50's though (giant radioactive _fill_in_blank_, etc)

    Since the 80's there's been a bandwagon effect for writing like this.

    mug

    +-
    rub continuously across screen until clear
  • by Alien54 (180860) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:13PM (#2614828) Journal
    there is this version of the story

    http://www.globalideasbank.org/BOV/BV-393.HTML [globalideasbank.org]

    The biggest problem about getting science fiction applied in what is laughingly called 'the real world' is the old Catch-22. It is best exemplified by Arthur C. Clarke's explanation of why he is not rather better off than he actually is. When he first had the idea of the communications satellite, he tried to get it patented. 'Come, come, Mr Clarke,' said the people at the Patent Office. 'We're a serious outfit, we haven't got time to waste on fantastic ideas like this.' Years later, when the first satellite (with which Arthur was actively involved) actually went up, and the nations were queuing to get their own satellites up, Arthur went back to the Patent Office. 'But, Mr Clarke,' they said, 'the satellite already exists. You should have come to us earlier.'

    Typical Bureaucratic bungling.

    and there is more:

    The very first paper describing the very first constellation, consisting of three satellites in geostationary orbit. Allegedly the only accurate science-fiction prediction [greenspun.com] ever [mit.edu]. Authored by the famous Arthur C. Clarke [lsi.usp.br], before the space race, before Sputnik 1, and before Arthur C. Clarke became a famous author. (There's a mirror of the paper [lsi.usp.br]. And now we call it the Clarke orbit, and you can simulate the original proposal [surrey.ac.uk].

    This Page also discusses the legal issues [lawnotes.com] because at the time Clarke wrote his paper, there was no way to get a satellite into orbit to begin with.

  • by tektor (103923) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:17PM (#2614860)
    Here's a suggestion from a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science at Harvard (also my wife 8-):

    "
    ...tell him to contact Mark Adams at Penn - he
    has taught a course on science fiction for the last 30 years, and just gave
    a talk at HSS on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here [upenn.edu] is a link about him.
    "
  • Gibson's Cyberspace (Score:2, Informative)

    by jamesmartinluther (267743) on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:21PM (#2614890) Homepage
    I would say that the William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and its description of cyberspace had the biggest effect on the development of the culture of the internet as well as many conventions and actual inventions.

    Although this book is arguably more the chicken than the egg, this is where the term cyberspace was coined and where many command line conventions were translated into a three dimensional internet. He described a "consentual hallucination" of end users interacting with AI agents, servers, and viruses in a powerful and haunting way. Many a dollar and many lines of code have been plunged into attempts to make a world that even comes close to Gibson's cyberspace.

    "Neuromancer" is what got a lot of people interested in "cyberspace" engineering, including myself.
  • As We May Think (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:54PM (#2615108)
    Not necessarily the traditional science fiction, but if you're looking for writing that has been influential on real world writing, I can't think of anything more appropriate than As We May Think, written by Vannevar Bush. This was written for the Atlantic in 1945, and among other things described a system called the Memex which was very much like today's concepts of computers and the Internet.

    Among other things, this article was read by Douglas C. Engelbert, and was the inspiration for his invention of early networked prototypes, the mouse, early windowing systems, etc.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/comp ut er/bushf.htm
  • Asimov & Robots (Score:2, Informative)

    by notcarlos (139684) <jcl08@uCHEETAHark.edu minus cat> on Monday November 26, 2001 @03:59PM (#2615138) Homepage
    I'm sure this has been said before, but Asimov didn't /invent/ the word "robot". As the Oxford English Dictionary [oed.com] says,
    • Czech, f. robota forced labour; used by Karel apek (1890-

    • 1938) in his play R.U.R. ('Rossum's Universal Robots') (1920).

    Just my $0.02.
  • by tylerh (137246) on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:01PM (#2615152)
    The first commerically successful "cyberspace" novel was "Neuromancer," by William Gibson. There are two worlds in Neuromancer: the corporeal world, run by corporations, and the cyberworld, which one "Jacks in" to via a computer hookup. IN cyberspace, data passes freely, but a lot work goes into protecting data from hackers. The protagonist is a hacker how specializes in stealing data. Sound familiar?

    Gibson was so spot on that several commercial products use names from the book, eg BlackICE.

    If you can find it, there is this great interview with William Gibson in which he discussed watching two kids playing pong (the original commercial video game, back in the 70s). Gibson realized that, for the players, the world behind the screen was just a real as a tennis court is to a tennis player. So Gibson pursued this "world behind the screen" metaphor and produced a striking, immersive world based an ubiquitous computers communicated via a world-wide standard network. This vision drove a lot of researchers, and still does. Many of us crave the fully, head mounted, immersive 3-D displays used in the book. But I'll take a pass on the Texas Catheter.
  • Re:Asimov (Score:2, Informative)

    by Mister_IQ (517505) on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:04PM (#2615172)
    Nope, Misfit is about a math-whiz who steps in when a calculating computer fails, but the story is based on the fact that he is calculating massive amounts of equations in his head, not that he did math longhand, or that he even knew how.

    He's on an asteroid that they are moving, and the computer directing the jets dies. He steps in and starts dictating the firing times for the various bursts needed to put the asteroid in the new orbit.

    It's a story about a savant, not just someone who could do math.

    Sorry, not any new information, but should save one false lead.

  • Re:Scientology (Score:3, Informative)

    by nate1138 (325593) on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:11PM (#2615209)
    Actually, I think you mean L. Ron Hubbard, not Howard, but it's close enough. For more information, check www.xenu.net (operation clambake).
  • by jguthrie (57467) <jguthrie.brokersys@com> on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:41PM (#2615438) Homepage
    Lois Bujold has said in public that Science Fiction is a reflection of the society that exists when the work is created, not a prediction of the future, and I believe her. It is, in my opinion, a fool's errand to talk about how one writer or another predicted something. Most of the time, an SF writer simply takes a currently existing invention and plays games with it. The other times, the writer talks about something he or she earnestly wants, but hasn't seen yet. Heinlein's waterbed is one of those sorts of things.

    For example, by the time Friday was released, in 1984, as I recall, publically available computer terminals were in existence, BBSes were how you got on-line (except for the fortunate few how knew about and had access to Usenet) and networked BBSes were about to be invented.

    My own personal favorite example of an SF prediction is in Bellamy's Looking Backward which, among other things, talked about how the broadcasting of music (live performances over telephone lines as neither audio recording nor radio had been invented or conceived of when the book was written) had become common. I also seem to recall that it had some bit in there about how that led to fewer people being able to play the piano, but that may be my subsequent experiences leaking over as it's been 20+ years since I read that book.

    However, it seems to me that the question is not about predictions in SF that come true, but about how SF has driven invention. If, as I say I believe above, SF is a reflection of the culture it's written in, then there can be no direct link. However, I also believe that invention is also a product of the culture it is in, so it is certainly fair to say that, if a work doesn't have a direct effect on invention, then it will necessarily reflect the environment in which the invention is made. Rarely is this made more clear than in "The Man Who Sold the Moon" where Delos D. Harriman talks about what it was like to grow up in the early part of the 20th century.

    Further, if one wishes to look at that aspect more closes, I think that one could do worse than looking at the work of Dr. Lienhard of the University of Houston (not his son, who is a professor at MIT) who has a 5-minute daily radio program (and book derived therein) called "The Engines of our Ingenuity" which discusses the whole process of invention and covers quite well the methods by which people derive inspiration. The URL to reach the radio show's transcripts is http://www.uh.edu/engines [uh.edu]

  • by 5KVGhost (208137) on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:44PM (#2615461)
    IIRC, the Nautilus as envisioned by Verne was not nuclear powered. It used electricity, but it was generated via some other method.

    The Nautilus in the Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues was nuclear powered, though I think they cloaked the term in appropriately pseudo-archaic terms. ("Fueled by the power of the atom itself", or something like that.)
  • my list... (Score:1, Informative)

    by versil (529562) on Monday November 26, 2001 @04:59PM (#2615564)
    A few of my favorites:
    • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card -- the idea of a global networked community is pervasive.
    • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick -- there are sociological implications of technology explored seem truer as time grows. (also the basis for the awesome flick Bladerunner)
    • Neuromancer by William Gibson -- "oh look, the web (kinda)! - besides, Molly is hot and we have hot chicks now. Its fiction come true.
    • Foundation by Isaac Asimov -- the great digital library in the sky
    • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein -- is this the future of the mars project? (minus slinging rocks at earth)
    I'm sure there are several more, but these are the ones that stood out in my mind...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 26, 2001 @07:28PM (#2616426)
    It Appeared in "Analog" in Aug, 1977
  • by GlenRaphael (8539) on Monday November 26, 2001 @07:54PM (#2616547) Homepage
    A way to harmlessly paralyze people by shooting them with a laser light is under development by HSV Technologies [hsvt.org]. Currently the equipment is about as big as a suitcase, but most of that is battery; as the tech improves we'll surely have hand-held phasers soon enough. The suitcase-sized ones are expected to be sold to military and law enforcement agencies sometime next year.

    According to the manufacturer's site:

    HSV Technologies Inc., of San Diego, California is developing a non-lethal weapon that uses ultraviolet laser beams to harmlessly immobilize people and animals at a distance. The Phaser-like device uses two beams of UV radiation to ionize paths in the air along which electrical current is conducted to and from the target. In effect, the beams create wires through the atmosphere wherever they are pointed.

    The current within these beams is a close replication of the neuro-electric impulses that control skeletal muscles. It is imperceptible to the target person because it differs from his own neural impulses only in that its repetition rate is sufficiently rapid to tetanize muscle tissue. (Tetanization is the stimulation of muscle fibers at a frequency which merges their individual contractions into a single sustained contraction.)

    They have an FAQ [hsvt.org], and the tech is covered by US Patent #5,675,103 [164.195.100.11].
  • by starfoxmac (80314) <(9y3jnik02) (at) (sneakemail.com)> on Monday November 26, 2001 @07:54PM (#2616551)
    In "Stranger in a Strange Land," in the early section where the protagonist is being held prisoner in the hospital, Heinlein describes a woman recovering in some special kind of bed, I believe designed to reduce stress on the bodies of recovering patients lying in bed for long periods of time. I've read somewhere that this was the direct origin of the concept of the waterbed. Two minutes of research later, I say this: check the link in this post [slashdot.org]. More Google searching for "heinlein waterbed" suggests that people were actually denied patents by the USPTO for waterbeds because Heinlein had put the idea in the public domain first.
  • Re:Shockwave Rider (Score:2, Informative)

    by dgrb (518496) on Monday November 26, 2001 @11:51PM (#2617527)
    I was just beginning to wonder whether anyone was going to mention Brunner too.

    Shockwave Rider is probably the most relevant to the online culture of today; I reread it just a few weeks ago, oddly enough - ultimately I think he is far to optimistic in his ending.

    I have the nasty feeling, though, that The Sheep Look Up, with its predictions of environmental disaster, may well be closer to where we're heading.

    I'll also add The Jagged Orbit to the list.
  • Calculators (Score:1, Informative)

    by Micky the knife (324085) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @12:06AM (#2617577)
    Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon's nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the files and rows of buttons that filled its surface. Red symbols glowed out from the upper tier.

    from "Foundation" by Isaac Asimov writen in 1942

  • by f00zbll (526151) on Tuesday November 27, 2001 @01:33AM (#2617790)
    If you haven't heard of this yet, there is a annual conference at University of California at Riverside that covers these topics. I don't know if it is still running these days, since the funding for the conference in 97 was getting pretty thin.

    There are tons of paper cover the exact topic you are exploring. A Comparative literature professor is an expert in the field and has managed to build the largest scholastic collection of science fiction. In 1997, the second closest collection had half the number of books.

    Everyone seems to be mentioning the big names, but there are a lot of smaller authors who influenced the science fiction genre. There are a lot of science fiction experts in the Comparative Literature field, so consider looking there for really specific information with citations. I won't bother trying to remember the essays I've read in those topics. The material is numerous and the field of study is about 20 years old.

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