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Modern Science Fiction, The Real World, & Their Influence Upon Each Other

A world without inspiration from works of fiction would almost certainly be a world nearly devoid of creativity and undoubtedly provide a lesser quality of life. While attempting to imagine such a boring existence, try to keep in mind the various things we often take for granted; art, technology, entertainment, and a multitude of life’s best aspects. When developed, most all of this was an attempt at bettering the world, and they were all created through the method of imagining a different reality. Imagination is the core of fiction, and by adding a bit of realism and science (albeit, at times, with some given level of suspension of disbelief) we can shift into the more specific realm of science fiction. The modern science fiction genre can educate our own world in that its issues are often accentuated or mirrored versions of those found in the real world. By analyzing and comparing the themes presented by their creators, humanity can be guided to better itself. Though arguably based in fiction, these stories can still serve as a guide for our own problems, both present and future.

Before delving into the realm of science fiction and its influence upon reality, it is important to realize a few things. First is that, from a storytelling point of view, there are very few truly original ideas If one searches hard enough it is certain one can at least find aspects of more recent stories within elements of older ones. From biblical and religious references to Aesop-like fables that are verbally passed down through generations, humans have been sharing stories of what could be (or what will be) in the future for millennia. As well as borrowing from past tales, some of these ideas are borrowed from what we see from nature to explain what we don’t yet understand scientifically. Alongside the fact that many of these works are similar to instances from the past, one must also keep in mind that certain themes are very common throughout the genre and that individual stories often overlap in multiple different themes that will be discussed in further detail later on within coming paragraphs.

In 1818, a young English author, Mary Shelley, became what most consider the mother of modern science fiction by writing her groundbreaking story Frankenstein. This narrative, also known as A Modern Prometheus, touched on a multitude of important themes that are topics of wonder for humanity; life and death, playing god, and accepting the unacceptable. Largely considered a major work of horror as well, Shelley did something widely unique in the genre at the time with her tale. By removing the magic and supernatural aspects, Shelley and subsequent creative individuals were able to replace the impossible with possible though letting magic give way to science. Science fiction shatters the consumer’s notion of reality by taking what would normally be impossible and making it real by giving it unknown background and functionality. Within the book, Doctor Frankenstein doesn’t conjure imaginary demons to give life to a dead mound of flesh; he instead uses electrical currents and advanced technology to make his experiment awaken. For this and countless similar examples, speculative and unexplained science opens the imagination to what could be based on filling in the blanks. Just as many individuals don’t always know how our current day gadgets work, we are not given a full explanation of how the Doctor’s monster rose; however we do know that both our gadgets and his creature are powered electrically and the rest we take as plausible because it’s based in science. After laying this foundation, science fiction became a mainstay in modern media. Through mostly literature, comics, and the occasional silver screen short feature or radio broadcast, science fiction eventually became relegated to trope’s and stereotypes. In these hokey action tales there was almost constantly some sort of monster or experiment gone awry, a bumbling yet genius (possibly mad) scientist, some beautiful female lab assistant or reporter, and a masculine hero to save the girl and the day. These nearly identical narratives were often found in cheap magazines accompanied by the term “pulp” to describe their category. The authors of these short stories typically did not retain the (now mostly public domain) rights to these works and were usually paid very little money. However, according to 1971 archival footage collected on YouTube from the viewpoint of highly accomplished science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, science fiction took a major turn in 1938. According to Asimov, by infusing more realism into its logic, characters, and themes and simultaneously removing much of the stereotypical tropes, they gave the (still fantastical) tales a sense of relatability, both to the science and to the story elements.

1938 also held events that would lead to the cusp of the second world war. Serving as an extreme influence for different countries’ missile testing, early rockets, the invention of the atomic bomb, and space travel, this era marked a time where science fiction was rapidly becoming intertwined with real world science. In a time balanced between foreign fears and national homeland prides, real scientific progress often bred science fiction stories, while, inversely, science fiction stories propelled inspiration for real scientific progress. In October of 1938, just months before the global conflict would begin, a radio broadcast read by Orson Welles, a celebrity personality of the time, would perform a version of H.G. Wells’ 1895-8 work The War of the Worlds. The broadcast performance, complete with voice actors, sound effects, and symphony breaks, mimics breaking news radio interruptions common at the time describing the start of an extra-terrestrial invasion. The believability and realism of the Halloween special would famously cause some panic among listeners who were uncertain if the “news” broadcast was authentic, though the exact extent of the panic is a subject of dispute among historians. As evidenced by this event, it was clear that a new age of blended scientific fact and fiction was about to unfold. After the war, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “space race” came to a head. Fueled by the Cold War, a feeling of competition between Soviet Russia and the United States would pervade through the two or three decades following 1945 and the conclusion of World War II. Though the Soviets would prevail as first in space thanks to Sputnik and other such satellite research, the competitive nature that started with nuclear fallout scares, had soon evolved into a more patriotic rivalry where which climaxed in 1969 with the United States being the first to land on the moon. Young children and adults alike across the nation would tune back and forth between space travel related news and primetime shows depicting such iconic science fiction novelties as Star Trek and Flash Gordon. In particular, the 1967 series Star Trek would help feed the public’s interest in furthering NASA’s progress towards the moon landing, also helping to inspire such technological developments as cellular phones and microwave ovens.

Undoubtedly more important to times was the show’s social impact. Well known among fans of the series, an amazing coincidental meeting between Doctor Martin Luther King Junior and Nichelle Nichols, an African American actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on the show, would undoubtedly shape countless lives. As the recount goes, according to Nichols herself in a multitude of interviews, the young actress was tired of the mistreatment of blacks among the television entertainment industry as well as having been offered a Broadway role, and was contemplating quitting the television program. As the recounted story goes, during a mutually attended fundraiser after a chance meeting, the civil rights leader would persuade the young actress to continue acting on the show, claiming that she was a role model for both women and minorities, including his own daughters. Realizing this, she stayed on the Star Trek set and became a famous science fiction character and advocate of equal rights for all minorities. Nichols was also half of one of the first famous American televised interracial kiss on the same program during the tenth episode of its third season titled “Plato’s Stepchildren”. Interestingly, another less famous though groundbreaking kiss, this time between two female characters, was made on the spin-off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on the fourth season in the sixth episode titled “Rejoined”. However, just as the world inevitably changes, it also seems that certain aspects will stay largely the same regardless of social progression as evidenced themes present in films such as Alien or District 9, particularly when it comes to day-to-day living.

The daily hustle and bustle of the previous centuries and, with utmost certainty, our foreseeable future has and will probably go on similarly as it has regardless of the politicians in power or what newsworthy events occur year by year. Science fiction attempts to reflect upon this in two distinct ways. The first method is by focusing on how many aspects of life remain stagnant even after vast technologically advancement or other such changes. Though typically centered around some major event such as the invention and adventures of time travel or the aftermath of surviving an apocalyptic event, the details of many works of science fiction can show a familiar semblance of our own day to day life. Aside from the main horror aspect of the film, Alien does an excellent job of establishing a sense of mundanity associated with space travel. The 1979 film directed by Ridley Scott starts in a future where aging interstellar freight ship called Nostromo awakens its seven-member crew prematurely from “hyper sleep” after receiving a transmission of unknown origin. Sometimes referred to as “cryogenic stasis”, “cryo sleep”, or something similar, hyper sleep is a common term in the genre used to describe a deep artificially induced coma that slows the metabolism and lessens the time-consuming aspects of space travel. They even have an eighth crew member to keep them company; a cantankerous elderly cat dubbed Jones. While required by their company’s bylaws to investigate such a signal, the process of landing on the source planetoid is shown to be a less cutting edge “NASA” feel and more of a budget cutting corporation approach. Things break, technology and equipment being used is mentioned by the characters to be outdated, and only one or two crew members seem particularly excited to even be there. A stark contrast to George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars, which is full of technological feats and fantastical action and was released just two years prior, the world of Alien is one in which humanity's daily grind continues alongside the development of interstellar travel. This dynamic, often referred to by film critics, fans, and associated cast and crew members as "truckers in space", shows that the incredible scientific advancements of mankind will eventually bow to the humdrum of business and the almighty dollar. The crew of the Nostromo start out as neither heroes nor explorers, but rather they are simply doing their jobs.

Another way some science fiction creators attempt to reflect on day-to-day living is to add a new element to the mix suddenly, rather than keeping up the status quo through steady gradual changes as demonstrated in Alien. District 9 tells the tale of how a non-human group is suddenly introduced to the population forcing both sides to live together. Rather than attempting to recreate the perfect world of Star Trek wherein the best features of humanity are highlighted, our natural xenophobic behaviors are instead accentuated. In an increasingly globalized world, different cultures are continuously interacting, but 2009’s District 9 director Neil Blomkamp takes it to the extreme and adds a populace of over one million extra-terrestrials to the already hectic environment of urban South Africa. While the Johannesburg people and world governments try, at first, to alleviate the suffering of the creatures and find unity, there is continued prejudice, violence, discrimination, and hatred towards the newcomers even twenty years later. This is reminiscent of the mass immigration to the United States during the 1890's to the 1920's or the Syrian refugees of recent years. Historically, when sudden bursts of a foreign group are added to a preexisting community, the new arrivals find themselves somehow segregated time and time again. Just as the titular District 9 became a slum-like colony for the displaced aliens, real life human mass migrations often form neighborhoods of similar individuals. Though multicultural environments like America are oft referred to as "melting pots" that blend cultures, they are usually more analogous to a "salad bowl" in that you have a patchwork of ethnicities, customs, and backgrounds. By looking at the extreme version of this phenomenon envisioned by Blomkamp, we can easily see a mirror version of reality with the xenophobic reactions prominent in modern society and, once realized, work to absolve it. It is unlikely that a sudden influx of non-humans will be introduced to our planet, but it is a current reality that people of all cultures are beginning to diversify through relocation. We must accept and welcome our fellow humans where ever they originate from on our planet if our species is to continue to thrive. Both Alien and District 9 show in vastly different ways how humanity continues roughly similarly in the long run despite being stricken with occasional upsets.

Another major factor in science fiction is the advancement of technology. As this aspect of life continues to develop, both in fiction and reality, it will exponentially grow and build upon itself. As this increase drudges on, the science of artificial intelligence grows, it seems the line between technology and organic life is continuously shrinking. Based on Asimov’s short story, “The Bicentennial Man”, the 1999 film Bicentennial Man directed by Chris Columbus depicts an android who gains sentience through a programming anomaly while in the factory. As Andrew (a youngster’s mispronunciation of android) explores aspects of humanity and eventually furthering medical organ prosthetics enough to replace his own mechanical body, he fights for the right to be classified as a human, dying just seconds before winning his legal battle. As an inorganic humanoid robot, early Andrew can be divided into the category of android. While not quite on the level of Andrew’s “positronic brain”, the real world, technology is quickly catching up to a similar level of sophistication. On a smaller scale, yet just as profound, our modern gadgets are also heavily influenced by science fiction. While technically taking place nearly two decades ago, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey held computerized character, the iconic HAL 9000. Hal (as he is nicknamed), is a sentient advanced artificial intelligence. In a futuristic depiction of the new millennium, Hal is programmed to assist a group of astronauts on an extremely important mission to Jupiter. While the crew’s majority is in cryo-sleep for the long journey, two human astronauts are awake and active alongside Hal. When Hal senses that one of the crew members is hesitant about the mission, the “flawless” computer makes the questionable decision to jettison one of the conscious crew members into space. As the remaining astronaut works to dismantle the computer’s memory core, Hal desperately pleas with the man, Dave, to stop and that he is apologetic for his mistake and has great fear of being shut down showing emotion in the process. While this is an extreme case of artificial intelligence gone awry, similar technology is already under implementation in many applications. One only needs to look at Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa to see the direction our science is headed. In these examples, science fiction teaches the world that as technology expands, we must adapt it to our lives or else be overcome by it.

Technology is an integral part of our society, but civilization has countless aspects which contribute to our quality of life. The 1993 young adult novel by accomplished author Lois Lowry, The Giver shows how a seemingly utopian society also fits the criteria for a dystopia. A utopia is an ideal society, while a dystopian civilization exhibits the inverse. The book centers around a young boy, Jonas, who lives in a world nearly devoid of crime where every individual in the community has a defined role and for which there is ample food and resources for all citizens. Any undesirables are “released” from the community as punishment, though this is exceedingly rare. Unhealthy newborns are also released, as are the elderly as a celebration of their life. While each instance has a vastly differing connotation to them, being released is, as Jonas eventually discovers, a lethal injection. As the book’s events begin to unfold, Jonas must decide whether it’s preferable to live in a world of “sameness” wherein there is no pain or suffering nor is there true joy or culture, or to release the grasp of the community from the people and introduce them to these now foreign concepts. The book’s concept of sameness may seem farfetched, but as the world globalizes and cultures blend, it seems logical as a possibility. Though the idea of a utopia or dystopia is not a new one, it seems that one nearly always overlaps the other in some way, both in fiction and in the world of reality. While these ideas tend to focus on the idea of human life, the environment must also be included in any vision of civilization. In Andrew Stanton’s 2008 vision of the future in Disney Pixar film WALL-E, humans have left the planet to rot and suffocate in their garbage as the entire population has relocated to space while robots clean the surface of Earth. Though only a children’s movie, WALL-E touches upon a massively important subject that is quickly approaching: what if we destroy the environment through pollution and other negative human impact past the point which humans can survive. Stories like these remind us that our civilization walks a fine line in countless ways, from our delicate relationship with nature to the way we interact as a varied collection of cultures. The only way to save that balance is to use our imagination and instill a sense of respect in future generations.

As illuminating as an analysis and comparison of modern science fiction can be for the real world’s society (and vice versa), others may argue that it is simply fantasy. While the HAL 9000 may resemble smart phone gadgets, it is seemingly far from reality; while the logical next step, space travel simply isn’t viable as a day-to-day business venture; it is all just imaginary ideas used for storytelling and entertainment purposes. Others may even argue that comparing our lives to any relevant science fiction is pointless as the technology and ideas within simply do not align with reality. For example, as sophisticated as our most advanced artificial intelligences are, they are definitively no comparative match for the human brain, and none have ever even passed the controversial Turing test. While it remains true that the barrier of the Turing test, a complex comparison of whether a human individual can tell the difference between a computer program and other humans, has never been crossed, I assert that the social implications vastly outweigh the surface level of childish fantasies depicted in science fiction. As evidenced by the clear and undeniable civil rights advancements cultivated by characters like Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura, the positive influences of these types of stories are incalculable. One simply needs to perform an internet search for such interviews to see you will find a vast multitude of relevant examples (both from Nichelle herself and through others by following the proverbial rabbit-hole of Star Trek and other series cast and crew members recounting their inspirational stories). With this overwhelming amount of evidence, we can see that modern science fiction can help to guide us, both by aiming towards the positive while working to avoid the negative.

In the end, modern science fiction may just be stories, but the influence it holds on reality is unmistakable, as is how reality reflects within these stories. As art and life are mirrored in this way, it is important to remember that these seemingly fantastic tales have a way of coming to life. Any changes to one are reflected in the other and these changes can help initiate change, inspiration, and guidance. Compare Star Trek’s communicators to today’s cell phones along with the countless examples of technological marvels created during the space race era. Just less than a century ago the mere idea of a trip to the moon was once considered impossible, yet it eventually brought a nation (and much of the planet) together. With our fictional creations to guide us, humanity can be inspired to use our natural ingenuity and compassion to further ourselves toward an unimaginable future worth living.


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