Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sci-Fi's Influence

Is It Still Fiction If It Happens?

From an interview with P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War:
Your book is filled with references to science-fiction writers, many of whom you credit with anticipating not only significant technological innovations, but also the ethical issues that come with them. Is there any writer you would name in particular who foresaw the coming robotic age of warfare and provides some useful guidance?

I love the writings of the cyberpunks, who don’t dream of alien worlds, but instead explore what happens when technology is put in our very own strange world now. “Battlestar Gallactica” today is another example of great work. Their season on insurgency was a better exploration of the issue than about 99% of what came out of all our thinktanks and defense journals on the issue. I don’t know if anyone predicted robotic warfare and where we are exactly headed so well, but its somewhat beside the point of what science fiction can offer. I’ve always been partial to H.G. Wells, who is known as the “Father of Science Fiction.” Wells was born in 1866, but in his various stories he forecast the 20th century with incredible accuracy, predicting such things as computers, video cassette players, televisions, and even super highways, each of which seemed unfathomable at the time. His book often had a theme of conflict running through them and so he also predicted various military developments well before their time. For example, he wrote about tanks, or what he called “Land Ironclads,” in 1903, which inspired Winston Churchill to champion their development a decade later. Similarly, his 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come, predicted a world war that would feature the aerial bombing of cities. Wells was not a fan of such technologies, as he saw them as “unsporting.”

Perhaps Wells’s most important prediction was in his story, “The World Set Free,” written in 1911. In it, he forecast a new type of weapon made of radioactive materials which could destroy cities, which he called “the atomic bomb.” At the time, physicists thought radioactive elements like uranium only released energy in a slow decay over thousands of years. Wells described a way in which the energy might be bundled up to make a powerful explosion. Of course, at the time, most scoffed; the famed scientist Ernest Rutherford even called Wells’s idea “moonshine.” One reader who differed was Leó Szilárd, a Hungarian scientist. Szilárd, who later became a key part of the Manhattan Project, credits the book with giving him the idea for the nuclear “chain reaction.” Indeed, he even mailed a copy of Wells’ book to Hugo Hirst, one of the founders of General Electric, with a cover note that read, “The forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists.”

--Czobit

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please don't perpetuate the myth that "The Land Ironclads" influenced Winston Churchill or played any part in the invention of the tank. Wells liked to think it did, but there's no truth in it.