Sci-fi special: Is science fiction dying?

Posted on November 20, 2008 

Sci-fi special: Is science fiction dying?

Years ago, on one of my first assignments for New Scientist, I was sent to London’s Dorchester Hotel to interview Carl Sagan, the American astronomer. Sagan was famous for his popular science books, the blockbuster TV series Cosmos, and his science fiction novel Contact, which was turned into a film starring Jodie Foster. Rather overawed by Sagan’s palatial suite and by meeting the man himself, I asked him which he preferred – science or science fiction? “Science,” he replied without hesitation. “Because science is stranger than science fiction.”

That was two decades ago. Since then, we have discovered that 73 per cent of the mass-energy of the universe is in the form of mysterious “dark energy”, invisible stuff whose repulsive gravity is speeding up cosmic expansion; we have discovered micro-organisms surviving in total darkness kilometres down in solid rock and even around the cores of nuclear reactors; and we have seen the rise of superstring theory, which views the ultimate building blocks of matter as impossibly small “strings” that vibrate in a 10-dimensional space. If science was stranger than science fiction at the time Sagan spoke to me, it is even more strange now.

This has led some to claim that science – and its handmaiden, technology – are changing so fast that it is impossible for science fiction to keep up. In the past, science fiction notably failed to predict the transistor, whose year-on-year miniaturisation has enabled computers to conquer the modern world. In the future, goes the argument, it is going to be even harder for science fiction writers to predict the technological developments which will transform our lives. Science fiction, claim the doomsayers, is dead – or, if not dead, in terminal decline.


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