Science…has been built upon many errors, but they are errors which it was good to fall into, for they led to the truth.
Surely the past few weeks have reminded us that science is not a collection of beliefs, or a catalog of knowledge.
It’s more a way of thinking. Here are some things we think are true. These ideas have proved useful. This is how we think the pieces fit together—but it’s all just a guess, a plausible way to organize current knowledge.
Truth depends on our ability to repeat experiments. To probe the gaps in our knowledge. Science is something that we do. It is not something codified, learned, or memorized. It’s a process.
Here at Alta, we often say that we cover the past and the future but not the present, because so many others can do breaking news better than we can.
Knowing that literature can be a window into the future as well as the past, we thought it might be useful to consider science fiction as an ancient discipline. It has been used to foresee what the next world will be like.
Sci-fi is also a well-established genre of storytelling. It may seem to some a less worthy category, populated by young people dreaming about sex on other planets.
But that misses the point. Creative people will always try to forecast the world over the horizon. Perhaps the earliest science-fiction writing dates back to the time of the Greeks and Romans, who wondered what their descendants might expect. In the 19th century, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, to name two authors, tried to imagine what would remain the same—and what would be different—as technology reinvented possibilities.
At the dawn of the space age, that epoch after World War II when rockets were an entirely new technology, the mainstream considered the big idea as building a weapon. But more-farsighted people were already imagining a future when earthlings would want to visit distant planets, new worlds.
And long before the vision of space travel could be realized, artists like Chesley Bonestell created an imagery for that future. His beautifully detailed illustrations inspired a generation of young people, future astronauts, and writers, too. We chose his painting Saturn as seen from Mimas for the cover of this issue.
If science is tested by prediction, fiction is measured by imagination. Perhaps the difference was best expressed by Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote:
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.
The impulse is general, not just among novelists. In more recent times, filmmakers, too, have embraced science fiction. We can look back at Forbidden Planet, or The Day the Earth Stood Still, at Blade Runner, and at 2001: A Space Odyssey not merely as forecasts, but as explorations of human fragility. More often than not, they saw a future of desolation, rather than new utopias.
As they say, a crisis accelerates the future. What will endure?
Both in science and in fiction, imagination will lead the way.