Non-Fiction Reviews

From Science Fiction to Science Fact
How writers of the past invented our present

(2019) Joel Levy, Andre Deutsch, £20, hrdbk, 224pp, ISBN 978-0-223-00609-3

Published in the USA as
Reality Ahead of Schedule
How Science Fiction Inspires Science Fact

by Joel Levy, Smithsonian Books, US$29.95, hrdbk, 224pp, ISBN 978-1-588-34670-4


Joel Levy's offering seems tailor-made for SF² Concatenation regulars being a book-length exploration of the science fact/science fiction interface.

It is often said that today's science fiction is tomorrow's science fact.  While SF is by no means a failsafe predictor of the science to come – more specifically, the technology to come – SF is a bit like a blunderbuss pointing towards the future with much of its shot hitting the target even if as much also misses the mark.  However, over the years, demonstrably there have been many SF tropes and sub-tropes that have obviously been bang on!  SF has its moments and, indeed, many of them.  SF aficionados can all cite technological SF exemplars at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth that have gone on to be positively mundane in real life by the end of the twentieth century let alone the early decades of the twenty-first.  The obvious ones include space travel and the commercialisation of space, computing, robotics and biological modification.

With his latest book, journalist and non-fiction writer Joel Levy has provided us with a wonderful tour of the borderland between science fact and the precursor fiction.  The book is divided into five principal sections covering: the military; lifestyle and consumer; space & transport; medicine and biology; and communications.  Added is a two-page spread citing key SF works with a couple of non-fiction offerings thrown in the mix, and there is also a subject index.  I don't mean to provide a spoiler but from these two end sections it is possible to discern that, according to this book (and I am not going to argue), the two most technologically prophetic authors are H. G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke.  Having said that, Hugo Gernsback, Aldous Huxley and Jules Verne are among those others that get a fair shake, plus there are contributions from genre media especially Star Trek.  I myself was pleased that the prescience of John Brunner's 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider got due recognition for a description of what would be the internet, computer viruses and cyberspace albeit in concept not by name (most others seem to be content citing, just William Gibson, worthy as he is).

The book includes some absolute nuggets.  Let me give you just one.  John W. Campbell was the editor of Astounding (later renamed Astounding Science Fiction) magazine, and he had a dungaree in physics as well as being a writer in his own right. Indeed, his first story was entitled 'When the Atoms Failed' and he encouraged a number of atomic energy related stories by other writers in Astounding. These included Cleve Cartmill's short story 'Deadline' (1944) that concerned an alien power developing the atomic bomb.  To do this they needed to enrich uranium with the U235 isotope. Indeed, such were the story's details and accuracy that physicists at the Los Alamos facility became concerned and so intelligence officers turned up at Astounding's offices.  Fortunately, Campbell was able to assure them that many of the story's details were in the public domain.  Nonetheless, it was perhaps fortunate that the intelligence officers did not look closely at the map of the US on the office's wall.  If they had, they'd have seen a cluster of pins in a deserted part of New Mexico in addition to obvious clusters in the major eastern and western seaboard cities.  That New Mexico cluster of pins was tightly focussed on the small settlement of Los Alamos and had not been there the preceding year.  Los Alamos was, of course, the secret location of where the US developed the first atomic bomb and it had seen a sudden influx of science fiction fans with the creation of the hush-hush science research base…

I have to say there were a few things in the book I might counter.  For example, it (rightly) points out that while hand-held devices such as computers and phones are now commonplace, they do not have the number of switches and/or buttons that featured in many of their SF precursors.  Instead, today the screen looms large with touch control that SF failed to predict.  Well, this is certainly true, but perhaps the SF was predicting the currently imminent shortage of rare Earth elements necessary for touch screens?  I am, of course, teasing.  But it is good to challenge non-SF books such as this and that, for me, is part of the fun reading them.

From Science Fiction to Science Fact may not be an encyclopaedic work, but there is sufficient here (and it is structured to be navigable) that those who personally like to study SF, as opposed to simply consuming it, will find this quite useful as a reference work of pointers.  It will also be a welcome addition to any SF aficionado's bookshelf if not coffee table.  Here, the production values are high.  The large-format (JIS B5) hardback includes a colour cover printed directly onto the board (as opposed to having a loose flyleaf paper wrap around) and it is amply illustrated with (mainly) full colour as well as black-&-white illustrations.

Recommended for all real-life The Big Bang Theorists: scientists and engineers into SF.

Jonathan Cowie


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