It was in 1623 that the German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote Somnium, a detailed account of a journey to the moon. He noted how 'agreeable it is to anticipate what is going to happen years in advance'. This venture by a man of science marked the beginning of a new literary genre: science fiction. Today, we find the European Space Agency (ESA) collecting texts, taking the measure of 'futuristic' ideas and organising a science fiction literary competition. Who knows – one day this pursuit of the imagination may even serve to inspire our scientists and engineers.
As technical progress accelerated, it increasingly fuelled the imagination of writers as they anticipated the technologies of the future. Yet the world of fiction can often be far removed from reality, and only a very small percentage of works of science fiction describe feasible inventions.
But is that any reason not to make a more serious study of certain visionary ideas? NASA recently carried out a detailed study of the concept of the space elevator which Arthur C. Clarke imagined in his novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979). They concluded that 50 years from now it could well be the best mode of transport in geostationary orbit.
ESA scouts the field David Raitt, project leader at the European Space Agency, has a maxim: stay realistic without putting the blinkers on the imagination. 'I am not a scientist or an engineer and I don't read science fiction. But that does not stop me having certain ideas. One of these was simply to look at old works of science fiction to see if some of the concepts they describe could be feasible today, using our more advanced technology. For example, a number of authors described tools which involved what they called miniaturisation – and miniaturisation has recently become a possibility.'
So, David Raitt suggested that the ESA should look for ideas in the vast pool of science fiction literature. 'The scheme did not meet with such a favourable reception at first. The fear was that people might conclude that the Agency lacked imagination and was turning to science fiction as a last resort. But in the end I managed to persuade them to allow me to make the study and, when announced, it was welcomed by the general press and scientific journalists as an innovative and refreshing idea.'
The experts investigate
Two partners embarked on the adventure: the Maison d’Ailleurs (The House of Elsewhere), a Swiss museum which houses more than 400 000 works of science fiction, and the OURS Foundation, also Swiss, which promotes cultural activities on space-related subjects, such as conferences and exhibitions. Following an Internet appeal, some 600 people (including engineers and scientists from various space agencies) expressed an interest in the project. They divided up the work, studied the literature and gave their opinions on what they thought might and might not be possible. They identified 250 concepts or technologies which are currently being studied by a group of experts. The proposals are grouped into categories: techniques of propulsion, space colonisation, energy, communications, robotics, materials, etc. 'When the process is complete, there may be just five or six concepts remaining for an in-depth study. But that is more than enough,' believes the project promoter.
Encouraging literary creation The ESA also organised The Clarke-Bradbury International Competition, an SF literary competition that awarded first prize to Lavie Tadhar, a 26-year-old living in the United Kingdom, for his short story Temporal Spiders, Spatial Webs. 'We received many interesting stories from 36 countries, about 50 of them written by women. Lavie's story was chosen for its excellent writing, underlying technological concept and poetic qualities. The impression it creates is of a strange and very different future. We will probably hold a similar competition again next year.'
Literary creation has the merit of immersing us in the realm of the feasible. Space exploration is an excellent example. Patrick Gyger, director of La Maison d'Ailleurs, believes that science fiction prepares the public to accept – or challenge – science. 'I think that one of the secondary effects of science fiction – secondary to the extent that it is not necessarily sought by the authors – is to make people dream. As innovative technologies are the key to some of these dreams, it leads the public to be more ready to accept them. However, science fiction also warns us against the uncontrolled use of techniques such as cloning or genetic engineering. It can therefore motivate certain researchers to work in a particular field and at the same time make them more aware of the use they or others could make of their discoveries.'
Prehistory, or SF in reverse However, the future is not the only unknown terrain explored by writers. The past can be similarly murky, especially if you travel back to the time before man appeared on the scene. Geologists, palaeontologists and archaeologists painstakingly seek to reconstruct history from the vestiges of the past. But what about the gaps in our knowledge? In his presentation of the novel by Jean-Pierre Andrevon, L'homme aux dinosaures, the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould argues on behalf of the imagination. He states that 'fiction can add a great deal to scientific inquiry, providing interesting intellectual insight that the scientists themselves, given the norms that govern their profession, are not enabled to envisage in their publications.' Gould also expresses the regret that researchers 'are denied this rewarding approach to scientific questions'.
The meeting of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man is one example of a fascinating period in human history which still holds many mysteries. It therefore provides excellent raw material that writers have turned to for some very well thought out scenarios (1). In addition to speculating freely on the actual events of the past, novelists are able to use another ingredient that is normally out of bounds to the scientist: the reconstruction of the subjective world of human beings in these distant times, complete with their emotions and interactions. Here, too, the imagination can make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. Jean Auel, for example, began writing his trilogy The Earth's Children by asking how prehistoric man ate, drank and 'prayed'. In his novels, Björn Kurtén, a palaeontologist as well as a novelist, brings together the white-skinned Neanderthals and black-skinned Cro-Magnon. To each author his scenario, and to each novel its universe – time itself will provide the necessary elements to support or dismiss their hypotheses, as indeed is the case for scientific theories.
(1) In particular, William Golding (The Inheritors), Björn Kurtén (Dance of the Tiger), Joseph-Henry Rosny Ainé (Quest for Fire), Pierre Pelot (The Clay Eaters), or Jean Auel (The Earth's Children).
Hergé. Intuition and the mood of the times
Tintin set foot on the moon 17 years before Neil Armstrong. The adventure related by Hergé (Belgian author and illustrator, 1907-1983), certainly contains some sound ideas, although he does not always get it right. The effects of weightlessness ...
Jules Verne. When the imagination paves the way
Jules Verne is perhaps the most famous of visionary writers. But he has some illustrious companions. Arthur C. Clarke imagined communications by satellites in geostationary orbit as early as 1945. Isaac Asimov formulated laws of robotics in 1942, well ...
Tintin set foot on the moon 17 years before Neil Armstrong. The adventure related by Hergé (Belgian author and illustrator, 1907-1983), certainly contains some sound ideas, although he does not always get it right. The effects of weightlessness that cause Captain Haddock's whiskey to escape from the bottle in the form of a bubble demonstrates his excellent insight. The reporter and the captain subsequently discover sheets of ice and a cave indicating the presence of water on the moon at some time in the past. And, he was right in his own way. Recent observations (Lunar Prospector, 1998) suggest that the surface of the moon has absorbed at least 6 billion tonnes of water in the form of ice. However, this water could never have existed in liquid form and, as to lunar caves, they are unlikely to exist outside Hergé's imagination.
Hergé was also passionately interested in the human sciences (Egyptology, ethnography, archaeology), chemistry and nuclear physics. The French physicist Nicolas Witkowski(1) points out that Tournesol's pendulum, which never works properly, 'caused him to make a number of discoveries while he was searching for others'. He adds that this phenomenon 'which occurs frequently in the history of science and is known as serendipity, shows that Hergé had good notions of epistemology'.
Nicolas Witkowski sees Hergé's attitude to science as evolving in three stages, paralleled by the changing way in which the West in general came to regard it. Up until the 1940s there was a certain indifference – and Tournesol had not yet appeared on the scene. From the 1940s to the 1960s there was enthusiasm for the sciences and a faith in technical progress – an interest which subsequently seems to have waned.
Jules Verne is perhaps the most famous of visionary writers. But he has some illustrious companions. Arthur C. Clarke imagined communications by satellites in geostationary orbit as early as 1945. Isaac Asimov formulated laws of robotics in 1942, well before robots were part of everyday life. In 1988, C.J. Cherryh explored the possibilities of cloning ten years before the birth of Dolly, the first cloned sheep (1996-2003). The many technical devices that first appeared in works of fiction include super-fast missile launchers (1865), retrorockets (1869), spacecraft landing modules (1928), aerodynamic stabilisers (1929), high-rise buildings (1929), auxiliary thruster clusters (1929), pressurised suits (1929), manned orbiting space stations (1945), solar sails (1951), multi-fuel reservoirs (1954), and manned space modules designed for re-entry into the earth's atmosphere (1954).