Back when my father was a kid science fiction was all about rockets to Mars, flying cars and atomic power. The world would march forward in the same way that it had after science advanced in the generations before. It would engineer applications for atomic power in the same way that earlier generations applied knowledge of chemistry and physics to create the internal combustion engine and airplanes.
When I was a kid science fiction had progressed to where relativity and quantum physics were assumed to be susceptible to human genius and no barriers were too tall to prevent humans from colonizing the stars, travelling through time and even traipsing into other dimensions. Now this made for a lot of interesting stories about universes where humans could meet up with all kinds of amazing creatures and events. But at some point, you have to wonder if the word “science” in the name science fiction should be changed to fantasy. And that’s fine. Having faster than light (FTL) travel opens up so many story lines for an author that it’s hard to resist. Otherwise, we’re stuck with multi-generational ships depending on relativistic time dilation to reach the nearest stars in one or two hundred years. Which, by the way, makes for a lot of very interesting sociological phenomena on the ship. But anyway, you can see how FTL travel would be a very desirable pseudoscientific device.
But here we are something like a hundred years on in the “modern” science fiction timeline and we’re still engulfed in the FTL travel trope. And we’re still nowhere near any kind of science that would lead us to believe that FTL travel is even remotely possible. So, in my mind maybe science fiction needs to start looking at science again for inspiration for new themes.
Thinking about this, it’s not like there aren’t all sorts of scientific discoveries and avenues for new technologies that are not only possible but also exciting building blocks for science fiction stories. In biology we have gene therapy and longevity research. In computer science there is artificial intelligence and cybernetics. The reality of atomic power as a replacement for fossil fuels is not really science fiction as much as fact but there are enough questions about how it will change the present world that it could provide plenty of fodder for stories. And human exploration of the solar system is now much better understood than it was even back during the Apollo program. Reimagining the directions that something like landing on Mars will take has already been a successful idea for one author who even saw it turned into a successful movie.
Perhaps some of this sounds a little tame for science fiction readers. On the contrary, sticking to the reality of what it would take to put a small colony on Mars should allow a good author to engineer in plenty of human interest and adventure. I could see how a story based on capturing and harvesting an asteroid filled with gold and platinum would make a very exciting tale. A good author would include the part of the story that involves very rich and powerful individuals scheming to hold onto the profits from a mission that might include the most powerful nations on Earth claiming the assets as the “legacy of all mankind.”
So, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately. Now I like space opera as much as the next guy. I’m very comfortable with galactic empires and multiverse. They’re great fun. But I also think it’s time for some of the most creative writers to start adding some real science back into science fiction.
Ed, thanks for the references. But look at what passes for science fiction today. Endless reiterations of Star Trek where the height of novelty is adding yet another rainbow stripe to the Vulcan LGBTQ flag. I’d be more interested in a story that dissected the actual limits of windmills, solar panels and battery cars and compared it to installing the correct number of uranium power plants and a hydrogen fuel auto fleet.
I can think of at least two FTL scenarios that aren’t outlawed by current Physics. Wormholes and using the expansion of space itself as a mechanism.
Also, I’ve read a number of pieces by real theoretical physicists proposing possible ways to travel to the past, but they all require energies equal to or over the total amount put out by the sun. So, on an engineering level, they are impractical. My thought is that if time travel is theoretically possible, even if the engineering challenges are unsurmountable, the past exists in a “real” sense to be traveled to.
Tom, I don’t want to abandon stories that utilize hypothetical technologies. But what seems to be lagging behind on both the audience side and the writer side is day after tomorrow stuff. Heinlein used to do this very well, especially some of his short stories. But eighty years have come and gone and someone needs to take the present day knowledge and spin new stories of how science can change our lives.