The Science Fiction Stories that Inspire and Hinder Real Science

Click to viewEverything from satellites and space travel to synthetic biology and robots existed in fiction before they were realized in a lab — and most science fiction fans assume that situation is somehow beneficial for scientists. We told you earlier that Buzz Aldrin disagrees (he thinks scifi killed space travel). And over the weekend, MIT synthetic biologist Drew Endy told me his area of research has also suffered because so much science fiction portrays bio-hacking as horrific (think Frankenstein) or silly (think South Park's "four-assed monkey"). But for every scifi story that hinders science, there's one that inspires it. Below, I've got a big list of stories that hinder, as well as inspire, scientific innovation.

It's important to remember that when I say that a story "hinders" scientific innovation, that doesn't mean the story isn't good or powerful. In fact, some of the most important, world-changing science fiction is of the "hindering" variety because it serves as a warning against rampant scientific experimentation without any thought for possible consequences. Even if beneficial in some ways, a "hindering" tale is still, well, hindering scientific progress.

Hindering: Gattaca

The tale of a repressive nation which genetically-engineers its ruling classes, Gattaca makes it seem that the logical outcome of genetic tampering is fascism. In reality, history has shown that fascism can exist in the absence of modern science, and that genetic engineering is merely a tool that can be put to good or bad uses. And yet the myth of genetic engineering existing on a slippery slope toward social breakdown is a difficult one for experimental biologists to overcome.

Inspiring: Look to Windward

One of Iain M. Banks novels about a posthuman Culture where enhanced humans live alongside A.I.s in an anarchic, trans-galactic society, Look to Windward explores the way humans can maintain their basic identities and ethical values no matter how much they tamper with their genes or modify their morphology. For Banks, synthetic biology is simply a logical way that humans extend their capabilities, but it does not turn them into monsters or make them authoritarian overlords.

Hindering: Blood Music

One of the earliest novels about nanotechnology and the dreaded "gray goo" scenario, Greg Bear's book is about nanotech that goes awry, becomes sentient, and eats the entire world. Consumed by the nano, humans enter a kind of transcendent "noosphere" while their bodies become the raw materials of a new world. While this is a cool idea, it's led to the myth that the outcome of nanotech is inevitably the (literal) breakdown of society.

Inspiring: The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson's gorgeous and complex novel The Diamond Age is set in a nano-enabled world where human minds are used for distributed computing and electronic children's books are so close to being sentient that they can raise children without the help of human adults. A young woman raised by one such book grows up to become a wise and brilliant leader. You can find a similar scenario in Linda Nagata's nanotech novel The Bohr Maker, where an impoverished woman discovers a nanofabricator and uses it to transform the developing world.

The Science Fiction Stories that Inspire and Hinder Real Science

Hindering: Frankenstein

Mary Shelley's classic novel of biomedical horror and scientists "playing God," this novel has probably done more to scare people away from biotech than almost any other science fiction story. This novel suggests that monstrosity and murder are the only possible outcome of science aimed at enhancing humans, or reusing human parts to create new kinds of life.

Inspiring: The Scar

This is China Mieville's haunting steampunk tale of a society where "thaumaturgists" remold humans' bodies at will, adding animal and machine parts to make them more efficient. It's a fully-realized (though occasionally surreal) portrait of a society where humans can be anything from a torso attached to a steam engine, to an amphibious creature covered in octopus tentacles. In Mieville's work, human-animal hybrids are often less disturbing than so-called normal humans.

Hindering: Terminator

The field of robotics has never been more dissed than it was when people started obsessing over the well-known and ever-expanding set of Terminator tales about an evil A.I. named Skynet who destroys humanity with nukes and an army of nasty cyborg soldiers. In Terminator, it seems inevitable that A.I. will lead to human destruction — except in the few, rare cases when the cyborgs are forcibly reprogrammed (and even then, we have some doubts).

Inspiring: Wall-E

Pixar's recent movie Wall-E portrays robots as a more humane version of humanity. Hero Wall-E is treated as sympathetically as a human character, and his love for another robot, Eve, is represented as a hopeful sign in the wake of humanity offing itself through pollution. Here we see humans and robots living together as equals to make the world better.

Hindering: Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood's harrowing near-future tale of bioengineering gone mad is about what happens when a mad scientist decides humanity sucks and should be replaced by a new hominid species he's created to be disease-resistant and non-hierarchical. While viral apocalypses could indeed occur (and in fact the Plague of the late middle ages was one such), there are a lot of problems with the idea that a thriving consumer biotech industry will inevitably unleash one.

Inspiring: Engine City

The third novel in Ken MacLeod's superlative Engines of Light trilogy, this book deals with what happens when humans infected with an extraterrestrial nano-plague are actually enhanced rather than destroyed by it.

Hindering: Saturn's Children

I love this new novel by Charles Stross, but it paints a pretty dismal picture of what will happen to humans when they attempt to travel in space and found a colony on Mars. And by "dismal," I mean that Stross shows that it's essentially impossible for humans to exist off-world because our bodies are too fragile and therefore all our space colonies fail.

The Science Fiction Stories that Inspire and Hinder Real Science

Inspiring: Parable of the Talents

The second novel in Octavia Butler's two-book exploration of the social and political collapse of the United States, Parable of the Talents is about how the nation recovers from a coup by the religious right. The Christian "reeducation" torture camps have been shut down, and society is slowly returning from the brink of anarchy. And a new leader emerges to bring hope — a woman who believes humans must leave Earth if our species is to survive. Beautifully-written and astute, the novel makes a compelling case for exploring space even if the trip will be dangerous.

Hindering: The Handmaid's Tale

Our second Atwood novel in the "hindering" category, The Handmaid's Tale is similar to Butler's Parable of the Sower (prequel to Parable of the Talents) in that it depicts a post-apocalyptic United States taken over by right-wing Christians. In Atwood's feminist nightmare, science does not lead the nation on a pathway to progress; instead, it enables a retrograde, patriarchal system to thrive. Science leads the US back to the Dark Ages.

Inspiring: Woman on the Edge of Time

What's encouraging about Marge Piercy's classic Utopian feminist novel Woman on the Edge of Time is that it is pro-science. The potential world of eco-friendly, multicultural feminists is founded on many complex technologies including artificial wombs, green mass transit, a rapid internet-like communications system, and complicated bio-engineering and waste-recycling tech. Piercy further complicates this future vision by showing that not everybody is on board with the techie feminists. They are fighting a war against a more conventional society.