Science Fiction and Technology – A Partnership?

My science writer friend, Jon Turney, has a very cool project underway. NESTA, an investment think tank, has commissioned him to examine the relationship between science fiction and technology. Basically they want to know whether science fiction has an influence on technological innovation, and if so how this works. My guess is that this project has its origins in Neil Gaiman’s comments about Chinese science fiction conventions at the British Library last year, and Damien Walter’s subsequent article here. I think Damien may have done a Guardian piece on the subject.

Anyway, Jon has asked me to help out. Some of you will have already heard from me, and I’m grateful to Farah and Edward for letting me browse their library while I was in London the other week. If this is of interest, please take a look at Jon’s blog and see what he is looking for. We do have some fairly specific requirements, and we do need evidence, not opinions.

If you have experience of working in an environment where science fiction has had an influence technological development then we’d love to hear from you. (And I know some of you work for people like Google, Linden Labs and NASA.)

I’m also looking for reading recommendations. Things like Francis Spufford’s The Backroom Boys, which examine the history of technology, come to mind. And of course we want specific examples of science fiction ideas that have influenced technology. We are making a particular case study of robots, and there are obvious examples such as satellites and space elevators. I’d like to find some other examples. And I’m looking for academic studies of robot stories.

If you are an SF writer you’ll probably be getting email from me in the coming months. I promise that answering it won’t be too onerous, unless you want to do more.

Please note that while this is a UK-based project we are not limiting ourselves to looking at the UK. Indeed, the question as to whether there are cultural differences that affect the way that SF and technology work together is one we may address.

7 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Technology – A Partnership?

  1. Sounds like a fascinating project!

    Not a scientist – but there’s some good works out there on how Star Trek influenced Tech & Science over the last 40 years. The most visually apparent to me was the flip cell phone – but there’s loads of others (I’m still waiting for my damn AutoChef!) (links at bottom of article open into short paragraphs on how ST influenced each piece of tech)
    And this article Which speaks to the broader influence ST had – getting us excited enough about space to go into fields that support our eventual travel there ;>.

  2. I am sure you and your friends will have an interesting time with this project and good luck with it.

    There is of course the other side of the question – why didn’t some inventions actually see the light of day when they could have done so. A good example which is easily google-able is Hero’s steam engine – yes the Romans could have had a steam engine. Why didn’t they? Despite what some reports may say, it has nothing to do with engineering capabilities.

    One of the main inputs from science fiction into technology is what the systems engineers describe as putting together a user requirements database (URD). The the reason this is done is because the writer wants to get on with the story, rather than having to overcome some inconvenience due to lack of techie stuff.

    I hope this helps rather than hinders…

  3. Sounds very interesting. It sounds like you’re looking for pointers to literature, though, rather than information from people working in the various fields — is that correct? (I’ve certainly worked in environments where SF was influential, but I’m not sure what you need)

  4. I don’t know if the tweely-named “Technovelgy: Where Science Meets Fiction” site (tech-novel-gee! is supposed to be how the name works) is of any use… I only came across it this evening, and it looks hard to read. But at there’s a “Timeline of Science Fiction Ideas, Technology and Inventions (sorted by Publication Date)”. “Most of these items are linked to information about similar real-life inventions and inventors; click on an invention to learn more about it”.

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