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The historic truth about science fiction from H. G. Wells to Star Trek

Science fiction fights the past as much as it faces the future.

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Back in 1969, you could buy a stake in the future, even if it was only a plastic model kit of the Apollo Lunar Module. But the price was stuck in the past. The UK kit cost 5 shillings and 11 pence, in a pre-decimal system that dated back to the Middle Ages, with abbreviations that recalled the Roman occupation of Britain — the penny was abbreviated to ‘d’, standing for ‘denarius’.

Nature special: Science. Fiction.

Such archaisms angered and frustrated Herbert George Wells (1866–1946), whose raillery against such relics is documented in Simon James’s retrospective as part of this week’s science-fiction special issue. It is followed by Sidney Perkowitz’s appreciation of Star Trek, the space-opera TV and movie franchise that has been visiting strange new worlds since 1966.

Britain changed to decimal coinage in 1971, but even countries that are long used to money in multiples of ten can’t escape the history of their currency. The word ‘dollar’, for example, derives from ‘thaler’, a coin that can be traced back to early sixteenth-century Bohemia; and the abiding fondness of one of the planet’s most technically advanced nations for non-SI units is a source of some embarrassment or hilarity (depending on your point of view). The past is a loam of inertia through which the shoots of futurity struggle to emerge. As cyberpunk author William Gibson once said, the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Wells had every reason to fight for the future. Fate saw him born into the smokes and stinks of Victorian Britain as the son of servants in 1866. Like all years, it was a potpourri of past and future: it was the year of the long-forgotten Austro-Prussian War between two ageing empires that have long since crumbled, but also the year that the Royal Aeronautical Society was founded, and that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite.

Wells nimbly avoided his fate of becoming a haberdasher and ended as one of the visionaries of his age, regularly published in these pages. Pulling himself upwards to the light became a personal as well as a professional preoccupation.

Living as we do in a much gentler age (for all that it occasionally seems otherwise), we are inclined to dissect Wells’s achievement into discrete anticipations of such technological gewgaws as tanks and atomic bombs, without appreciating his drive and ambition to better not just himself, but the rest of humanity. We are likewise inclined to forget that his first full-length novel, The Time Machine, is not just a fantasy of the far future but an excoriating damnation of the class system, in which the classes evolve into two separate but interdependent species: the leisured, effete and mindless Eloi, preyed on by the ugly and industrious Morlocks. This is no hidden allegory: as a character says in The Soul Of A Bishop (1917), one of Wells’s non-science-fictional novels, “we are the Morlocks, coming up!”.

One could be flippant and say that the importance of Wells’s work now lies in its intriguing mix of old and new — Wells was steampunk when steam was still punk, his futuristic machines tricked out in hand-tooled leather and knurled brass. But Wells earns his place, in the words of Brian Aldiss (in Trillion Year Spree), as the ‘Shakespeare’ of sci-fi because he takes ordinary people and tests their reactions to technology and its consequences — shaven monkeys from Woking pitted against the intellects of Martians, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

Star Trek first aired in the centenary year of the US Civil Rights Act of 1866 — an appropriate date, seeing as the show’s prime aim was to depict a harmoniously integrated future society rather than anticipate technological marvels such as the tricorder and the cloaking device. Arthur C. Clarke, another titan of sci-fi, dismissed (in The Songs of Distant Earth) one such technological trinket, the warp drive, as simply a McGuffin that allowed the crew to get from one locale to the next “in time for next week’s exciting episode”. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, like Wells, drew his passion from a need to rise above the inequities of the present and forge a more equitable future.

Why are we celebrating Wells and Star Trek now, in this sci-fi special (which includes our long-running Futures sci-fi series presented as a graphic novel for the first time)? It happens to be 150 years since Wells’s birth, 70 years since his death and 50 years since Star Trek was first aired. All satisfying multiples of ten, but measured in units based on the revolution of a small planet round an unremarkable star in the suburbs of an ordinary galaxy. As Wells lamented, we are shackled to our past. It might be a while before we run such commemorations based on binary representations of elapsed numbers of Planck time units.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
537,
Pages:
137–138
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/537137b

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