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Science Fiction and Computers

This short essay takes a brief look at the place of science fiction in the realm of computer science. We ask whether science fiction has prophesied some of the developments in computing and whether science fiction has affected computer science.

What is SF?

It’s not easy to define science fiction because it means all things to all people. Science fiction is a genre that has developed over the years. The specific  term sci-fi was coined by Forrest J Ackerman in 1954 because it echoed hi-fi which was just becoming popular. Science fiction literature has existed far longer than the term science fiction. A simple working definition of science fiction is literature that takes place in a universe where the laws of science have changed, or there is an alternative reality/universe to our own.  These definitions allow us to include Star Trek (different universes and changes to the laws of science), Goldilocks (talking bears with a penchant for boiled oats) and A Christmas Carol (Marley’s ghost) in science fiction.

In popular culture, science fiction has become associated with space travel and alien races together with a prediction of the future, although this is a narrow and constraining view of SF. Indeed, I would argue that the image of science fiction conjured up by, for example, Star Wars, has done the genre considerable harm by turning potential readers  away from much excellent literature. The terms Space Westerns and Space Opera are sometimes used dismissively to describe  examples of science fiction that are little more than old fashioned wild west stories where the cowboys and Indians have been moved into space, or the improbable scenarios of Grand Opera in a space-setting.

History of SF

Science fiction isn’t a product of the post World War 2 era and the invention of the rocket. It has a rather longer history than that. For example, Homer was telling science fiction stories when he described the voyages of Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek). In The Odyssey Ulysses encounters mythical creatures like the Cyclops and a sorceress who can turn men into pigs. Such a story can make as strong a claim to being science fiction as any episode of Star Trek.

Science fiction has often been used as a vehicle for satire or telling uncomfortable truths. Consider Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift that was first published in 1726. Swift describes the voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s captain, who is shipwrecked in the south seas. We can consider it a work of science fiction because Gulliver encounters fantastic creatures like the tiny Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnags who inhabit mythical societies with very different social norms to our own. Although most people now regard Gulliver’s travels as a fairy tale or children’s fable, it was a political satire that used fictitious social structures to satirize 18th Century European politics, in particular the religious wars. Curiously, Gulliver’s Travels has at least two links to modern computing. First, the protagonists of the pointless war between those who open their eggs at the big end and those who open them at the little end are the Big Endians and the Little Endians. These two terms have been universally adopted to describe the ordering of bytes in memory. Second, Gulliver encounters a race of crude, uncouth and unruly people called the Yahoos. No change there, then.

Shelly, Verne and Wells

Three influential writers that have contributed to the science fiction of the modern era are Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Mary Shelly published Frankenstein in 1818. This novel is properly science fiction although many would place it in the sub-category of horror (i.e., science fiction designed to frighten the reader). Frankenstein combines the elements of science and the creation of an artificial human with the ethical problems and social dilemmas caused by such an action. The monster created by Victor Frankenstein represents the consequences of unfettered scientific progress.  You could say that Frankenstein is the precursor of today’s movies dealing with the consequence of climate change.

Jules Verne was a French writer who has been called the father of science fiction because he wrote several novels that extrapolated the growth of then emerging technologies to describe a future world. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, 1870, described quite prophetically a submarine (electrical powered) that could roam at will under the sea. The term 22,000 leagues indicates the distance it could travel under water which is about six times round the world. Verne uses technological predictions to study what if scenarios and to go to places under the ocean that had never been visited - boldly or otherwise.  As in the case of Ulysses and Frankenstein, there’s an epic battle between humans and monsters; in this case, a giant squid.  There’s also (like Frankenstein) a reference to the social effects of scientific and technological changes; for example Captain Nemo uses his submarines, the Nautilus, to help the Greeks in a war against the Ottoman Empire.

H. G. Wells was a British writer who lived from 1866 to 1946 and was able to see some of his dire predictions come true. His three most famous science fiction books are The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and the Island of Doctor Moreau. These deal with themes that are still regarded as contemporary; aliens and space travel, time travel, invisibility, and biological modification/experimentation, respectively.

Wells also wrote The Shape of Things to Come that provides the type of future history that has become a mainstream strand of science fiction. In the Shape of Things to Come (published 1933) Wells predicts the Second World War which drags on for many years leading to a collapse of civilization. The world is rescued by a group of people that create a form of science-based, enlightened, benevolent dictatorship. At the end of the book, the dictatorship is overthrown and a utopian world emerges. This is an example of utopian fiction - much of science fiction today is distinctly dystopian (e.g., Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, or the more contemporary Hunger Games).

The science fiction of Wells combined storytelling, science, prediction of the future, and a political/social message about the nature of humanity. A rather less technologically-based work of science fiction was George Orwell’s 1984 that described a very pessimistic view of the future based on total control by an all-seeing dictatorship. Today, computer technology and communications have advanced sufficiently to make 1984 a possibility.

A common theme of much contemporary SF is the robot. The word robot comes from the title of Karel Čapek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robots. Robot is derived from the Slavonic verb to work. Although the original concept of the robot may have been a source of cheap labor, the modern robot (from Asimov onward) seems to be a type of superhuman with enhanced powers; for example, in the Terminator movies the robots are physically strong with enhanced abilities, whereas in Star Trek the robot  Mr. Data has both superhuman abilities and human characteristics – while denying his humanity.

The Golden Age

The period between 1940 and 1960 is now regarded as the golden age of science fiction. It is a golden age in the sense that there was an explosion of the material, it was rooted in the popular imagination, and many of its exponents are now regarded as giants (e.g., Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, Aldiss). Anyway, many of today’s aging academics were brought up on this generation of science fiction and we get to call it great… An important reason that 1940 to 1960 represents the golden age was the emergence of technology modern. In this period, space travel, electronic communications, nuclear power, and computers all became possible. It did not take too much effort to extrapolate into the future.

Asimov himself became almost synonymous with robots due to his extensive output of novels and short stories. The element of science in Asmiov’s work was the positronic brain, a meaningless term (like warp drive in Star Trek) that lets us bypass the fact that no current or emerging technology can manufacture a brain which human-like abilities.  Asimov is remembered for his three laws of robotics. These explored the limitations humans that would need to place on robots to prevent conflict of the type seen in the Terminator movies. These laws are:

1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its existence

In his later work, Asimov added a fourth low that he called the zeroth law that stated

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm

Of course, this fourth law overrides the other laws and allows the robot to decide what’s best for humanity. This law may well require the destruction of individuals or groups of individuals to preserve the common good.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction was also called the age of hard science fiction (or SF with rivets) because it was frequently rooted in hardware (computers, robots, spacecraft) rather than fantasy or the political explorations of  writers like Ursula Le Guin who, for example, explored the nature of anarchy in The Dispossessed.

Science Fiction continues to evolve and mature. An interesting example is provided by two time travel stories.  Alternative history and even modifying history are two recurring theme; for example, Pavane (1968) by Keith Roberts begins with the assassination of Queen Elisabeth I. With Protestant England no longer a factor, the rise of The Netherlands and Germany does not happen and we end up with our modern world that is Catholic and dominated by a primitive steam age technology without electronics. An example of alternative history that particularly fascinates me involves World War II. In The Final Countdown (a movie) a modern US aircraft carrier goes back through time and ends up at Pearl Harbor on the eve of the Japanese attack.  The story is conventional and the crew debate whether they should or should not get involved with changing history.

A more modern science fiction book, Weapons of Choice (2004) by John Birmingham revisits the same territory where several 2021 US navy vessels materialize at Pearl Harbor just as in Final Countdown. However, there most of the similarity between these two stories ends Birmingham looks at the difference between the current US fleet and the fleet of 1942. The social gulf between the two fleets is so vast that the two same sides almost end up fighting each other. When the sailors from the 1942 fleet encounter a black admiral and a female vice admiral they are more than a little shocked. Birmingham uses science fiction to bring home the tremendous social changes that have occurred since the war. All too few science fiction writers have thought deeply about future sociological changes; how many Star Trek episodes have been made where the alien society is based either on Ancient Rome or Nazi Germany?

Science Fiction and Prediction

Several threads of science fiction have spun stories around a prediction of the future, often by extrapolating technological development. This is of particular interest to those working in computer science because we are in the very business of manufacturing the future. There are different types of prediction. Historic prediction where an event or a sequence of events are predicted.  HG Wells successfully predicted the outbreak of World War II. Asimov created pseudoscience to predict a long sequence of events in his Foundation trilogy. Technology prediction where a new device or systems is described; for example, the time machine or father-than-light transport.  Some of the areas of prediction made by science fiction are:

Faster than light transport

This is, of course, made necessary by the fact that at sub-light speeds it would take years or even millennia by any conventional means. Faster than light transport is needed to support any form of highly interconnected interstellar society. Because of the laws of physics it would appear that we will never be able to achieve this objective.

Personal transportation

Science fiction has predicted personal transportation in cities with moving walkways and personal flying vehicles. The former is a partially reality in some locations and the latter a possibility that is unfeasible. Small flying vehicles are possible but their high energy consumption and the need for some form of air traffic control makes their widespread use unlikely.


Science fiction writers have long dreamt of intelligent robots. However, the possibility of an intelligent machine (in the sense of human-like)  is still a very remote possibility.

Genetic engineering

Here science fact and fiction are much closer together. Genetically modified crops exist and we can modify and clone animals. In this realm the brave new future is already here. The cloning of humans is a distinct possibility. However, the suggestion in some poor science fiction that cloning will also clone personality seems unlikely. If you clone a Hitler, the clone is unlikely to share the same ideological perspective because that was developed by Hitler’s environment. Cloning and genetic engineering has been successfully used in some science fiction stories (e.g., Blade Runner) to explore the relationship between people and clones – a reworking of the Frankenstein story.

Augmented humans in which either mechanical systems (for strength or protection) or neural interfaces (for enhanced memory, improved senses, or remote communications) have featured in science fiction; for example both Judge Dredd and Robocop are stories in which the protagonist is part man and part machine (i.e., a cyborg).


Curiously, in computing science fiction seems to have lagged science fact; that is, science fiction has been far too conservative. Although no one has manufactured human-style brains and artificial intelligence, the non-intelligent computer has made tremendous and unforeseen progress. Today we live in a world of connectivity that was unimaginable a few years ago. A modern cell phone can make calls to anywhere in the world, use GPS to pinpoint your location to a few meters, and can access unlimited data via the Internet. Who could have imagined that countless millions of people would have computers that were all interconnected? In particular, no one predicted the search engine that allows anyone to request information using plain language search tools.

The iconic flip top communicator used in Star Trek may have been a science fiction dream of the future when the series was first broadcast. Today, a few decades later it is an embarrassingly anachronistic device in comparison with the smart phone.

Another of Star Treks inventions was the replicator that could fabricate new objects from atoms. Today we have 3D printers that spray a substance in two dimensions and build up a three dimensional object layer-by-layer by overlaying successive 2D images one on top of another. This technology allows us to replicate objects that have been scanned in a 3D scanner. These devices are often used to provide rapid prototyping of an object or to perform a proof-of-concept test on a new item without going through a complex, time-consuming and expensive manufacturing process. In May 2013 a personal 3D printer was used to create a working plastic gun which has immense implications for both gun control and security.

Virtual Worlds

A key concept of computer science is that you can run a program on computer B that makes it emulate (i.e., behave like) computer A. This allows us to run old software on a modern computer by emulating the old computer. The emulated computer is referred to as a virtual computer. Modern graphics and computer-generated images have also led to the notion of virtual reality where worlds are simulated. Today, it is possible to simulate realities that do not exist; for example, The Life of Pi shows a shipwrecked  tiger on a boat. The tiger looks real but is, in fact, a visual simulation. High quality visual simulation is currently very expensive and highly labor intensive. In a few years it may be possible for politicians to manufacture events that never took place, but which appear entirely authentic. The old Graucho Mark comments “Do you believe me or the evidence of your own eyes?” will soon no longer be as funny as it once was.

One of the offshoots of simulation and virtualization is the notion of artificial reality where the very world we live in is simulated and we ourselves have no physical existence other than as a program. If I am a program in a computer, I cannot detect that because any test that I can provide to determine whether I am real or not will be provided with an appropriate result by the computer. If I prick myself with a pin, the computer generates the appropriate sensation of pain and the pin appears real to me. This theme was used in the Matrix movie where real people did have a physical existence but the world they were experiencing was a computer generated virtual world. This was achieved by rendering the people unconscious and then linking their brains to a giant computer.

Military Technology

Science fiction has made some successful predictions. In general, death rays (the phasor in Star Trek) have not been invented although intense laser beams can be used to shoot down missiles. The battlefield robot has appeared in the form of the drone or remotely controlled flying vehicle. However, the drone has been created not because of its strength of invincibility, but because of its ability to keep your casualties to zero and avoid the political fallout when your soldiers return home in body bags. Moreover, drones allow you to destroy civilian targets (the collateral damage) without the same outcry that was generated by an event such as the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War.

We have not used our technology to directly modify humans for battlefield purposes, although we have incorporated such technology into exoskeletons (e.g., enhanced visual capabilities via cameras and data links).


A considerable strand of science fiction deals with apocalyptic events or doomsday. Sometimes these events are natural (a collision with an astronomical body or an exploding supernova), sometimes they are brought about by aliens (War of the Worlds), and sometimes they are self-inflicted by nuclear war, climate change, or plague (e.g., The Day After Tomorrow). This strand of science fiction serves both as a prediction and a warning.

Has Science Fiction Been Successful in Computing?

In my opinion the answer to this question is no and it is a resounding no because the predictions of science fiction have failed in two diametrically opposed ways. When it comes to artificial intelligence (robots or the Matrix computer) the predictions have been wildly optimistic. We are nowhere near creating a robot like Mr. Data in Star Trek. On the other hand, many of the other predictions about computers and communications have already been far surpassed. Human machine interfaces are far superior today to those depicted in science fiction of only a few years ago (look at the crude displays in 2001 or Blade Runner). Modern cell phones are far more sophisticated than was imagined only a few years ago.

Will predictions about computer science and telecommunications get better?  I doubt it. The track record of science fiction  in predicting trends in computing has been poor. However, this may be offset by predictions of the uses or abuses of computing. Today’s ability to perform the almost total monitoring of a person has already generated several examples of prophetic science fiction. This trend will probably increase as governments demonstrate that they are more than happy to employ the benefits of computing to monitor the population with ever-increasing precision.  I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece called The Door about a world in which all doors were computerized and interlinked. You couldn’t go anywhere without going through a door which created an exact record of your movements; for example, if your mistress’s door communicates with your wife’s door you might find that your wife’s door will no longer let you into the house.  In a more sinister scenario you might find it difficult to get into an airport if you’d looked at the wrong website.