There has been some discussion of late of the role science fiction might play in inspiring science – see Damien G Walter’s piece here, Cheryl Morgan’s here, and Mark Charan Newton’s here. The argument being that, allegedly, innovators read science fiction, or many scientists chose their careers because of science fiction, and so the genre is assumed to have a very real influence on the future of science, technology and engineering.
I don’t buy it.
For one thing, most present-day science fiction has very little real science in it. Space opera, arguably the most visible form of sf, has almost none at all. It’s little more than space adventure stories. Which is not to say, of course, that space opera in any way epitomises the genre. However, what it does do is associate outrageous, non-realistic ideas in science or technology with science fiction. So when someone comes up with such an idea, it’s immediately labelled “science fiction”. Sf is not a tool for innovation, it is a licence to imagine, a legitimisation of blue-sky thinking. It suggests the unrealistic is feasible and/or desirable, it makes it palatable.
Take the example of a crewed base on the Moon. It has been the dream of NASA and space enthusiasts since the 1950s, if not earlier. Had the Apollo programme continued as originally planned, it might even had happened. Now it’s back on the space exploration agenda – or rather, it’s back in the public arena of space exploration. But there have been remarkably few science fiction novels published in the past fifteen years about such an endeavour. Sf novels set on a colonised Moon, yes; but about colonising the Moon? No.
Before Apollo, there were a number of sf novels published about the landing on the Moon – e.g., Jeff Sutton’s First On The Moon, Charles Eric Maine’s High Vacuum, or Hank Searle’s The Pilgrim Project. But even then they comprised only a small fraction of the genre’s output, and they were as much inspired by actual real studies on – and real work towards – Moon landings as they were by pure genre speculation. The truly speculative lunar landing novels had been written decades earlier; whereas the actual science of space exploration fed back into the sf of the 1950s – not that it was depicted especially accurately, it must be admitted.
Science fiction reflects the ambitions of its time. Some of it may speculate about the concerns of its time. Some of those concerns may be scientific, but if science fiction has one true role it is as a licence to free the imagination. It is a label that can be applied to ideas in the real world which are not really scientific, though they may involve science or technology. This, however, can swing both ways – both putting down innovation, as well as encouraging it.
It’s not science fiction which inspires innovation, it’s imagination. And that’s not something science fiction has a monopoly on.