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Science fiction becoming fact

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A post from BuzzFeed has been doing the rounds, 27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts in 2012. Ignoring the assumption that science fiction is predictive – it never has been, and any such successes in that department have been happy accidents – how many of the items on the list had actually been used in sf before 2012?

1 Quadriplegic Uses Her Mind to Control Her Robotic Arm
Cyborgs are a genre staple, though they’ve proven more popular in cinema sf than written. However, the term “waldo” for a tele-operated arm comes from a science fiction story by Robert Heinlein, so this is indeed a “science fiction become science fact”.

2. DARPA Robot Can Traverse an Obstacle Course
Robots may be genre staples, but we’ve had robots in the real world for several decades. I don’t know of any sf stories or novels which were based on a robot’s ability to traverse difficult terrain. They were just robots, they did whatever humans could do – only usually better.

3. Genetically Modified Silk Is Stronger Than Steel
I’ve a feeling this has made an appearance in a science fiction novel. I’m guessing either Paul McAuley’s Fairyland or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Certainly materials “stronger than steel” and weighing considerably less feature in any sf text which includes an orbital elevator.

4. DNA Was Photographed for the First Time
I’m not aware of any science fiction text which uses this. It doesn’t actually seem a particularly useful achievement either.

5. Invisibility Cloak Technology Took a Huge Leap Forward
Surely this is more superhero comics than science fiction? When stealth appeared in the real world, it rapidly found its way into sf, especially military sf. But researchers have been working on these sorts of things for decades, so it’s not like it came from nowhere.

6. Spray-On Skin
I’m pretty sure this has been used in sf books or stories, though mostly as a throwaway detail. Another one that can probably be considered a “science fiction become science fact”.

7. James Cameron Reached the Deepest Known Point in the Ocean
The first people to visit the deepest part of the ocean did so in 1960. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh descended in the bathyscape Trieste some 36,000 feet to the floor of Challenger Deep. Until Cameron repeated their achievement, they were the only people to have done so. I know of only one sf short story set in Challenger Deep, though I believe there are a few novels set in the hadal zone. So this one is “science fact, er, stays as science fact”.

8. Stem Cells Could Extend Human Life by Over 100 Years
Life extension is a science fiction staple, but this is hardly a “science fact”. It says “could”. That makes it supposition. Or, if you will, “science fiction”.

9. 3-D Printer Creates Full-Size Houses in One Session
Has 3-D printing appeared in any sf text? I’m not aware of one that features it (though I’ve not read anything by Cory Doctorow). However, 3-D printing has been around for a few years, so this is more a case of “science fact stays as science fact”.

10. Self-Driving Cars Are Legal in Nevada, Florida, and California
Driverless cars are certainly a well-known genre trope. While their existence is hardly new, their legal status certainly brings them closer to how they are used in sf.

11. Voyager I Leaves the Solar System
Another science fact that remains a science fact. Voyager I launched in 1977. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single sf novel or story in which it takes a spacecraft forty-plus years to leave the Solar System. Usually, it takes a matter of hours or days using a magical FTL drive or something.

12. Custom Jaw Transplant Created With 3-D Printer
See point 9.

13. Rogue Planet Floating Through Space
Another genre trope, long theorised by science but now with evidence to support it. I suppose that does make it “science fiction become science fact”.

14. Chimera Monkeys Created from Multiple Embryos
I suspect this is too specific to really qualify, though Dr Moreau-type animal experimentation has been a genre topic for over a century.

15. Artificial Leaves Generate Electricity
This is another one I suspect may have appeared in a sf text, though I can’t think of it at the moment – again, McAuley or Stephenson?

16. Google Goggles Bring the Internet Everywhere
VR goggles have been around for decades. A refinement on existing technology hardly qualifies as “science fiction become science fact”.

17. The Higgs-Boson Particle Was Discovered
Or, “science theory becomes science fact”. Are there any sf texts which feature the Higgs Field?

18. Flexible, Inexpensive Solar Panels Challenge Fossil Fuel
Again, a refinement on existing technology hardly qualifies as “science fiction become science fact”.

19. Diamond Planet Discovered
You’d probably have to go all the way back to the 1920s or 1930s to find a sf story featuring a diamond planet – something by Edmond Hamilton or Jack Williamson, perhaps. Or perhaps Arthur C Clarke wrote one a decade or two later. This likely qualifies as “science fiction become science fact”.

20. Eye Implants Give Sight to the Blind
Well, there’s DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid, for a start. Artificial vision is certainly a sf trope.

21. Wales Barcodes DNA of Every Flowering Plant Species in the Country
Not sure how this ever qualified as science fiction.

22. First Unmanned Commercial Space Flight Docks with the ISS
There are a raft of libertarian US sf novels in which hardy far-sighted entrepreneurs exploit the final frontier for the benefit of humanity and their own bank account. That’s certainly science fiction. As they say in the space industry, “to make a small fortune in space, start with a large fortune”. So I don’t think this quite qualifies as “science fiction become science fact” yet.

23. Ultra-Flexible “Willow” Glass Will Allow for Curved Electronic Devices
When transparent aluminium is invented, or slow glass, then it would be “science fiction become science fact”. But not this.

24. NASA Begins Using Robotic Exoskeletons
I can think of plenty of science fiction in which exoskeletons, or powered spacesuits, or powered armour, appears. This takes us, so to speak, one step closer, so, yes, it’s “science fiction become science fact”.

25. Human Brain Is Hacked
A cyberpunk trope that has proven so popular it’s almost a cliché. Definitely “science fiction become science fact”.

26. First Planet with FOUR Suns Discovered
Given that so much sf is completely made-up with no regard to real science, then this is probably a happy accident. Having said that, hard sf authors no doubt did their research, considered this possible, and dutifully included in a story or two. Now we know it occurs, so it’s “science fiction become science fact”.

27. Microsoft Patented the “Holodeck”
They’ve not built it yet though, have they? It doesn’t actually exist. So it’s still science fiction, not science fact.

None of the above were actually “predicted” by science fiction in any sort of prognosticatory way. It’s true that a number of genre tropes have now become reality, but that may well be the tail wagging the dog. As it is, this list proves that, well, there were interesting advances during 2012… which makes it not much different from 2011, or what we can expect of 2013.

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