Breaking the box

18 May 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

SOMETIMES there are moments where it seems as if the barrier between reality and fantasy has crumbled, and something that should be in the province of fiction has become fact right before one’s eyes.

For me that moment came at a Karachi hotel in the early 1980s in the shape of a glass door with no apparent handles or knobs that one could use to gain access. Instead, this door would magically open as you approached and close once you were through. It was literally like something out of Star Trek. Lite­rally, because Star Trek actually envisioned such doors long before they became mainstream.

That’s not all; from devices that resemble the tablet computers of today to earpieces that are practically identical to Bluetooth headsets and even mobile phones, Star Trek foreshadowed many advances that were then science fiction, but are now science fact.

‘Star Trek’ foreshadowed many advances in science.

The writers of Star Trek were by no means the only, or even the first, to accurately predict the direction that technology would take. In 1870, Jules Verne wrote the now-classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea featuring Captain Nemo and his advanced submarine, the Nau­ti­­lus, which was powered by an electric engine.

Now bear in mind that while the first crude submarine was invented in 1620, the first rudimentary electric engine-equipped submarine didn’t appear till 1886, 16 years after Verne predicted it. This craft was in fact the forerunner of modern submarines, though the electric engine technology would only become common in the 1960s.

In 1865, Verne had written From the Earth to the Moon, which saw lunar modules being launched from Florida and then splashing down in the oceans on re-entry. That’s something that would actually occur little over a century later when the Apollo programme was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Here’s when things get really crazy. In 1944, the US counterintelligence corps and FBI began to investigate a writer named Cleve Cartmill. Cartmill had written a short story, titled ‘Deadline’ revolving around the development of a futuristic ‘super-bomb’ which, to the US authorities, was suspiciously similar to the prototype nuclear weapon then being developed in secrecy.

Indeed, Cartmill had even accurately described technical details such as the isotope separation techniques used by the actual scientists and even the use of uranium-235 to create a nuclear fission device. Surely, thought the authorities, this couldn’t have been possible without some kind of leak or mole at Los Alamos.

But there’s the kicker: Cartmill was no scientist, but a science fiction writer, and the magazine that published his piece was none other than the pulp science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction.

What Cartmill had done was in fact exactly what the writers of Star Trek, Jules Verne and dozens of other such people had done: taken existing technology and trends (in Cartmill’s case he relied on published scientific papers for his research) and added a healthy dose of imagination. He eventually managed to convince the FBI that this was simply creative science fiction writing and not some kind of elaborate espionage operation.

In effect, they had imagined a future which then became real. Granted, this doesn’t mean that all science fiction ends up as fact. For example, I’m still waiting for the flying cars, personal robots and hovering skateboards that we were promised. But enough evidence exists as to the track record of science fiction writers to get it right for the US government (to cite one example) to take notice.

During the Reagan presidency Larry Niven along with other science fiction writers, scientists and retired military officials, helped form the Citizen’s Advi­sory Council on Natio­­nal Space Policy, a body concerned with the space policy of the United States.

This group’s lobbying was eventually instrumental in the designing of the DC-X, a reusable launch vehicle that would prove an important step towards cementing America’s domination of space technology. Niven, for his part, also served as an advisor to Reagan on the Strategic Defence Initiative antimissile system which, in no small irony, was informally dubbed the Star Wars system.

More recently, the SIGMA forum, a group of science fiction writers, was set up to advise the US government on, among other things, homeland security. Simply because the writers have “spent their lives studying the kinds of technologies and scenarios Homeland Security officials have been tackling since the department began operating”. Take a look at some of the inventions coming out of DARPA (guided bullets being the latest example) and the sci-fi inspiration behind them is quite evident.

For a country like Pakistan, which needs imaginative solutions to long-standing problems, it may serve to thus form committees and advisory bodies which aren’t simply staffed by bureaucrats, politicians and serving or retired military personnel but by writers and thinkers. Of course, to realise this very fact would take as much imagination as a dozen Jules Vernes.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2015

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