Science Fiction That Came to Life This Year
You have a computer in your pocket. Soon, you’ll be able to buy your own jet pack. And you’re already part owner of a trillion-dollar space agency that sends robots to faraway worlds. In short, you live in the future.
In many ways, it’s a future nobody could have imagined (Donald Trump for president?!). But many other inventions and discoveries were predated in science fiction books, movies, and comics. And as the world spins further into the future, more of these fictional visions become reality. Here are some of the most notable instances of reality finally catching up to our greatest imaginations.
In 2003, Margaret Atwood began a new trilogy of books about life on Earth after a bioengineered apocalypse. In Oryx and Crake, it’s hard to make a case that the book’s villain is anything other than humanity itself. However, the most outwardly menacing creatures in its pages are intelligent, genetically modified pigs. Called pigoons, the creatures have been modified to carry multiple copies of human organs. They also happen to carry an appetite for human flesh. If you’ve read that book, you were no doubt horrified to learn that a Virginia bioengineering firm has its own GM pig-organ breeding program. “We want to make organs come off the assembly line,” the company’s CEO told MIT Technology Review in August.
Genetic engineering also plays a huge role in The Wind Up Girl, one of the biggest science fiction books of the past decade. In the climate-changed Bangkok of the future, fossil fuels are strictly controlled. If you want to run a factory, you need to make good with the Megadont Union, who control massive elephantine creatures spliced with mastodon DNA. This year, Harvard’s George Church announced he had successfully spliced woolly mammoth genes into an Asian elephant’s genome. (Yeah, we know mastodons and woolly mammoths were different species.) Though it could be years before he, or anyone else, breeds a successful hybrid, by the time they do climate-induced sea level rise might be swallowing Bangkok.
One of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time is Starship Troopers. The movie mixes slasher-flick humor with biting social commentary as its heroes fight back an insect-like alien invasion. And some of those heroes are women who fight on the front lines of combat. In December, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the US would finally adopt Robert Heinlein’s libertarian vision of an open-to-all military—minus the libertine open showers.
Some people think women in combat is pretty scary. Not me. I’m more scared of robots in combat. For instance, the US Marines have started training with Spot, a dog-like droid invented by Google-owned Boston Dynamics. What could go wrong? Let me remind you of the oft-forgotten 2000 flick Red Planet. In that movie, a military robot that’s supposed to help the heroes investigate a terraforming malfunction. Predictably, the robo-dog gets damaged, wigs out, and turns on its masters.
I’m afraid of robots, but I won’t go as far to say that the people who make those robots are mad scientists. No, I reserve that title for people like Sergio Canavero, the Italian surgeon who aims to do a head transplant as early as 2017. Technically it would be a full body transplant, but honestly who cares what it’s technically called? Ethically, it’s insane. So what science fiction book does this hearken back to? The first one, of course: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Granted, Canavero’s methodology is slightly more scientifically grounded than Victor von Frankenstein’s, but that doesn’t mean his scheme of using a stem cell bath to coax severed spinal cords into reconnecting will work. More likely it will inspire whole new thinking on the scope of malpractice.
Isaac Asimov is the second best science-fiction writer of all time. As was his right as a visionary, in 1964 he penned an article in The New York Times where he imagined what the World’s Fair would be like 50 years in the future.
His major mistake was thinking there’d be a World’s Fair in 2014. Otherwise many of his predictions are shockingly prescient—he foresaw Keurig machines, Roombas, and self-driving cars. But honestly, those would have been obvious to anyone looking at technology’s trajectory. One of the real gems in that article is the passage describing turkeys and steaks grown from yeasts and algae. True, the petri-dish hamburger is still a few years away, but scientists working in synthetic biology are already capable of reproducing many of the key flavor notes from all your favorite foods. Also, morphine (which I guess could be used to simulate the post-turkey food coma). Anyway, rest easy Isaac. We’re a little late on your wish list, but making steady progress.
See the article here: