Where's My Flying Car?

Where's My Flying Car?
From the 360 to the Moon

Susan Arendt | 9 Jan 2007 07:00
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When it comes to the canon of literature, science fiction tends to get written off as the literary equivalent of junk food, enjoyed only by kids and socially awkward brainiacs who never quite grew up. Though some "experts" may find it difficult to give much weight to works involving robots and ray guns, few genres have proved as profoundly inspirational and prophetic. Whether it's the "hard science" fiction of Jules Verne or the softer, more romantic stylings of H.G. Wells, it's impossible to deny the long-lasting impact the works of early sci-fi authors have had. The question, though, is why? What is it, exactly, about these early tales of flights in hot-air balloons and trips through time that continues to touch us, decades later? As is so often the case, to find the answer we must go back to the very beginning.

In terms of being particularly influential, Verne had a lot going for him. He's largely considered to be the first of his kind, the father of the sci-fi genre, and as such is given a reverence that his followers will never quite be able to equal. Ray Bradbury gave Verne the ultimate credit when he said, "We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne." Polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd said, "Jules Verne guides me." William Beebe, one of the first men to explore the depths of the sea in a bathysphere, said his interest in oceanography began in the pages of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Robert Goddard, father of rocketry, was an avid Verne reader as a child. Verne also inspired a long string of authors, including H.G. Wells, who in turn inspired Arthur C. Clarke, and so on. Not too shabby for someone whose last novel was published nearly 100 years ago.

Also working in Verne's favor is his choice to follow the path of so-called "hard science" fiction, meaning he imbued his wild tales with just enough science fact to make them seem not just possible, but inevitable. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne describes a trip to the moon in a gunpowder-filled rocket that's little more than a giant flying bullet. The trip as described would've crushed the rocket riders into squidgy jelly, but by fueling his rocket with something as commonplace as gunpowder, he makes it feel like it's almost real enough to touch. Reading Verne's story, it becomes easy to think that, with the right equipment, some elbow grease and a really good tailwind, we really could fly to the moon, or Saturn, or anywhere else the mood took us.

There's something about the idea of leaving Earth's boundaries, of not just leaving your house, your town or even your country, but traveling to somewhere the laws of everyday life simply don't apply, that's positively intoxicating. Thus we come across another component of Verne's particular brilliance: He, and other masters of the sci-fi genre, entices us to visit other worlds, both literally and figuratively. We humans are a terribly curious and fickle lot, constantly peeking over our fences to see what's on the other side. The only idea we like more than visiting some uncharted or undiscovered country is the notion that we might be the first ones to do so, and it doesn't matter if that unknown territory is among the stars, under the waves or in a lab.

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