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.
The genius of Verne, and successors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, is that their work taps into our innate desire to achieve. Humans succeed as a species because we’re constantly trying to do more, be more, have more, and science fiction feeds that need and gives it shape. We have robots today because of their efficiency, practicality and safety, and while we appreciate them, what we really want are the automatons we’ve read about since we were kids. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are so ingrained in our consciousness that we feel like we’re already halfway to our own robot butler, so we keep trying to make a robot that could pass for human, not because it would be particularly useful or helpful, but simply because we want it.
Without question, science fiction’s greatest authors have kick-started the imaginations and lit the inner fires of some of the most important men and women in history, but it seems somewhat unlikely that stories from sci-fi’s golden era will provide the same sort of catalyst for the great minds of tomorrow, if only for practical reasons. Though Verne’s Nautilus was quite amazing when he first described it in 1870, it becomes slightly less awesome when viewed from a world where you can rent a sub for an hour or two to view pretty fishies on your vacation. Wells’ War of the Worlds still makes for a great movie, but invaders from outer space are slightly less intimidating when you’re yawning over pictures from the Mars Lander in your morning newspaper. Interstellar travel, once the stuff of dreams, has become so commonplace that we barely notice when the space shuttle launches. There are certainly still ideas to be mined from the classics (I still want my robot butler), but many of the stories that were once viewed as amazing are now simply seen as quaint.
Of course, the obvious answer is that modern sci-fi writers will take on the role begun by their forefathers, but this, too, is moderately unlikely. For one thing, people simply don’t read as much as they once did, and even when they do, much of what currently passes for science fiction is little more than gussied up fan fiction. (Honestly, how many Star Trek and Firefly novelizations do we really need?) It doesn’t help that science fiction took a decidedly pessimistic turn about 20 years ago, starting with the cyberpunk movement. Granted, as Ray Bradbury said, “We do this not to predict the future but to prevent it,” but one can only read so many dystopic views of the future before it starts to become really, really depressing.
If sci-fi literature isn’t going to serve as muse, what is? It seems possible, even likely, that tomorrow’s brilliance will find its roots in today’s videogames. As a mode of entertainment, gaming is at least as popular as science fiction was when it inspired the likes of Goddard and Byrd, and is oftentimes similarly grounded in just enough science fact to make it all seem possible. Gamers become devoted to their franchises of choice, becoming emotionally and intellectually involved in the virtual world the games create, absorbing every nuance and detail they possibly can. The internet just makes it easier for them to indulge their passion; between developer’s blogs and community forums, fans have access to nearly limitless information and discussion about game worlds, characters, vehicles, weapons and strategies.
Given that kind of emotional investment, it’s not terribly difficult to see how games could still be providing inspiration long after the player has hung up her controller. It’s not a huge leap to imagine that the middle-schooler who lives and breathes Halo might one day try to devise a regenerating energy shield, or perhaps fashion a holographic user interface modeled after her beloved Cortana. A die-hard fan of Half-Life 2 may someday create a prototype gravity gun, officially earning the title of Coolest Inventor Ever. A longtime player of Tomb Raider titles may see Lara Croft as the ultimate role model, choosing to emulate her by studying archaeology or world history, traveling the globe to learn about cultures and civilizations long gone by.
There needn’t be such a delay between inspiration and payoff, however. A doctor might take a cue from the biomods of Deus Ex to try to improve upon current prosthetic design, or a physical therapist may design a Lost Planet-inspired exoskeleton that would allow a paraplegic to walk again. The possibilities and permutations are nearly endless, depending only on what particular elements in a game become emotional touchstones for players.
For most players, videogames are simple entertainment, an indulgence in escapism meant to distract them momentarily from the grind of normal life. For a special few, though, videogames might very well plant the seeds from which truly great ideas and life-changing innovations will grow. Who knows? Perhaps one day some Nobel Prize winner will thank Cliffy B., Will Wright or Warren Spector for putting her on the path to greatness. Personally, I’m hoping someone playing Phantasy Star Universe falls in love with the Partner Machines that store your items and deliver your messages. I may just get my robot butler yet.
When Susan Arendt isn’t writing news at 1up.com or her weekly gaming
column, Token Female, she’s training her cat to play DDR.