There are some writers who you would swear must be able to see directly into the future. Even if only through a scanner, darkly, these authors of speculative fiction seem to be looking over your shoulder from the past and reading the headlines from today.
Starting tonight at 10PM ET/PT on Science, movie maker Ridley Scott brings together scientists, writers, and other thinkers to honor the Prophets of Science Fiction. Each episode focuses on a writer who helped explain and expand the world of science through the use of fiction. The series will use film clips, reenactments, illustrations, and interviews with top thinkers — including director Paul Verhoeven and theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kakuto — to tell the story of the author, and the modern day scientific implications of what they wrote.
According to Scott:
For years I have been fascinated with the connection between creative inspiration and scientific progress. Often there is an attempt to separate the worlds of art and science, when in reality the two are inseparably linked.
I had a chance to preview the first episode, telling the story of Mary Shelly and how she wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein at the tender age of 19 during 1816, the infamous “year without a summer.” The narrative follows her own explorations of reanimation based on the best science of the early 19th century, and of the creation of man-made life.
Interestingly — and often overlooked in favor of the Hollywood versions of the story — the actual animation of the monster in Shelley’s novel barely takes a page to describe. Yet the mythology around the use of electricity is what most of us remember, and forms an important part of this documentary’s narrative, most especially showing clips from Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 interpretation. However, what the documentary also spends a good deal of time on is the true central theme of the book — how we might deal with intelligences of our own making — examining robots and artificial intelligence.
I’m more a fan of the Cinéma-vérité style of documentary, and I found the narrator in this episode often annoying. The interviews, although expert and informed, felt a bit on the stilted side. The speakers seemed to have scripted bullet points they were speaking from. Still, the information was interesting, and enlightening. I especially enjoyed how the documentary went back and forth from the story of Shelley, directly tying what she wrote to modern science.
The story of Mary Shelley is the first of the prophets, but by no means the last. The list is not particularly surprising, but may not be without controversy:
- Mary Shelley — Tonight
- H.G. Wells — 16 November
- Phillip K. Dick — 23 November
- Arthur C. Clarke — 30 November
- Isaac Asimov — 7 December
- Jules Verne — 1 February
- Robert Heinlein — 8 February
Notice anybody missing?
The list favors the Classic and Golden Age of science fction, with Dick being the only representative of New Wave sci-fi. There are no Cyberpunk authors. That’s not to say any of the authors spotlighted in the series are unworthy, but I hope they do a second season with Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Pat Caddigen, and Bruce Sterling.
Did I leave anybody out?