Science Fiction as Prediction
By Dr. Willis McNelly, Professor of English
One of science fiction's most noteworthy characteristics is its ability to predict the future--its extrapolative quality, in other words. The history of SF redounds with examples.
Months before the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamagordo, the late John W. Campbell, then editor of Astounding Science Fiction, was visited by the F B I seeking to discover an apparent leak in top secret activities of the Manhattan Project. Campbell had published "Deadline," a story by Clive Cartmill, telling of an atom bomb and its potentially devastating power.
It took some time for Campbell to convince the FBI that no secrets had been spilled. Cartmill had simply consulted previously published, in-the-clear, pre-war physics journals, then let his fictional imagination go to work. By sheer coincidence, "Deadline" even mentioned, a "Manhattan" experiment.
Such clear examples are not rare. Space flight, for instance, has been a constant theme of SF writers since Jules Verne. And exploration of the moon was a recurrent topic decades prior to Armstrong and Aldrin's landing there five years ago. Illustrating SF's ability to work from the known to the unknown and to make the results seem real as well as predictive was Theodore L. Thomas' "The Far Look," published in 1956.
This story tells of problems facing early astronauts on the moon, including the profound changes they undergo as a result of their fight for survival on the deadly lunar surface. Consequently, they return to earth virtual supermen, capable of supreme achievement in any field. Intellectual giants with over-powering personalities, they have survived mankind's most supreme test--the exploration of space.
But what about the prediction versus the reality? How well did Thomas anticipate the actual experiences of lunar astronauts and how valid does history show his story to be? Recent studies suggest that successive crews of Apollo space explorers have failed to become Homo Superior. Indeed, while our astronauts are exceptionally capable, they have not assumed the position of world leadership ascribed by Thomas.
Does this discrepancy between fiction and reality invalidate the novella? I think not, for several reasons.
It is obvious, of course, that many incidental facts in the story are modified. The moon ships take off and land in New Mexico, not Florida or the Pacific. They stay for a month on the moon, with one crew relieving another instead of flying short missions.
Science fiction has never attempted to predict this kind of detail. What it has done is to indicate that, given one or another set of hypothetical but real-seeming' facts, "such-and-such" will happen. And, for that matter, even the "such-and-such" in this story--the transformation of men into supermen--lacks credibility.
On the other hand, is this novella really about man's exploration of the moon? Or is it about man's exploration of his inner self under stress? I think the latter a more valid notion. In fact, "The Far Look" might well be viewed as a space version of the classic mythic journey, where the hero overcomes incredible obstacles, slays dragons, fights for survival against Scylla and Charybdis, conquers a cruel enemy and returns home, if not triumphant, at least totally mature and ready to assume his rightful place in society.
If this interpretation is correct, "The Far Look" belongs in an ancient category of literature, the epic. As such it deserves examination from that stand point--not because of apparent flaws in factual plausibility.
There are at least two contrapuntal themes in the story to support this hypothesis. The first is the story of the astronauts, themselves, as they overcome one disaster after another in their fight for survival. The second is a series of attempts, by the project director, to discover the origin of the far look--the crinkled eyes symbolizing that the astronauts have become supermen.
Thomas is quite clear that no "supernatural" influence has produced the look. Rather, the change derives from the fact that the astronauts call upon everything that is best in their being; that they live fully; that Homo Superior is but Homo Sapiens fully actualized.
As such, characters Fowler and McIntosh deserve comparison with other epic heroes of the past--Odysseus, Beowulf or even Huck Finn, all of whom society has tested. In each instance, the hero has overcome not only society, but, ultimately himself. For only when man can overcome himself, can he become most fully alive--a person who is not merely sapient or wise but truly superior.
The transformation in some of the earlier stories may not have been as dramatic as in "The Far Look." Still, many of the earlier heroes were profound makers or shakers of their civilization, bringing new ethical norms to society.
"The Far Look,- as a science fiction version of the epic or mono-myth, deserves further examination if epic is defined as an extended narrative through which we learn the best aspects of an entire culture or civilization through the actions of a hero. It is episodic, beginning in the middle. It has well-defined heroes and their actions exemplify the best aspects of courage, resourcefulness, integrity, unflappability and other attributes of our civilization.
While this analysis has been confined to one story, many additional examples can be found in the Special Collections section of the CSUF Library, which houses one of the six best SF troves in the country. In addition to nearly complete backfiles of almost all of the better SF magazines, the Library has more than 3,300 paperbacks and an extensive manuscript collection.
These manuscripts include holographs, drafts, re-writes, setting copies, proof pages and so on, of work by many of the country's best science fiction writers. Included, for example, are all the manuscripts of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," Frank Herbert's "Dune," and Harry Harrison's "Make Room! Make Room!," recently filmed as "Soylent Green."
Drop in sometime and take a trip to the moon, the depths of inner space or even Far Centaurus. After all, how many new worlds do you discover every day?*
© Dr. Willis E. McNelly 2001