Science fiction, science fact

With its Prophets of Science Fiction series, featuring Blade Runner director Ridley Scott, U.S. cable net Science is examining the relationship between the seeming flights of fancy in science fiction and the real-life exploits and advances of modern science.
November 1, 2011

In both the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by science-fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke, and the film version, directed by Stanley Kubrick, astronauts toted flat tablets, upon which they could watch broadcasts and read the news. Clarke called it the Newspad, and in the text of his novel, explained how it could be used – how a page of headlines would contain links to individual stories, and how, when the two-digit code for each story was entered, a postage-stamp sized rectangle containing the information could expand to take up the whole screen to make text legible.

Today, we know the device as the iPad. And while many herald it as a revolutionary media tool whose potential is just beginning to be tapped, it appears that Clarke saw that potential all along – in 1968.

The line that connects science fiction to science fact, as drawn by visionary sci-fi writers and filmmakers, is the focus of Prophets of Science Fiction, an 8 x 60-minute series from Science, which made its debut in early November. Produced by Ridley Scott’s RDI Productions and Los Angeles-based Go Go Luckey, the series examines the prophetic writings of such sci-fi luminaries as Clarke, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells and George Lucas with a combination of re-enactments, deep biographical info and commentary from both Scott and assorted scientists from various fields.

The origins of the series stem from a similarly titled one-off that aired on Discovery Science in 2006. Like the series, the original special examined the predictions of Wells and Jules Verne, as illustrated in such landmark works as Wells’ War of the Worlds and Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Bernadette McDaid, vice president of production for Science and executive producer on the series for the network, says that response to the special made it clear that the subject matter was “very on brand” for Science. “Then, when Ridley Scott became interested in the series it was clear that this was a slam dunk and we should move forward,” she adds.

Scott, director of perhaps two of the most revered films in the modern sci-fi canon, Alien and Blade Runner, was brought to the table through conversations with Science general manager and executive vice president Debbie Myers, who had been in discussions with the filmmaker about collaborating on a project.

“What’s important for us is to make science acceptable and popular for the masses so it doesn’t become this exclusive club, it becomes inclusive,” explains Myers. “You have to find a passion, a spark, from pop culture icons.

“When we brought the idea to his production company, he immediately sparked to it,” she says.

Once the production partners were lined up, it was time to hone in on the right sci-fi visionaries to feature. Some were obvious choices, but care was taken to focus on what Myers calls “the legitimate prophets – those who moved the art form and science along.”

“These writers were using the technology and science of the time to build their research on,” says David Cargill, co-EP on the series for Go Go Luckey, with Gary and Julie Auerbach. “They were either scientists themselves, like Arthur C. Clarke, or they were tremendous researchers, and their contribution to science fiction was firmly embedded in science.”

Cargill points to the premiere episode, which focuses on Mary Shelley and her novel, Frankenstein, as an example of how the featured authors were both keenly aware of scientific developments of the day and able to extrapolate upon them. The story of the mad doctor and his creation was partially inspired by a dream, and also by actual experiments conducted by Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini, who attempted to draw correlations between electricity and the life force through processes that would reanimate dead animals and severed human limbs. Aldini’s experiments are taken one giant step further by Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who, through his creation of life via the fusion of discarded bones and flesh, also gets the jump on limb transplant technology by about 175 years.

Through expert analysis from various scientists, including frequent Science collaborator and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, various prophecies from the authors’ works are put under the microscope, and, as seen with the Arthur C. Clarke iPad example, the links aren’t so tenuous. Both Cargill and McDaid say that the connections between the fictions of past centuries and the facts of today illustrate the influence science fiction has had historically on scientific thought.

“For H.G. Wells, we looked at the heat ray which was one of his prophecies in War of the Worlds,” says Cargill. “We then looked at [modern] laser technology and when we talked to [scientists at laser and defense system developers] Textron, immediately they said they had read War of the Worlds and were fascinated by it.”

“It’s an exciting and rich topic area, and we found the scientists interviewed felt the same way,” says McDaid. “They were very much impassioned and emboldened to push the boundaries of their scientific work because of the novels they’d read or movies they’d seen as children.”

With Prophets airing in November and in February of 2012, the process of predicting its future will also be steeped in science – the science of ratings. Myers says that while no firm international distribution plans have been set, Discovery’s international partners will get first look.

And while it may have been a challenge to arrive at the first eight prophets to be featured, all parties agree there’s more where those came from, and even with the visionaries already featured, there are more prophecies yet to come true.

“What I love about the Arthur C. Clarke episode is that his predictions are so advanced that we’re just at the first step for a lot of them, and there are so many scientists who were inspired to pursue his dreams,” says McDaid. “My only regret is that I’m not going to be here in 100 years to see those come to pass.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.