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Science & Nature SpecialScience fiction

Stories that came true

14 June 2003

12:00 AM

14 June 2003

12:00 AM

I’m rather hoping that some of the stories which appeared in Science Fiction Adventures during the early 1960s don’t come true. Though its title suggests otherwise, SFA was actually quite an intellectual magazine. There, many of J.G. Ballard’s stories first appeared, including his brilliant The Drowned World, which predicted global warming and seriously rising sea levels. My own The Sundered Worlds foresaw the discovery of black holes and first offered the term ‘multiverse’ to describe an infinity of alternate versions of our own universe, nesting side by side but unaware of the others’ presence. In New Worlds, SFA’s sister magazine, we – I edited the magazine from 1963 to 1980 – would debate the morality of cloning, of visceral art, computer pornography or TV pseudo-news shows. Writers such as Brian Aldiss and Tom Disch not only predicted our problems, but also looked hard at their moral implications 40 years before Melvyn Bragg raised the same questions on our late-night screens.

By the late 19th century, popular magazines were packed with tales of aerial pirates, moon voyagers and giant submarines, but it took H.G. Wells to combine sophisticated scientific reasoning with sharp social observation. His rationalist themes weren’t always at odds with the fascism he came to loathe. Otherwise his predictions of tanks, ‘space guns’ and atom bombs weren’t actually very different from those appearing in Modern Boy or Sexton Blake thrillers.

Though hosts of snappy pulp writers filled our magazines with vaguely described rocket ships, televisions, super-bombs, robot cops, electronic brains and the ubiquitous deathray, it wasn’t until the early 1940s that sf began to get on the scientific money when the FBI turned up at the New York offices of Astounding SF grimly demanding to know how the editor, John W. Campbell, had discovered that Uranium 235 was the crucial element in manufacturing a practical atomic bomb. It took Campbell a while to convince the Feds that he wasn’t spying on the Manhattan Project. When he predicted the use of hydrogen in the production of an even more powerful bomb, the FBI dropped that investigation. Forcing Campbell to cut the stories would offer more information to potential spies than if they ignored them. Sadly, Campbell became so impressed by his own predictive powers that he began to back a host of crackpot theories until, when he helped to bring Scientology into the world, his wife eventually left him in despair.

Robert Oppenheimer observed how physics and poetry had much in common, and how a literary image often foreshadowed real scientific discovery. It is commonly thought that the Americans were late in the space race because they were anxious to ensure that their spaceships looked like the authentic Buck Rogers business. In his seminal The Image, published in 1956, the economist Kenneth Boulding proposed that scientific discovery was always preceded by a conception (a globular Earth, for instance).


In 1942, in a story called ‘Waldo’, Robert Heinlein worked out the best way of handling radioactive material. Remote-controlled mechanical hands are still called ‘Waldos’ in his honour. Arthur C. Clarke, who accurately predicted how we would reach the Moon and build space stations, insists that his friend Rupert Murdoch has yet to pay him a penny for use of the communications satellite, which he predicted in detail more than 50 years ago. Pohl and Kornbluth in The Space Merchants (1953) described the dominance of the private sector over elected government. In Tiger! Tiger! (1956) Alfred Bester showed how this new aristocracy would derive its power from famous brands and how old families like the Heinzes would proudly incorporate the figure 57 into their coat of arms, and Philip K. Dick described how the UN would no longer regulate the affairs of nations, but of powerful international corporations. Indeed, the accuracy of Dick’s speed-maddened predictions makes some of us fear that we are already living in a world he created.

Some writers are already physicists or work in a scientific discipline. Some are now so familiar with this process, from science fiction to contemporary reality, that they deliberately seed ideas into their stories knowing that the theoretical physicists will sooner or later tweak their language a little and produce the appropriate maths to give their theories appropriate authenticity. In SF Adventures I called the parallel worlds of my multiverse ‘branches’ and used the image of a tree to describe its variants. A couple of years ago, perhaps borrowing the idea from a comic book that borrowed the idea from me, a piece appeared in Scientific American. In it my branches had become ‘branes’ (as in stag’s antlers) and my purple prose was replaced by some nifty white-on-black equations. With Mandelbrot’s Chaos Theory gaining credence, it is now possible to give the weirdest notions the most sober mathematics. A few years back ‘anti-matter’ was something explaining Superman’s mirror-universe of evil. Now it explains the gaps in a physicist’s or an astronomer’s logic.

I myself pinched an idea from a former Washington-based patent attorney who moonlighted a line in neat scientific paradoxes and political speculation in the sf magazines. In his Flight to Forever (1949) he also predicted the rise of what he liked to call America Imperial. While not as well known as Dick or Clarke, Charles Harness is much admired in sf circles as one of the great innovators of the genre. The idea I pinched was floated by him in a 1950 story called ‘The New Reality’. His protagonist Lucas wonders if our universe might actually be a human creation, its natural laws no more immutable than our imagination. Lucas decides to conduct an experiment. It is a well-known law of our universe that any number of photons passed through a prism will be refracted or reflected in exactly equal numbers. Of two photons, for instance, given the choice, one will pass through the prism and the other turn back from it. But what happens, asks our hero, if you isolate one photon and then attempt to pass it through the prism? What will it do? He believes it will behave in such a way as to recreate the fundamentals on which our universe is based. What actually happens is that the photon hesitates, unable to make the choice. There and then our reality alters on the spot.

I used Harness’s idea for a humorous piece that I published in Nature a couple of years ago. Then I sat back to wait. I heard recently that a colleague was attempting to replicate this experiment in his laboratory. Will he be successful in changing the nature of reality? Will he create an alternative, fundamentally new universe lacking any notion that another one ever existed ?

Well, of course, I’ll never know….

Michael Moorcock is the creator of Jerry Cornelius and Col Pyat. He lives in Texas. His latest books are London Bone (Scribner) and Firing the Cathedral (PS Press).


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