September 16 2000

Arthur C. Clarke

How I helped to save Star Trek: it turned out to forecast our future

I have two very good reasons for welcoming the Science Museum's Star Trek exhibition. Sixty years ago, I used to haunt the museum's galleries, fascinated by its historic exhibits: how delighted I am that it now has some from the future.

And if I had not met Gene Roddenberry at a critical moment, Star Trek would have been a forgotten piece of television pre- history. After attending one of my lectures on space travel, Gene introduced himself and told me that his series was being cancelled because the television executives, in their inscrutable wisdom, had decided that there was no audience for it. Poor Gene was broke and about to mortgage his home. I introduced him to my lecture agent, who was sceptical but booked him into a small hall, which couldn't hold the audience he attracted. That was the turning point: as Gene wrote in a tribute on my 70th birthday: "Arthur literally made my Star Trek idea possible."

Now there are purists who say that Star Trek isn't science fiction, but science fantasy, and they have a point. Genuine science fiction should describe things that could happen according to present knowledge, and today we are fairly certain that we won't be able to dash from one star system to another in time for the next week's episode. We can also be sure that the inhabitants of other worlds won't look anything like human beings, or speak fluent American.

Yet much that once seemed fantasy has now become fact. Sixty years ago if anyone had written a story in which a city was destroyed by banging two small pieces of metal together, virtually all physicists would have said: "Utter nonsense!" Five years later, this is how the greatest of wars was ended. Today there are many other examples of my Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Science fiction is probably best known to the general public for its successful prediction of space travel, even though most of the details are often hilariously wrong. Jules Verne got the muzzle velocity right for his "moon gun", but the unfortunate travellers would have been reduced to a thin smear before they left the barrel. And H. G. Wells's "gravity screen" is physically impossible: it would violate the law of the conservation of energy.

From the 1930s onwards it was generally realised that the rocket is the only way to go. Nevertheless their spaceships were usually built in garages by eccentric professors with a couple of assistants. Few imagined Cape Kennedy and armies of engineers.

The solar system has also failed to live up to expectations. Although the Moon was written off a long time ago, there were still hopes for Mars, until our space probes showed that it was a frozen desert with an atmosphere far too thin to breathe even if it contained oxygen, which it doesn't. No canals, no princesses, probably no life of any kind.

Well, I don't believe it. The still-busy Mars Surveyor has sent back some of the most extraordinary images ever received from space. One shows what any unbiased observer would say are clumps of bushes in a frozen landscape. Even more spectacular are gigantic "glass worms" hundreds of feet long: they are probably frozen lava tubes, but I can't help hoping.

A stupid charge often made against science fiction is that it is escapist. In fact, it is deeply concerned with the real - and often dangerous - universe. Almost 30 years ago I wrote in Rendezvous With Rama: "At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2071, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky moving at 50 kilometres a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labour of centuries . . .

"After the initial shock, mankind reacted with a determination and a unity that no earlier age could have shown. No meteorite large enough to cause catastrophe would ever again be allowed to breach the defences of Earth.

"So began Project Spaceguard."

Well, I am happy to say that Spaceguard is no longer fiction: by a truly amazing coincidence, this has just appeared on my computer screen: "Government task force to report on 'Deep Impact' threat"

The report announces that, after a four-year campaign by Spaceguard UK, a task force on "near-earth objects" is to publish its report on Monday. The Task Force's terms of reference were: "To confirm the nature of the impact hazard, identify current UK activities and make recommendations on future action."

Who says that science fiction has nothing to do with the real world?

Stay tuned.

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