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
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
page: The Times Diary
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