There are some writers who you would swear must be able to see directly into the future. Even if only through a scanner, darkly, these authors of speculative fiction seem to be looking over your shoulder from the past and reading the headlines from today.
Filmmaker Ridley Scott brings together scientists, writers and other thinkers to honor these Prophets of Science Fiction in a new TV series premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on Science. Each episode focuses on a writer who helped explain and expand the world of science through the use of fiction. The series will use film clips, reenactments, illustrations and interviews with top thinkers — including RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku — to tell the story of the author, and the modern-day scientific implications of what they wrote.
“For years I have been fascinated with the connection between creative inspiration and scientific progress,” says Scott. “Often there is an attempt to separate the worlds of art and science, when in reality the two are inseparably linked.”
The first episode, telling the story of Mary Shelly and how she wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein at the tender age of 19 during 1816, the infamous “year without a summer.” The narrative follows her explorations of reanimation based on the best science of the early 19th century, and of the creation of manmade life.
Interestingly, and often overlooked in favor of the Hollywood versions of the story, the actual animation of the monster in Shelley’s novel barely takes a page to describe. Yet the mythology around the use of electricity is what most of us remember. It forms an important part of this documentary’s narrative, most especially shown in clips from director Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 interpretation. The documentary also spends a good deal of time on the true central theme of the book — how we might deal with intelligences of our own making — examining robots and artificial intelligence.
I’m more a fan of the cinéma vérité style of documentary, and I found the narrator in this episode of Prophets of Science Fiction often annoying. The interviews, although expert and informed, felt a bit on the stilted side. The speakers seemed to have scripted bullet points they were speaking from. Still, the information was interesting and enlightening. I especially enjoyed how the documentary went back and forth from the story of Shelley, directly tying what she wrote to modern science.
Shelley is the first of the sci-fi prophets, but by no means the last. The list is not particularly surprising, but may not be without controversy:
- Mary Shelley — Nov. 9
- H.G. Wells — Nov. 16
- Philip K. Dick — Nov. 23
- Arthur C. Clarke — Nov. 30
- Isaac Asimov — Dec. 7
- Jules Verne — Feb. 1
- Robert Heinlein — Feb. 8
Notice anybody missing?
The list favors the classic and Golden Age of science fiction, with Dick being the only representative of New Wave sci-fi. There are no cyberpunk scribes. That’s not to say any of the authors spotlighted in the series are unworthy, but I hope they do a second season of Prophets of Science Fiction with Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., J.G. Ballard, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Pat Caddigen and Bruce Sterling.
Did I leave anybody out?