Science fiction is a curious genre in many ways. Thinking back to some of the books and authors that introduced me to the science fiction field, it often strikes me how much of what they wrote was impractical or simply outside the realms of physics. Among those is one story which centred around a ship propelled by light, and others that envisaged rocket propulsion systems. Others, notably Asimov, Heinlein, Vonnegut, built on the science then available. Unsurprisingly many of the things they wrote about are now "science fact", though some, like Heinlein's Thorsten Tubes - his concept for AI programming memory storage - haven't come up, we do have AI now becoming ever more prevalent and ever closer to something akin to C3PO of Star Wars. Who knows where quantum computing will take us?
I think we are still some way off things like artificial gravity or the giant space stations some of us dream of, but I suspect there are already people working on such concepts. Already there are concepts being developed for building human habitats on places like Mars and the Moon, and once again, some of the ideas for such spaces draw on concepts first mooted by science fiction writers. A lot of the work in that field is already following the concept of domed, fully enclosed 'environments' which would also employ modified plants. We already know that those depend on a number of other insects, animals and even bacteria to thrive, so all of that will need to be thought through. Alongside of that there will need to be ways to produce food and, if water is not available, to recover and recycle what can be transported there. And then there is oxygen ...
Asimov envisaged miniaturised atomic power plants and what we now call ion engines. Heinlein wrote about time travel, space travel and a range of related topics, with his concept of huge ships that converted water into fuel for engines capable of accelerating the ship to close to the speed of light. An interesting concept for these, was to push a ship sized lump of ice ahead of these ships as a 'shield' in case of stray asteroids, comets and other stray objects. In theory such ships are possible, but, once again, a lot of development is still needed - and the incentive to build them.
One of the problems any spacefaring vessel needs to deal with is radiation. The Earth has a magnetic field around it which traps or deflects the ionising particles that make up things like Gamma radiation. Any long term space habitat, be it a space ship or a station permanently manned needs some form of shield that will reduce exposure to radiation, and which will not have any adverse impact on the people it is protecting. There are ways this can be achieved, some may even tie in with finding ways to generate a form of gravitation without having to use a rotational section of any hull. As a writer of science fiction stories these are all matters one has to keep in mind as one writes a story. With what we now know and understand about gravity - thanks to Mr Einstein - the kind of scenarios created by some of the early SciFi authors like Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burrows simply won't be accepted by most readers today. Perhaps that is why the genre is often lumped together with "Fantasy", but that is another article ...
So what about ships that travel in that scifi concept of 'hyper space'? There are a lot of arguments both for and against it being possible (assuming such a space as hyper space exists) and which you hear depends on whether you are talking to a quantum physicist, an astrophysicist or a physicist. The last two will probably argue against it, the first will more likely enthuse about 'string theory' or 'M-theory' and the possibility of parallel universes, multiple universes and even holographic universes. At which point science fiction starts to sound like reality. One of the latest theories from Quantum Physics, is the concept of everything we regard as 'solid' and 'physical reality' is, in fact, a holographic projection, a la The Matrix. The proponents of this theory have used mathematical modelling to 'test' the idea and conclude that their model shows that our reality is a 3D projection from a 4 or 5 dimensional reality. Re-enter the realms of "String Theory" and "M-Theory". Maybe I'm just weird, but I find all of this fascinating.
What makes a good scifi story? Tastes differ, obviously, but the mix is fairly wide. Asimov and Heinlein managed to include a fair bit of 'social commentary' alongside the obvious story element. Several authors in the 1950s and early 1960s even managed to explore such sensitive issues as gender switching and the whole issue of sexuality. There are large elements of political discussion, wrapped up as plot elements, which explore political ideas and directions in the 'safe' field of fictional worlds and places, and all of them contain some dystopian elements. Those who followed Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape and Star Trek will recognise the political discourses even though they are set in an 'other world' context. In the best SciFi there is a mix of humour, adventure, believable characters, human frailty, political commentary ... and, of course, the 'science'.
It's a great genre, and very under rated. It can be no surprise to learn that the heyday of science fiction writing coincided with the period of tremendous advances in scientific progress. The period in which we moved from sails and horses, to steam powered transport, from small under powered fabric covered 'flying machines' to supersonic flight and men on the moon. I firmly believe we are standing on the brink of the next great leap forward. I'm not sure where it will take us, but I'm pretty sure it will be one hell of a ride!
See you on the launch pad I hope!