Any Smithsonian Magazine readers out there? The May issue caught my eye because it has Patrick Stewart on the cover. The man is 73 but he is still as hunky as ever (his wife is only 35!). Much as I’d love to ramble on about him, I’m going to move on to an article of interest in the magazine on science fiction. No, it’s not Star Trek or X-Men but it could be!

The article is How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors are Shaping Your Future by Eileen Gunn. We often think of science fiction in terms of whether or not the view of the future comes true. I have found myself saying more than once, where’s my flying car? This is unfair, of course. As Gunn suggests,

the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures.

Some writers like Ursula Le Guin like future settings because it is a big question mark making it a safe place to try out ideas. Others like to envision where contemporary social trends or science and technology might take us. Sometimes you get happy futures but these days more often than not you get dystopian futures with ideas, social structures or technology taken to extremes. Think Margaret Atwood with biotech and genetic engineering or Suzanne Collins taking the gap between rich and poor to the extreme in Hunger Games.

But does science pay attention to science fiction? Yes, it does. Astrophysicist Jordin Kare went to MIT because the hero of his favorite Robert Heinlein novel went to school there. And last fall two MIT instructors taught a class called “Science Fiction to Science Fabrication” that had a syllabus crammed with scifi novels and stories, movies and games. Students were assigned to create a functional prototype inspired by their reading and then consider the social context of what they created. One group of students, inspired by William Gibson’s Neuromancer, built a device that enables the user to make a hand gesture that stimulates the muscles in the hand of a distant second user to create the same gesture. The students thought it would be great for use in physical therapy but there was also a big discussion around how the technology might be exploited for unethical purposes as it was in Gibson’s novel.

Then there is design fiction, something I have never heard of before but which makes complete sense. Tech companies commission imaginative works to model new ideas and create what-if stories about potential new products. Novelists the likes of Cory Doctorow have written these sorts of “science fictions.”

We might not have flying cars but we have plenty of other technologies thanks to the imaginations of science fiction writers and the skills of scientists. While the design fiction kind of creeps me out a little bit (I’m not sure why), I am heartened to know that there are plenty of scientists who love and are inspired by scifi. As the article concludes:

Science fiction, at its best, engenders the sort of flexible thinking that not only inspires us, but compels us to consider the myriad potential consequences of our actions.