In Isaac Asimov’s short story, “Reason” (1941), the calendar has crossed 2058. A giant spaceship roams the interstellar deeps, collecting energy from distant suns and beaming them to various planets, including Earth. This may no longer be fiction. China, battling dense fog and a pollution crisis, plans to put a commercially viable solar plant in space even sooner, by 2050. The solar panels of this leviathan will span five to six kilometres, larger than the size of Tiananmen Square. The scientist who has been brewing this plan for the last 50 years says it was inspired by Asimov’s short story.
This is not the first time scientists have tried to turn the strange shapes and frequencies of science fiction into the stuff of life. Jules Verne’s glittering underground vessel, the Nautilus, would give rise to the first submarine that could range the open seas. The flying machines of Verne’s stories would later become the helicopter. H.G. Wells, author of dystopic, fin de siecle fantasies, must answer for the rocket, atomic power and the time travel fad. Star Wars was behind cell phones and “waldos” or manipulator arms were named after Waldo F. Jones, the fictional inventor of a Robert Heinlein short story published in 1942. Like Ovidian creatures, human civilisation seems to have the power to transform itself by dreaming.
But “Reason” is also part of a series of short stories based on the “three laws of robotics” formulated by Asimov. Fans had liked the idea of science “made safe” by “law”. Yet Asimov’s stories warn of robots rebelling against their human masters, the limits to rational thought and the approach of a chilling new world order. So scientists might want to read their Asimov with care. Some of the great vanities of the 20th century have also been powered by science fiction.