Ten Billion Tomorrows: Author Interview with Brian Clegg about Sci-Fi and Technology

First Posted: Jan 07, 2016 10:39 AM EST

Science fiction influences science, and that's exactly what author Brian Clegg shows in his new book, Ten Billion Tomorrows. From lasers to cyborgs to force fields, Clegg takes a closer look at what kind of technology has been influenced by sci-fi, and what we could see in the future.

Now, we've asked Brian Clegg a few more questions about his book and what inspires him most in sci-fi. 

You write about many different technological advances inspired by science fiction writers and creators the world over. Which particular technological advances-either fact or fictional-are you most excited by, and why?

Fictionally, I guess it would have to be the faster than light drive. Without some way of breaking the light speed barrier, travel outside the solar system is likely to take centuries, so the potential for a warp drive, or something similar, has to take human beings on to the next step of their development is remarkable.

Closer to reality, I guess the two areas that most fascinate me are artificial intelligence and quantum technology. AI usually gets a bad press in fiction - think of Hal in 2001, for instance - but this is technology that chips away at what it is to be human. It's fascinating, but scary. After all, why would we assume an intelligent, self-aware computer would necessarily do what we wanted it to? The quantum physics side taps into the weirdest parts of science. This is a world where particles can communicate instantly at any distance or jump through secure barriers. It promises remarkable possibilities, and already it's something we use everyday in our electronic devices.

What inspired you to become involved in science and science fiction as a writer?

Like plenty of other scientists and writers, I was drawn in by science fiction. I read vast amounts of SF as a kid (my dad introduced me to it), from the old sense-of-wonder space operas that inspired Star Wars to more thoughtful books where the stories were tied into the impact science and technology had on the protagonists. And Star Trek played its part as well. For me, the appeal of SF wasn't so much the spaceships and ray guns and monsters - it was the ideas, the sheer imaginative joy of this stuff. That got me engaged with science - but I found I was better at communicating science than I was actually doing it (almost burning down a university lab was one of the hints). And when I finally got round to writing popular science I realised I'd come home to what I'd always wanted to do.

You cover a broad range of topics in your new book, from lightsabers to cloaking devices. What was the easiest section for you to write about in your new book? Why?

I think it's was the section on traveling to the Moon. It was such a strong theme in science fiction when I was growing up. I can still remember my parents reading me H. G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon as a child, more than any other book I was read - and as I grew up it was a strong thread in movies and great books like Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. And then, when I was a teenager, it really happened. Very few aspects of science fiction come true in the way they're portrayed in the stories. Sometimes the real technology is less impressive, sometimes more so (just compare a smartphone with a Star Trek communicator). But this was the actual thing. Human beings walking on the Moon. So it was a topic that mixed nostalgia and remarkable achievement - all the more so because we haven't been back in 40 years.

You talk about aliens-and the physics of alien life-within your book; do you think that alien life in some form will be discovered within your lifetime? Why or why not?

I think it's highly unlikely that we will meet up with intelligent aliens in my lifetime. Two things conspire against this. One is the sheer size of the universe. It would take Voyager 1, our most successful probe to date in terms of distance covered, 73,000 years to reach the nearest star. The other is that it seems that life is doubly difficult to get going. There is good evidence that simple life like bacteria only started once on this planet, and that the complex cells needed for anything from mushrooms to humans again only came about once. If there is life relatively nearby - certainly in our solar system - it is likely to be the simple form. So alien bacteria, possibly. Complex life seems significantly harder to get going than life itself - there's a huge amount of complexity in a complex cell, so I suspect it is relatively rare in that vast universe.

You mention lunar colonies and the financial burden of creating a colony on the moon; do you think it's more likely that we may see a lunar colony or a Mars colony first?

Getting to the Moon is far easier than Mars. We're talking a couple of days to reach the Moon, against maybe six months to get to Mars. And bearing in mind initially we'd have to haul out everything we needed before we can start using local resources, that puts a huge burden on a Mars colony. However, there is no doubt that Mars holds out far more long term hope because it is better provided with raw materials, easier access to water and has a far more practical gravitational pull for long term living. What's more, a lunar colony would struggle with access to nitrogen and carbon - both essential for agriculture. So my suspicion is that we'll see a lunar base first - but the first true extra-terrestrial colony is more likely to be on Mars.

What are your top three science fiction shows or books and why? Did they help inspire you?

From TV, it has to be Star Trek, both the original series and The Next Generation. It's hard to think of any other TV science fiction show that has had the same impact, both culturally and as an inspiration to scientists. In a movie like Star Wars, the science and technology is incidental - it doesn't hugely impact the storyline. But in Star Trek it was central, driving many of the stories. And despite the Enterprise being equipped as a warship, this was still a program about discovery - boldly going, exploring. In movies I'd go for Blade Runner. Less of an inspiration, but in terms of sheer impact and in bringing aspects of science fiction that had rarely made it onto the screen to a wider audience. And for books I'd say the Cities in Flight series by James Blish. This starts as a teen adventure, making use of an awesome concept called a spindizzy, which is a motor than enables a whole city to be taken into space and to ply its trade across the galaxies. But as the series progresses it becomes more adult oriented and plays around with quite deep philosophical concepts. Blish brought together that sense of wonder that's so important for the inspirational side of SF with a whole range of new ideas.

What sort of technological advances that are developing now are you most excited about for the future?

One thing that science fiction is good at is showing us that our ideas of how things will be in the future will turn out wrong. Science fiction was never intended as prediction of the future, but rather a way to imagine how people would react to different scientific and technology possibilities. And when I look at all the different areas I cover in Ten Billion Tomorrows, one of the most common themes is how different the real developments are from the fiction. So I'm hesitant to make strong statements about the future. Whether it's the medical advances we can see hinted at as we find more about genetics and how life works at a molecular level, or the possibilities for quantum computers and robotics, I know that whatever comes will mix expectation with surprise. I just hope we, as human beings, can keep up with the technology.

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