From the Editor’s Desk in July 2023

Article | Jun 2023

How clever are authors at imagining what could be? I wonder if you asked ChatGPT to imagine what could be, what would it come up with? You don’t have to go far in classic fiction to find imaginations that were firing on all cylinders.

In George Orwell’s 1984 he predicted a type of facial recognition technology. This is pervasive in today’s society and the use of this ‘Big Brother’ technology is hotly debated.

Science fiction is fertile ground for authors to predict future technology and events.

Among these books prescient warnings abound. Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey sounded a warning that we are only now beginning to truly recognise.

In 2001, HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer) controls the systems on the spaceship, Discovery One. He’s the invisible and dependable crew member. HAL is a sentient artificial general intelligence computer. He can understand emotions and is super smart. He can learn tasks and make decisions. Unfortunately for the crew, who become concerned when HAL appears to misdiagnose a problem, he can also lip read. As the crew decide whether to disconnect HAL, he decides to nip that in the bud by killing the astronauts.

You have to wonder if the same dilemma HAL experienced is one that future AI systems we create will grapple with. In HAL’s case, he had to choose between his imperative to complete the mission and anything that put it at risk. If the astronauts were dead, his dilemma of lying to them was negated.

It’s mind-blowing to think that Clarke published 2001 in 1968.

Authors’ imaginings of course, love to stir our greatest fears. Looking to the skies, authors concoct all sorts of scary things that could invade our dreams.

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells was first published in book form in 1898. Martians, whose planet had little remaining resources, plot the invasion of Earth. They arrive, sending out tripod fighting machines to attack. They are seen collecting people whose blood they use to feed themselves.

I was fascinated to learn that apparently the premise of Wells’ story was the immense and disastrous effect of European colonisation. It has been interpreted as a commentary on British Imperialism. Something that continues to this day.

Wells inspired John Wyndham to write Day of the Triffids. When meteors fall to Earth, people all over the globe are compelled to go outside and watch. Those that do, instantly become blind. Suddenly, an unknown plant species starts to grow, one which can move of its own accord. Then the plants begin to kill people. Wyndham’s working title for this book was The Day of the Tripods, clearly a nod to Mr Wells.

Wyndham was part of the Home Guard during the Blitz of World War II. He would watch for fires from the tops of buildings in London. He witnessed the destruction, and many of his descriptions in letters that he wrote to his partner, Grace, found their way into Day of the Triffids, including the eerie silence of the morning after a bombing.

It was not just to the skies that authors’ imaginations roamed. They also went to the depths of the oceans. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea began its life in 1868. The adventures of Captain Nemo on the submarine, Nautilus, are famous. Among the themes of this novel is championing of the world’s persecuted and downtrodden. As Captain Nemo says in the novel, ‘That Indian, sir, is an inhabitant of an oppressed country; and I am still, and shall be, to my last breath, one of them!’

Before this, in 1864, Jules Verne published A Journey to the Centre of the Earth in French. Interestingly, it reminded me of the recent hot debate about rewriting authors’ work, as I found that the 1871 first English edition was ‘a drastically rewritten version of the story’, which added ‘chapter titles, where Verne gives none, meanwhile changing the professor’s surname to Hardwigg, Axel’s name to Harry, and Gräuben’s to Gretchen. In addition, many paragraphs and details were completely recomposed, and its text as a whole has been excoriated by scholars as ‘one of the poorest extant Verne translations’.

Verne would inspire writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle to produce The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who imagined a hollow earth wherein he set a number of adventure stories. It is said he also inspired Tolkien, with his game changing novel, The Hobbit.

A number of words we use today can be attributed to Mr Wells. ‘Martians’ for a start. But also ‘time machine’ which came from his 1895 book The Time Machine.

In this book, Filby, a scientist and gentleman, designs and builds a time machine, eventually travelling to AD 802,701. Here he meets the Eloi, small, beautiful, childlike adults. They are carefree but lack any curiosity, and they fear the dark. When Filby returns to the machine to travel home, he discovers it has gone. Tracks show where it had been dragged behind a heavy door in a hillside by the Morlocks, who live underground.

In the era of H G Wells, many of the poor working class toiled underground in mines. If not there, then in the dark basements of buildings. His mother worked as a housekeeper in the basement of a house that had tunnels underneath it. Wells himself worked as a draper’s apprentice down in a basement for many hours of every day.

In The Time Machine we again feel Wells’ concerns about inequality, but it also reflects on the degeneration of societies, and ultimately, the planet itself. He imagines humanity’s future and it’s certainly a bleak one.

I wonder what Mr Wells would say if he could jump on his own time machine and see our world today. If he could see and experience the changing climate, and humanities inability to take action as one. What would he say about the shocking war in Ukraine, the incredible suffering of people in Sudan, the fleeing refugees, or the starving children? What would he then think of the spacecrafts we have built and flown, the artificial intelligence we are creating and the incredible insight we now have into our universe? What would he say about the haves and the have-nots?

Maybe he would think that not much has changed.

Rowena

 

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