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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 3 January 2008
Different Engines By Mark Brake
Did fiction lay the path for science?

And will the final ­battle for the universe be on Primrose Hill?
Ed Cumming on an analysis of how sci-fi has blazed a trail for our
technological progress

Different Engines By Mark Brake and Neil Hook Order this book

SCIENCE fiction has always been serious literature’s unwanted brother.
But despite being shunned by the serious and denounced as childish and intellectually vacuous, its practitioners have included some of the century’s most intelligent men.
The stereotypical view of the form, and of its readers, has long since rendered it unworthy of serious critical thought. Yet with every terrorist attack, cloned sheep, space flight, internet virus and new iPod, it becomes more demandingly clear that, insofar as any literature can keep up with our ever more hysterical, frenzied, lives, science fiction is the most tellingly evocative.
And according to a new book, Different Engines, by Mark Brake and Neil Hook, not only does science influence fiction, but in several notable in­stances fiction has not only anticipated but presciently foretold the development of science.
The latter category is the more fascinating. Fiction, like any art form, will necessarily adapt to its technological climate. But what the authors highlight here are the occasions in which fiction has very precisely anticipated human advances.
HG Wells, for in­stance, directly (and almost precisely) anticipated the tank in his short story The Land Ironclads, and the atomic bomb in The World Set Free. George Orwell’s concept of the “Big Brother” state in 1984 not only predicted the social direction of the second half of the century but in many ways forged the language with which we discuss it.
Perhaps our negative perception of the nanny state stems in part from the nightmarish vision Orwell presented when he first published the novel.
Other concerns are more concrete. Arthur C Clarke’s premonition of the geosynchronous satellite was so precise that he applied for a patent on the idea. And even now, the portrayal of a chemically induced schizophrenia in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an unnerving reminder of our current anxieties about the long-term effects on our minds of ever more powerful drugs.
The relationship goes further; when Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1932, even he would not have guessed that not only would genetic engineering become a reality, but that scientists would forge ahead with it while the rest of society refuses to engage with any sort of debate about eugenics – it is still the elephant in the moral scientific room.
Even away from technological advance, which has defined our conception of science fiction since the 1950s, speculative fiction has also proven fertile soil for social and cultural debate. Sigmund Freud, though largely debunked by the scientific community, was nonetheless one of the most influential forces for debate in the 20th century. Similarly, William Blake’s flights of mystical fantasy in the early 19th century inspired a generation of thinkers and writers to abandon the literal and earthly.
In a world which moves so fast, claim the book’s authors, we need a literature which can keep up, one which can look at our direction and write about what is probable, given our circumstances. It is the only way to get purchase or perspective in an environment which increasingly threatens to overwhelm us.
Incidentally, it is perhaps mere coincidence that many of the world’s best science fiction writers lived in Hampstead at some time in their lives: Blake, Huxley, Wells, Orwell, Freud and Stevenson, were all sometime residents of the area (not to mention Arthur C Clarke, who lived in Hornsey).
So this collection of the most important science fiction writers suggests that perhaps, as in the climatic scene of Wells’s The War of the Worlds, it will be on Primrose Hill that we defeat the advancing evil, whatever strange and improbable form it takes.

• Different Engines. By Mark Brake and Neil Hook. Macmillan
Science £16.99

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