Stranger Than Science Fiction: How Science Pushes Fiction Towards New Frontiers
Artist’s impression of the Brick Moon, a “space station” designed by Edward Everett Hale in 1869 (Image: NASA)
“There are more things in Heaven and on Earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” The good folks at Tor.com love SF writers (well… duh) but they also understand that it’s our job not to tell the exact truth. As I am an unreliable narrator, I have been sternly warned that if I claim to be writing facts for you, I better have the quotes to back them up. Ugh. I write science fiction For a reason.
Well, then. This quote is from William Shakespeare Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5. Hamlet was not wrong. There are much stranger things than we can imagine. Like what, you ask me. To which my answer is: I have no idea because I can’t imagine it.
This is where science comes in – “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day. Science is always discovering new things, things that no one had thought of before. Sometimes they turn out to be wrong, but they invariably have science fiction writers, with our limited human imaginations, scrambling to catch up. Since the early days of SF, science fiction writers have relied on discoverers of scientific fact to launch our stories in entirely new directions. You could do this exercise for just about any branch of science, but let’s stick with my favorite, outer space.
In 1877 Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, using telescopes that were the best available at the time, observed what to him looked like dense, linear formations on the planet Mars which he identified as “canali ” or “Canali” however was mistranslated as “canals” and in 1895 Percival Lowell, the influential American astronomer, published a book claiming that there were canals on Mars and that a struggling Martian civilization used them to move water from the poles to the rest of it. . Science fiction followed Lowell’s lead. In 1898, HG Wells produced War of the Worlds, in which envious and highly advanced Martians launch an invasion of Earth after their deaths. Similar themes can be found in Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1912 pulp classic, A princess from Marswhich also served as the basis for the (in my opinion) deeply underrated 2012 film, John Carter. Despite protests from scientists to the contrary, SF stories about Martian civilization were not completely buried until the Sailor 4 flyby of Mars in .
War of the Worlds was extremely vague, of course, about how the Martians reached Earth. In the novel, human telescopes detect huge explosions on the surface of Mars and then, a few months later, the Martians arrive. The implication at the time was that they must have been launched from incredibly large guns a la Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the moon. But the problem with shooting living things through space using a gun is that, if you do the math, the required acceleration would turn everyone into . Rockets, first suggested by Russian genius in 1903, are a better way to go.
Despite the objections of New York Times, believing in 1920 that rockets couldn’t work in space because there would be no air to push against (I can’t even), SF finally got the . In the 1933 novel When worlds collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, humans escape from a doomed planet Earth using “atomic rockets”. By the time we arrive at Robert Heinlein Galileo rocket in 1947, rockets are pretty much ubiquitous in science fiction and remain so to this day (the propulsion used in my own novel, Braking day, is also some kind of super powerful rocket, although I have no idea how it works. Matter-antimatter? Space sprites?).
Rockets in the real world(s) have also been ubiquitous in the exploration of our solar system. In the 1970s they launched Voyagers One and Two on their grand tour of the outer planets, including Jupiter and Son. Soon after, after reviewing the photographs, scientists began to suggest that Jupiter’s moon Europa might harbor a vast subterranean ocean, something no one in SF had before.
But, again, when science finds something new, SF rushes to use it. Europa’s subterranean ocean features in Arthur C. Clarke 2010: Odyssey Twowritten in 1982 and, more centrally, in the low budget but geekly entertaining film, Europa report, released in 2013. And now, to more or less update things, we have the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the red dwarf designated 2MASS J23062928–0502285 in the constellation Aquarius. The address is a bit long, I know, but, luckily for us, it can now be referred to as .
In 2016 and 2017, observations with numerous space and ground-based telescopes, including the TRAPPIST (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) telescope at La Silla Observatory, Chile, led to the discovery of three and later seven planets earth around the star. . The planets are all incredibly close – if you were standing on the night side of TRAPPIST-1b, the innermost world, the other six planets would be clearly visible, and the closest, 1c, would appear larger than our moon. Even more exciting, of the seven orbiting planets, three would be in the star’s so-called habitable zone, where the temperature is conducive to the existence of liquid water. Imagine, three habitable worlds passing by each other every few days!
Interestingly, however, as far as I know, no one has come up with such a thing. Locked in our unique solar system, with its unique habitable world and the outer marches patrolled by gas and ice giantesses, how could we? I’ve read science fiction books referring to systems with, say, two human-inhabitable worlds. Sometimes even in our own solar system. At Paul Capon’s The other side of the sun, for example, first published in 1950, there is a “counter-Earth” sharing the same orbit as our own planet but forever hidden on the far side of the sun. But three or four of these planets? Around a red dwarf? Never! The solar systems that science has discovered so far are nothing like ours, and TRAPPIST-1 is not. But, once science opens the door, science fiction bursts in without much permission.
Walk in Fortune, by Kristyn Merbeth, published in 2018, and the first of a trilogy dealing with smuggling, crime and extraterrestrial artifacts in a system containing no less than five human-inhabited planets, none of which seem ready to get along with others. I know fiction thrives on conflict, but five planets at loggerheads is next level. And all triggered, as Merbeth herself explains at the end of the book, by the discovery of TRAPPIST-1.
Science, which does not rely on the human imagination to unearth strange things, thing, really is stranger than science fiction. And may it continue for a long time. I can’t wait to find out what’s next. And read the resulting stories.
Of Scottish and Nigerian descent, Adam Oyebanji is an escapee from the University of Birmingham and Harvard Law School. He currently lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a wife, child and two embarrassingly large dogs. When he’s not among the stars, Adam works in the field of counter-terrorism financing: helping banks choke off the money supply that builds weapons of mass destruction, drug empires and human trafficking. Braking day is his first novel.