An unofficial list of the most influential science fiction works ever

An unofficial list of the most influential science fiction works ever

January 11, 2023 at 6:00 am EST

(Video: Illustration by Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post; Mario Suriani/AP; Mary Evans/Archive AF/Cinetext Bildarchiv/Everett Collection; Baen Books; Ballentine/iStock)

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One Monday evening last September, a NASA spacecraft intentionally crashed into an asteroid in deep space. The goal was planetary protection—protecting our planet from the kind of rogue rock that could end civilization as we know it. The unprecedented moment looked surreal, with a camera from the spacecraft beaming images back to Earth of a huge asteroid getting bigger and bigger until – Pow! – impact. It was both unbelievable and believable – equal parts stunning and successful proof of concept.

Who could have imagined such a thing?

Well, science fiction writers did.

“The crash of big things into celestial objects goes back to the 1930s stories of Edmond ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton,” Lisa Yaszek, regents professor of science fiction studies at Georgia Tech, wrote in a text message. “In ‘Thundering Worlds,’ we throw Mercury into an invading alien army to save the rest of the solar system.”

Space exploration is undergoing a renaissance as the private space industry takes on a growing presence in the United States, and as several countries’ space agencies join NASA in setting their sights on the Moon and other goals in space. deep. But like the stars that sent out their light long before Earth saw it, science fiction creators helped inspire this wave of interest decades ago.

“We can envision the result we want to achieve through the imagination and inspiration of our team members, or we can be inspired by concepts found in art,” said Barbara Brown of NASA, director of exploration technology and research programs. “And then science, engineering and math drive the rest.”

Space tycoons such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen have credited their interest in the final frontier in several written and filmed works. And that doesn’t include NASA’s sci-fi-loving visionaries.

“I’ve got a wall of autographs from Star Wars actors and actresses, and this year I got an autograph from William Shatner,” said Tracy Gill, deputy manager for ground operations at NASA’s Human Landing System Program. s. “I go to Comic-Con. I’m in the deep end.”

Mark Wiese, manager for NASA’s Deep Space Logistics project, grew up with “The Jetsons” and now spends his mornings watching “The Expanse” while working on his rowing machine.

“Beyond creating a climate where innovative thinking is acceptable,” said Chris McKitterick, who directs the Ad Astra Center for Science Fiction and Speculative Imagination at the University of Kansas, “science fiction has influenced countless scientists, engineers and technologists to to make the things described in science fiction narratives come true.”

Based on a search by experts ranging from the Kennedy Space Center to academia, here’s a brief tour of the works of science fiction that were most influential in helping pave a real path to the stars:

It’s hard to imagine space – or even the future itself – without thinking of Star Trek. The original 1960s series inspired early designs for everything from desktop computers to cell phones to Zoom. Bezos even created Amazon’s Alexa based on the Starship Enterprise’s ship computer and named one of his holding companies Zefram LLC after the Star Trek character who invented the warp drive.

Ronald D. Moore, a screenwriter and producer who has worked on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” since 1988, toured the SpaceX spacecraft and couldn’t help but see the influence of the iconic series. “You get used to certain ideas of what a spacecraft looks like, and it’s hard not to be impressed by the things you’ve seen,” said Moore, who is the creator of Apple’s space series “For All Mankind.” “There’s a lot of ways you can lay out the controls, but they went with a sleek, high-contrast, black-and-white design that could be on any Hollywood set in the last 40 years.”

But there are more layers of influence. Moore, who said he watched the original Star Trek series five days a week growing up in the 1970s, was moved by the show’s noble optimism. “It was one of the few science shows that says the future is going to be good,” he said. “We will solve poverty, racism and disease. I am inspired by the hope that these problems are temporary setbacks.”

The Writings of Robert Heinlein

Heinlein was a revolution unto himself. He drew on science and engineering to imagine brave new worlds, he superimposed timeless human traits on a futuristic setting, and he came up with protagonists that Yaszek refers to as “creative capitalists,” who used private industry and navigated the government oversight to pursue space glory. Sound familiar?

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In “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” central character DD Harriman “creates a coalition of corporations, governments and media to create the first viable space company,” Yaszek wrote in an email, “and, not coincidentally, to secure the moon. his own private source, without government interference.” Heinlein also contributed to the screenplay for the 1950 film Destination Moon, which imagined a manned trip to the lunar surface — less than 20 years before the real thing happened.

Heinlein’s attention not only to space travel, but also to cooperation between the public and private sectors, lived long after him. He dedicated part of his fortune to the creation of the Heinlein Prize for achievements in the commercial space – won by Musk and Bezos.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series

Asimov’s famous Foundation trilogy, written in the 1940s, centers on a mathematician who discovers a way to stave off the collapse of a decaying empire. Part of Asimov’s legacy—and the genre’s legacy—is not just imagining a landscape out there, but also putting people in an environment where they can solve future problems. It’s a call to action that spoke to Musk and Bezos. Asimov had such an influence on Musk that he put a copy of the series in a Tesla roadster that was sent into orbit.

Asimov and Heinlein are considered by many to be among the “Big Three” of science fiction writing, along with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was based on the novel of Clarke.

Andy Weir’s story of an astronaut stranded on Mars, which he first published on his website, occupies a unique place in the history of science fiction. “The Martian” not only spawned a movie with Matt Damon, but also increased interest in NASA and sparked a new wonder about visiting the Red Planet. It was a new twist on an old story: A bold sci-fi plot feeds ideas about what we can do in real life. NASA’s Gill said he gets asked about the film every time he visits schools.

“They tried to grow their own food, which is what we’re working on,” Gill said. “It would be considered science fiction, but it’s really something we’re aiming for.”

The connection between science fiction and real-life spaceflight has cut both ways. Moore fondly remembers when he was working on the “Battlestar Galactica” series and was approached by NASA. One of their astronauts wanted to call … from the space station. He was a fan of the show. “It blew my mind,” Moore said. “He was looking at fake space on his laptop while real space is outside his window.” That astronaut, Garrett Reisman, became a major contributor to “For All Mankind,” which imagines an alternate space history in which the Soviet Union defeats the United States on the moon.

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As space exploration has found new reverence, so has science fiction itself. Combating orbital threats is now a real-life exercise, and eye-rolling has given way to respect. “It’s always been seen as something for kids or not taken seriously,” Moore said. “It has always had a second-class status. Sci-fi and fantasy are always pushed to the margins. I’ve seen in the last 20 years they’ve gotten more appreciation, more critical response.”

They have also become more diverse. Voices like those of Mary Robinette Kowal—author of the award-winning alt-history novella Calculating Stars—and Ted Chiang have boosted science fiction over the past few years. And just as ambitions for space travel have spread to other countries, a number of international authors have emerged among the science fiction elite. For example, Chinese novelist Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem has sold more than 8 million copies, is being adapted into a Netflix series, and drew praise from President Barack Obama after he read it during his time in the White House. “His distribution was huge,” Obama said in 2017.

Indeed, it seems that the possibilities for space and science fiction are now as limitless as ever. As Asimov himself said, “Writers and readers of science fiction did not put a man on the moon themselves, but they created a climate of opinion in which the goal of putting a man on the moon became acceptable.”

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