When science fiction meets science fact


Stanley Kubrick’s artistic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, probably the greatest film ever made, contains a plethora of futuristic references which have since become science fact. They include the video phone Dr Heywood Floyd uses to speak to his daughter on her birthday from outer space, foreshadowing Skype. The movie also features an international space station, a space shuttle, a lunar landing, voice biometrics, a computer beating a human at chess and computers being able to lip-read, all before any of these technologies existed in practice. No doubt this outrageous level of prescience in the film resulted from Kubrick’s productive collaboration with science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke and his own technical brilliance and visionary ability.

It’s a truism that some scientific breakthroughs began their life as imaginary events in science fiction, whether movies or books. For example, Jules Verne (1828-1905) predicted in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon that it would be Americans who reached the moon first. In fact, with uncanny prescience, the French author foresaw in his story the launch into lunar orbit of an interplanetary projectile bearing three travellers from the coast of Florida. This author was thus more than a hundred years ahead of his time.

In Professor Dowell’s Head, a science fiction story first published in 1925 and then later extended into a novel, Russian author Alexander Belyayev (1884 –1942) envisaged a head transplant. His futuristic story itself was rather melodramatic and Belyayev didn’t bother to explain the medical details of an operation of this complexity and magnitude. Nonetheless, it took commendable powers of imagination to conceive of a radical medical procedure like this. This was decades before the modern era of widespread organ transplants inaugurated by the first human heart transplant in 1967.

Although, at this time of writing, a successful human head transplant is not yet known to have taken place, we sense a medical advance of this nature could be possible in the near future.

For various reasons, head transplants would revolutionise the world much more profoundly than heart transplants. There could be new bodies for those suffering from physical disabilities. There could be a whole new level of cyborgs, part human/part machine beings. In turn, this would have implications for space colonisation in the far future, given that cyborgs would have a better chance of long-term survival in harsh extra-terrestrial environments. Head transplants could also lead to the extension of the human lifespan.

Speaking of transplants, did Mary Shelley’s gothic melodrama Frankenstein, in which the first-person narrator states that his aim in creating in his lab a grotesque being from the organs of corpses had been to discover the source of the principle of life, foreshadow major 20th century advances in transplantology? And did the artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), a quintessential Renaissance man, foresee the invention of helicopters with drawings in his Notebooks of futuristic flying machines?

Belyayev was certainly decades ahead of his time when he made up his story about head transplants in the 1920s. Now, medicine is close to a new advance, making possible the concept of modular humans, with the head of one person joined to the body of someone else or, for that matter, to a robot body. This potential modularisation of our species will raise just as many ethical issues as it does technical challenges.

Already, there have been at least 40 known face transplants in the world, including a thirty-one hour surgery which gave a new face to Katie Stubblefield, who shot away part of her face with a hunting rifle in an attempted suicide when she was only 18 years old. There have been several successful womb, or uterus, transplants. These triumphs of surgery show the advances made by transplantology.

Head transplants would be a radical form of surgery which currently lies on the boundary line between science and science fiction. In this respect, we are at the edge of future reality, perhaps only a few years away.

I’m very interested in the space where science fiction meets science fact as in the cases where 2001: A Space Odyssey made several accurate forecasts about future technologies. The writer who coined the term “cyberspace”, William Ford Gibson, once stated in a brilliant turn of phrase that the “future is already here but not yet evenly distributed”. Future technologies, that is, evolve from current ones in a continuous process.

In this website, we promote a brand of science fiction which is on the cusp of unfolding reality. And we will not flinch from looking into, and beyond, the future, even towards the elusive realm of immortality!