david smithHello everyone. This is David I Smith from the Mayo Clinic. Like most scientists that I know, I have a variety of passions in addition to my love for science (and in my case genomics). I thought that perhaps I could put my passion and many years of reading great science fiction and seeing movies to good use by writing about them.

Science fiction and its translation into great movies are actually highly related to science. Many of the greatest ideas in science actually come out of the imagination of writers and also by the visualisation of those ideas by movie directors. The original (and by far the best) version of Star Trek with James T Kirk, Spock and Bones inspired a generation of scientists and also gave birth to fantastic ideas that have now become both a part of our culture and also led to technological advances that are now a routine part of our daily lives (just think of the iPhones in your pocket and remember how communication worked in the 1960s).

I was fortunate enough at the time to be in my young teens when Star Trek first came out (unfortunately that also makes be quite old at this point in time) and there were many positive aspects of that show. The first was the insistence of Gene Roddenberry that there be some scientific plausibility to many of the things that were depicted. The second was the multicultural inclusivity of the show that extended beyond just having a black communications officer to Kirk having sex with attractive aliens (or just about anything attractive that was walking by). The third was the way it celebrated talented and intelligent people putting their minds together to solve problems – all within a one hour time period.

Anyhow, I have read a ton of science fiction books over the past 50 years of my life. In addition, I am a monster movie-addict and try to watch as many films as I possibly can. I have very strong opinions about what I think are the best science-fiction writers and even stronger opinions about who I think are the best movie directors and which of their films are the best. Furthermore, I have for a long time watched in dismay as Hollywood tried, but failed, to take some of the best science-fiction stories and turn them into movies. There have been some dramatic success stories, but the sad reality is that most of the time Hollywood has done a terrible job translating great story ideas into fantastic movie experiences.

One of the things that I like so much about science fiction is that it unleashes our imagination to wonder what the world is like, and more importantly, what it could be. Furthermore, it is from the ripe minds of science fiction writers that so many of the ideas that will become scientific experiments come from. The Editors of Nature recognised this; and their inclusion of a one-page science fiction short story at the end of every Nature issue demonstrates that they too realise the important connection between science fiction and the future of science.

I, therefore, thought it would be fun (and perhaps would be a good outlet for some of my excess energy) if I started to write about some of the science fiction that I’ve read that has had the greatest impression on me as a person and a scientist. Furthermore, I thought I’d do the same with some of the movies that I’ve seen.

Cthulhu

A sketch of a statuette depicting Cthulhu, drawn by his creator, H. P. Lovecraft. Photo: Wikipedia

Perhaps a good place to start would be for me to let you know what I think are some of the best science-fiction writers that I’ve read. That way you can determine for yourself whether you are likely to agree with me or think I’m completely nuts with absolutely no good taste at all. An important thing to realise is that it is possible to really like the work of a writer, but completely and totally disagree with the personal held views of that writer. An excellent example of this is H.P. Lovecraft, who is thought of as the father of modern horror. His tales of Cthulu, and the Cthulhu mythos, are legendary. However, at the same time he was a rabid anti-Semite whose views were reactionary even for the turn of the 20th century. Even more of a surprise was the fact that despite being a rabid hater of Jews, his wife was actually Jewish. Go figure! If you haven’t read his work or are unaware of the impact that HP has had on science fiction and fantasy look him up! Forget about his personal views; just enjoy what he contributed to literature!

So who are the writers that I like the best? I’m a huge fan of Harlan Ellison. He is most well-known for writing the screenplay for the best episode of Start Trek ever (The City at the Edge of Forever), but he also came up with the idea for the Terminator (both of these use the theme of time-travel and the attempt to alter history through time travel). How can anyone who likes science fiction not like Isaac Asimov and perhaps one of the best science fiction trilogies (The Foundation Trilogy)?

Some of the other writers that I love include Frank Herbert (the Dune Universe), Kurt Vonnegut (tons of great stories), Phillip K Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep which was turned into the great movie Blade Runner!), Connie Willis (Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear are incredible), Nancy Kress (please read Beggars in Spain!), Philip Jose Farmer (who was one of the first people to write about sex with aliens), Joan Vinge (The Snow Queen is an absolute classic), and Vernor Vinge (you have to read A Fire Upon the Deep).

interstellar

Interstellar is a lavish space romp which sees Matthew McConaughey jump through a worm hole, navigate space-time and tumble into a black hole in his quest to save humanity / Screenshot from the trailer. Credit: Paramount Pictures

In addition to my love of great science fiction, I am also a huge movie nut; I’ve watched at least 5 every week for the past few decades. I have a number of genre spanning directors whom I just love, but my favourite science-fiction movies of all time include ET, The Martian, The Matrix (just the first film in the series), The Terminator, Avatar, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner and Interstellar.

So, what I’d like to do in this continuing series is to discuss great books that have shaped who I am and have had a dramatic impact on both the movies and society in general. Then, I want to also discuss incredible science fiction movies that came out of this literature. Finally, I’d like to discuss how poorly Hollywood has mined the great research of science fiction literature when they’ve tried to turn fantastic stories into great visual experiences.

How society views science is frequently determined by how science presents itself and a lot of this comes from both science fiction and the movies. Hence, I hope that my lifetime of both reading great science fiction and watching movies will prove useful and interesting to the readers of Front Line Genomics.

David