Many science fiction books imagine strange new worlds — but only a few science fiction books have actually changed the world we live in. A few visionary authors have managed to make such an impression that they left the world a vastly different place.
Here are 10 seminal science fiction novels that changed the world as we know it.
Top image: Chiba in William Gibson's Neuromancer by PHATandy on DeviantArt.
1) The Tom Swift Series
First appearing in 1920, Tom Swift, the teenage homeschooled genius inventor and protagonist of over one hundred stories — ghostwritten by a bullpen of authors under the pseudonym "Victor Appleton" –- inspired innumerable children to take an interest in science, including futurist/writer/inventor Ray Kurzweil, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Steve Wozniak, who credits the character directly for his becoming a scientist. Jack Cover, inventor of the Taser, was inspired to create a less-lethal alternative to guns after reading about a similar device Swift had created, and then decided to name it after the character: "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle".
William Gibson's classic novel that popularized the cyberpunk subgenre is often cited as an indirect influence in the development of the Internet – in the words of fellow SF writer Jack Womack, "What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?" More concretely, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, cites Arthur C. Clarke's short story Dial F. for Frankenstein, in which a network of computers linked together learn to think autonomously, as a childhood influence.
Philip Wylie's 1930 novel, about the excellently named "Professor Abednego Danner", who invents an "alkaline free radical" serum that imbues those who ingest it with insectile powers, served as the inspiration for the modern superhero. In the story, Danner uses the serum on his unborn child, Hugo, giving him the proportional strength of an ant, the leaping ability of a grasshopper, super speed, and
bulletproof skin. As Hugo grows up, his parents teach him to use his powers responsibly, causing him to be bullied at school, but he finds relief by cutting loose in the wilderness surrounding his rural hometown. Sound familiar? It doesn't end there – Hugo later becomes a star quarterback, but after accidentally killing a football player, he quits in disgrace, joins the French Foreign Legion, and fights in World War I. After the war, he returns home and gets a job as a bank teller, though is fired after ripping off the vault door while rescuing a suffocating employee. He then continues on to two other short-lived careers in politics and Mayan archeology before the story's tragic finale. Although Hugo never dons a costume or sets out to fight crime, Wylie's brief novel managed to predict nearly every classic superhero origin, impacting 20th Century pop culture like nothing else — and now, ninety years later, real-world superheroes are taking the streets, and though none of them have super powers like Hugo, Grant Morrison posits it's only a matter of time and expense until one does.
4) The War of the Worlds
The grandfather of the modern alien invasion story, H.G. Wells' novel has a cultural impact that's staggering, but is also responsible for at least one planetary molding feat: Robert H. Goddard, inventor of the liquid-fueled rocket, decided to dedicate his life to the subject after reading the story as a teenager –- his research eventually culminated with the Apollo program, and man's landing on the moon. It's also believed the Robertson Panel held the legendary fallout of Orson Welles 1938 radio adaptation as evidence why the existence of UFOs should be downplayed, and extraterrestrial evidence withheld from the public.
5) The World Set Free
Another, lesser-known H.G. Wells novel is also responsible for a cataclysmic development: the invention of the H-Bomb. In the story, Wells predicts atomic energy, and the development of a new kind of bomb based on a nuclear reaction, resulting in a "continuing explosive" that would detonate repeatedly for days. Physicist Leo Szilard — another incredible name – read the story in 1932, and the neutron was discovered later that year. In 1933, inspired by the story, Szilard developed the idea of a neutron chain reaction, patented the idea in 1934, and eight years later, we saw the development of the Manhattan Project.
6) Brave New World
Aldous Huxley's novel indirectly helped snuff out embryonic stem cell research in the United States –- cabinet member Jay Lefkowitz dissuaded president G.W. Bush on the concept by reading him passages from the novel describing humans born and bred in hatcheries. Bush, according to Lefkowitz in Commentary Magazine, "got scared". When he had finished reading, Bush responded, "We're on the edge of a cliff. And if we take a step off the cliff, there's no going back. Perhaps we should only take one step at a time."
7) Shockwave Rider
John Brunner's 1975 novel about a man on the run from a networked society who uses a "worm program" to rewrite his identity and escape, proved to be a remarkably prescient text, accurately predicting
large-scale networks, hacking, phreaking, genetic engineering and the computer virus. The book's description of a destructive, self-replicating program capable of eliminating secret bonds inspired Xerox PARC researchers John F. Shoch and John A. Hupp to create their own version – a program designed to seek idle network CPU cycles, but would expeditiously grow beyond the intentions of its programmer. In
turn, Shoch and Hupp named their creation a "worm", and the modern virus was born, leaving untold misery and Super Human Samurai Syber Squad in its wake.
8) Snow Crash
Neal Stephenson's popular novel and its virtual Metaverse inspired both the creation of the MMORPG Second Life, and the popularization of the term "avatar", a Sanskrit word meaning "to cross over" (though was actually first repurposed to mean "digital manifestation" in the 1986 video game Habitat.) As in the Metaverse, Second Life allows users to interact through personal avatars and create communities following agreed upon systems. (Former Microsoft VP J. Allard uses the name Hiro Protagonist- the hero and protagonist- as his handle) Snow Crash's Earth program also presupposed (and according to a cofounder, directly inspired) both Google Earth and Bing Map.
George Orwell's novel shaped forever the ways in which we view Totalitarianism as a system of government. But it also changed the ways we think about institutional brainwashing and ubiquitous surveillance. Orwell gave us a whole arsenal of new words to talk about oppressive systems, including "Big Brother," "Room 101," "the Thought Police," "thoughtcrime," "unperson" "doublehink" and "memory hole." Where would the blogosphere be without Orwell's lexicon? Whenever you end a word with -speak, you're indirectly quoting Orwell.
Mary Shelley's seminal 1817 novel about a mad scientist who creates artificial life has helped to inspire the real-life science of synthetic biology. Scientist Craig Venter and other innovators have created synthetic organisms in the lab, including a complete M. capricolum organism. People regularly refer to the creation of synthetic life forms as the "Frankenstein moment" for biology. And it's easy to see why — Shelley's novel gave us the first instance of the idea of creating artificial life forms.
Further reading: Science Fiction That Caused Political Change
Additional reporting by Mandy Curtis.