When the Philae lander touched down on the surface of Comet 67P earlier this month, millions of people around the world were agog at the stunning achievement.
Science-fiction fans, however, had a different reaction to the news: Haven’t we seen this somewhere before?
In fact, they had.
Back in 1987.
That’s when Arthur C. Clarke published his novel 2061: Odyssey Three.
It was the second sequel to the landmark book/movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and in it, Clarke depicts a manned landing on Halley’s Comet. Maybe that’s even where the European Space Agency got the idea for its Rosetta mission.
Once again, science fiction has anticipated a real-world space-travel accomplishment.
It’s happened time and time again.
Before NASA landed astronauts on the moon in 1969, there was the 1902 movie Le voyage dans la lune.
Before we landed a rover on Mars in 1997, Edgar Rice Burroughs transported John Carter to the Red Planet in 1912.
And on and on.
If you’re a science-fiction fan, you can come up with your own examples. Communications satellites. Robotics. The internet. Women’s rights.
Seemingly every advance in our society has been predicted years or decades before the fact in one form of story-telling or another. Such is the power of the human imagination.
And it makes my head spin when I consider that a mere 27 years have passed since Clarke wrote 2061 and the Philae probe arrived at its destination. Yesterday’s science fiction becomes today’s reality at an ever-increasing pace.
And yet . . .
Science-fiction filmmakers and authors come up their fair share of false prophesies, which may be because they of the temptation to confuse technological progress with the evolution of the human soul.
The example that immediately comes to mind is another one from Clarke.
It was in the next novel in the series, 3001: The Final Odyssey, that human beings had evolved past their own selfishness. Committees run the world in that novel and Clarke sets forth a future in which people aren’t motivated by ego anymore.
Apologies to the late author, but that isn’t going to happen.
As the old saying goes, history repeats itself because human nature never changes. We know how the human beings of tomorrow will act: just like us.
I can think of maybe one technological innovation that has changed human nature, the birth-control pill — and even that is a matter for debate.
My bet is that the human heart will remain more or less static in the millenia to come, with all of the ignoble and noble qualities that entails.
I would love to believe otherwise.
But what a study of history reveals is that for better or worse, the universe is stuck with us as is.
What you’ve seen so far is what you’re going to get.