Science fiction writers have the power to play god, insofar as they can construct entirely new worlds simply by putting pen to paper and imagining things that normal people might only dream about. In some cases, their creations have even inspired real-life inventions. What’s more astonishing to me, though, is their ability to transform the English language. In light of the new Star Trek (2013) movie (which you should all see if you haven’t already, if only to watch Chris Pine’s beautiful face on a bigger screen for a few hours), I’ve compiled a list of such instances to illustrate how influential a couple of “geeky” writers can be.
1) Time Machine
When he wasn’t scaring people with stories about alien invasions, H.G. Wells was creating another object for our imaginations to fantasize about. In his 1895 novella The Time Machine, the famed science fiction author named the device that would allow people to teleport from one place in time to another. In addition, Wells also casually mentioned something about “time travellers” and “time travelling” as if he were not opening up the Pandora’s Box of science fiction for the next few decades.
2) Zero Gravity
Zero gravity has always existed in space (or should I say…NOT existed…get it?), but it wasn’t until Jack Binder mentioned the phrase in his comic book If Science Reached the Earth’s Core that it became common terminology. Later, author Arthur C. Clarke shortened zero gravity to “zero g” and the rest is really history.
3) Warp Speed
I reckon that when producers of the original Star Trek series realized “Make this ship travel faster than the speed of light, Scotty!” was too much of a mouthful, they penned the script for their 1968 episode “All Our Yesterdays,” which included the first recorded mention of the phrase “warp speed.”
The idea of cloning as a process of replication has been around for awhile but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it became associated with “copying” a living thing. In his 1970 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler describes a society suffering from national future shock, a form of anxiety resulting from a series of fast-approaching changes, like those seen in the industrial revolution or puberty. I don’t know where clones came into all of this, but I’m sure they were in there somewhere.
5) [Computer] Virus
When Jeff Goldblum announces that he’s going to give the alien spaceship “a cold” in Independence Day (1996), he’s banking on the fact that people understand the modern connection between cold and virus. Had it not been for author Gregory Benford, who published a story in 1970 about a destructive computer programed actually named VIRUS, Goldblum’s play on words may have fallen flat because it wasn’t until that point that “virus” took on a definition related to electronics.
The fascination with swear words that plagues middle schoolers every year can also be found in the mind of science fiction writers. (After all, if you could put a couple of words together and make it into a swear for all your made up characters, why would you turn down that opportunity?) The word Frak, commonly used today as an alternative for the f-bomb, was penned by Battlestar Galactica writers in 1978. This isn’t a science term but it’s still one that you might hear around.
7) Deep Space
Deep space, meaning, any part of space beyond the boundaries of the solar system (synonymous with outer space) wasn’t invented until 1934 in the report Triplanetary by E.E. “Doc” Smith. That’s what’s up, Doc.
8) Gas Giant
We always hear of Jupiter and Saturn being referred to as “gas giants” but we can’t credit scientists for coining the phrase. In 1952, science fiction writer James Blish used the words in his story Solar Plexus and forever changed the way we describe our gassy neighbors. (Jupiter and Saturn, if you’re listening, I will always love you, no matter how “giant” you are.)
If we ever do completely ruin Earth, terraforming can be our back-up plan. Meaning “to manipulate a planet’s atmospheric conditions in order to create a habitable environment,” terraforming has been employed in a number of science fiction films and studies over the years but as it turns out, the term was coined all the way back in 1942 by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction story titled Collision Orbit.
Every time your Android phone chimes “DROID,” you owe Lucasfilm a fraction of a penny. I made that statistic up but the first part is actually kind of true. The film franchise Star Wars features a number of androids buzzing around, which was shortened to “droids” and later trademarked by Lucasfilm. Verizon Wireless eventually borrowed the term for their Android phone line and popularized it. So while “android” has been around since the beginning of time (slight exaggeration), the word droid didn’t come into use until fairly recently. #themoreyouknow
So next time you hear your classmate going on about his new science fiction novel, don’t pass him or her off as another hopeless creative writer because you never know what stories they have in mind and how influential their words may be in the future. Just remember, writers are the ones that will eventually live long and prosper, y’all. Take ‘em a little more seriously.