You must have heard it before: Arthur C. Clark’s third law, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” or that our lives today would sound like science fiction to anyone a century ago. As part of my TEDx Ideas Worth Spreading talks, I ask, “Have you ever thought to yourself, What if technology actually was science fiction at some point in the past?”
The current Star Wars: The Force Awakens is getting a surge in headline news because of the increased popularity of science, which is propelling humanity forward. In a similar vein, I point out in my TEDx talks that Aladdin, Arabian Nights, and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves have been adding to the world’s imagination for centuries.
Pondering the correlation between sci-fi culture and the advancement of science, I challenged almost everyone I know during my time at Singularity University (part university, part think tank, and part business incubator, in Silicon Valley) to give me a single example of a technology that we have today that had not existed in sci-fi at least 20 years prior to its existence in the real world. To my astonishment, I was able to find a sci-fi reference for every single claim that was passed on to me.
This discovery led me to a deeper question: what is the actual relationship between sci-fi and scientific development? From my research, it was clear that there is a strong correlation between the number of patents per capita in any country and the amount of locally produced sci-fi consumed per capita (basically how much sci-fi from the local culture every individual is exposed to per year). In simpler terms, countries with a stronger sci-fi culture have a stronger scientific development trend and vice versa.
Proving causality was harder. When asking if sci-fi consumption drives scientific development, or if scientific development drives Sci-Fi consumption, the data could not prove it either way. Was the fact that we are having scientific advancements getting people interested in consuming sci-fi? Or was the exposure to sci-fi driving passionate geeks to find ways to make it happen?
My hunch was that sci-fi was directly driving the scientific development of the nation. To prove this point, I decided to start a 20-year experiment, in which I chose a part of the world where sci-fi was not mainstream (meaning that there is no strong local sci-fi culture and products) and where the patents per capita were minimal. The first location I researched was in my part of the world, the Arab world.
Although the Arabs have a very strong and old heritage of fantasy, the culture no longer has significant output of sci-fi content. Yet the Arab world was buzzing with scientific advancements while Europe was still in the dark ages. Eureka! I found a perfect location where both sci-fi and patent registration per capita are near zero, and I live there (in Saudi Arabia) and have a good grasp on the culture.
Yatakhayaloon, my publishing house (the name translates to they are imagining), was established in the United Arab Emirates to contribute to the advancement of science in the Arab world by promoting and nurturing a strong sci-fi culture. At first it was supposed to be a content generation and management house, but when HWJN (our first novel) was written by Ibraheem Abbas, no publisher in the region would touch it, claiming that it wouldn’t sell, which forced us to become our own publisher.
Two years later, we have sold 120,000 copies of that first novel. The success was overwhelming, not only for us but for the entire sci-fi culture in the region. The year we published HWJN, 2013, only one other mainstream Arabic sci-fi novel was published. In 2015, there were at least 17 Arabian Sci-Fi novels published.
We hope these sci-fi novels will inspire more sci-fi cultures to develop around the world and bring us more Star Wars–like global phenomena. May the force be with you, and may sci-fi continue to advance scientific development.
Yasser Bahjatt is a TEDx speaker, an author, and the CEO and founder of Yatakhayaloon. He was born and raised in Michigan and currently lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.