Updated: Mar 2
Sagan said we’d go nowhere without it, and Einstein imagined it would take us everywhere.
Kant believed happiness came directly from it, and without it, Steinem says, we lose “the excitement of possibility”.
That excitement can be borne out again and again in storytelling, which engages our auditory cortex and stimulates our neurons, as the imagination of the author activates our own thinking.
Oral storytelling began long before tales were written down, but we do have stories, like the sagas and chronicles from Iceland and England, to read and determine real from imagined lives, and texts like the twelfth century Welsh Mabinogion, which gave Tolkien all the inspiration he needed for his own characters and adventures.
And more recently, stories have imagined our own future rather than the Hobbits of The Shire, and given impetus to ideas and thinking that continue to shape our world.
Stories like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. In 1887, as work was just beginning on a huge Paris tower named for its engineer Gustave Eiffel, Bellamy was creating a money card with which his citizens could visit the thousands of stores he foresaw in his shopping mall, and maybe purchase a bottle of the brand new Glenfiddich whisky that had just been introduced.
Or, in 1893, as Lizzie Borden’s defense lawyer was wrapping up her parricide acquittal, Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant had their hero fly to Mars in an ‘aeroplane’, where he finds men and women are equal in every way, in Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance. A few years later in 1899, as Englishman Edwin Sewell was having the world's first fatal car accident, Herbert George Wells was imagining doors that opened automatically to get you swiftly into that mall, in When the Sleeper Wakes.
In the early 1900’s, as the US was buying the world's first military airplane from a couple of brothers in Ohio, Edward Morgan Forster’s The Machine Stops was imagining a self-contained and freshly-ventilated cubicle for contactless working, and in 1910, as the first ever public radio broadcast was transmitted all the way from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to that hermetic cubicle, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce imagined into being the unbeatable robot you’re playing chess with, while no-ones looking, in his story Moxon’s Master.
Then, in 1911, as the doomed and radar-less SS Lusitania was heading perilously toward Cape Point, Hugo Gernsback wrote in Ralph 124c 41+ of his ‘Telephot’, which, when activated, connected co-workers Ralph and Edward virtually, so they could meet later at the laboratory, to discuss how well they did at that darned chess game.
In 1940, as the first Hollywood parody of Hitler was released, with Moses Harry Horwitz at the helm of The Stooges, Robert Heinlein had his characters ‘glide’ along electric staircases and speedy travel strips, with the journey from San Diego to Reno taking just twelves hours, in The Roads Must Roll. Later in the 1900s, as the first ever animated series, Crusader Rabbit, was debuted, Ray Douglas Brabdury saw earbud headphones in the shape of shells, bringing personal music to his characters, in Fahrenheit 451, to make those twelves hours standing on a moving walkway virtually fly by.
In 1956, as a lip-curling newbie called Elvis Presley entered the US charts for the first time, Arthur Charles Clake was conjuring virtual gaming in his City and the Stars, where you entered a virtual story of “phantom worlds” and determined your experience through your own imagination. And, ten or so years later, in the midst of the horrific Vietnam War, we find Clarke describing a plug-in, foolscap-size electric pad for checking the latest news, in his epic Space Odyssey.
Stories have always been pivotal to technology and development, and create that fundamental excitement of possibility. When Huxley wrote that “words can be like X-rays if you use them properly … you read and you’re pierced,” I rather hope he was thinking of the power of stories and imagination, that inspire us in some way to stay ahead of that chess robot and on those fast-moving strips to a brave new world.
Nigel Roth, firstname.lastname@example.org