The western world began in a clay-model universe only as big as the horizon, with a roof, four walls and a very deep cellar. Beyond those walls lay monsters and chaos. We measured the horizon with our senses. Travelers, storytellers and mystics expanded our horizon, pushing back the walls until we covered the globe—and we met ourselves on the other side.

Now the incomparable images brought to us by genetic researchers, NASA and those astonishing Hubble Telescope photographs have expanded our vision beyond all horizons—yet we meet ourselves, once again, on the other side.

The future is a place toward which we are forced to travel, no matter how fiercely we cling to the safe anchor of the past. Tacit acknowledgment of the nature of time and the inexorable course of its single direction are part of our daily perception, yet this is relatively modern. In two thousand years we have gone from debating whether the new day began at dawn or at sunset to dividing time into nanoseconds. Science has shown us a cosmic view grander and more astonishing than ever imagined.

Yet in spite of the photographs, for some it will always be “turtles all the way down.” Why do we believe NASA? Why do we believe the scientists and the reality of those photographs? What is the foundation of our faith in the “scientific” view of the universe? Who convinced us?

We do have the names of the people who made the scientific description of reality emotionally real for us—Isaac Newton, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Einstein, Hugo Gernsback, John Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and others —the list is long. They brought to us “the precision of the artist and the passion of the scientist,” as Professor Joseph Campbell describes a living mythology.

Our intellect knows that Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, but our emotions were first carried to the surface of the Moon by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Accepting the Moon into our emotional view of the universe is not the same as putting data about the Moon into our intellect. Dr. Watson is astonished that Sherlock Holmes, despite his great thirst for information, does not care whether the Earth goes around the Sun or vice versa. The intellect needs only the facts, but Dr. Watson, the storyteller and man of emotions, needs a sense of the greater cosmos around him.

A scientist probing the edges of the atomic or the astronomical is convinced by his observations, his experiments and his intellect. We can only experience the meaning of that data through the focused emotional vision of the artist: writers, painters, cinematographers, directors, FX technicians, etc. Artists translate reality and society into manageable frameworks and perceivable patterns. Spurred on by the imagination of science fiction and fantasy, more new artistic media have been created in the past two generations than in the previous millennium.

Science fiction reaches the sublime when it tells us the stories of this incredible new universe in which we find ourselves—not to make us knowledgeable of it but to make us comfortable with it. Science fiction does not predict the future, rather it opens us up to the future, opens our imaginations so that we meet it with attention. Science fiction creates a collective awareness of the process, mysterious even to scientists, of the Past devouring the Future at the speed of Now. We no longer plod in the same old circle around the Sun. We are racing through the Milky Way galaxy on a wild, spiraling journey. We have learned to think, not just in terms of decades and lifetimes, but in millennia-sized leaps.

Can We Talk?

Where are we in the midst of that enormity of space and time? Gene Roddenberry, in a pivotal scene between Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk, defined the way that science fiction expanded the horizons of human values. The doctor reminds the captain that, in all the immensity of suns, galaxies and the vast, unthinkable distances of the universe, there is only the one of each of us. Unique self-identity is the crown of each and every one of us.

Beyond the sheer dimension of our humanity, science fiction has expanded our moral horizon. We freed the slaves in the 19th Century, yet for seven generations we continued to question whether the people we had freed were human. Once we met “Little Green Men,” “Bug-Eyed Monsters From Outer Space” and the mysterious “Grays,” our racial differences dissolved into the single, multihued human face. We even ask whether parrots, whales and apes might be human by similar standards. At the end of World War II the word “alien” was tainted with horror, sabotage and racism. Now we want to meet the aliens, talk to them—maybe even get some answers about those crop circles. “ET phone home!” is more than a cute slogan; it is an emotional acknowledgement of our place in space and time.

Within our original clay-box universe, we portrayed ourselves as the interchangeable pawns of gods, demons and irresistible forces. In the universe which science fiction unfolds before us, we can see ourselves as unique creations made of stardust, children of the Milky Way, of the Sun and of the Earth—self-evolved, self-designed and self-directed. Ancient mythologies bequeathed to us dimensions of demons, gods and angels hovering above, below and in the interstices of the “Middle Earth” realm of humankind. Science fiction, first in literate and then in cinematic form, created the metaphor of the energy of consciousness superimposed upon or intertwined with space/time, using stargates, wormholes and dimensional interfaces. Only within the domain of science fiction can we ask: “What if consciousness is really an energy force like electromagnetism? How would the properties and potential of this force manifest themselves?”

Many different forms of literature and art explore the relationships of consciousness-to-consciousness. Science fiction is the only art form that separates consciousness from its container and explores the nature of that relationship. Only in science fiction do we ask: “Is that you in there? Is there anyone in there I can talk to?”