The canvass is wide open. The length of butcher paper can stretch out the door, if you wish.
This, in our little corner of the galaxy, is something virtually infinite: Human thought.
First, let me back up. Ahead of the latest Star Wars movie (VIII) I railed in a prediction how the movie producers were missing a golden opportunity to introduce some, you know, science into what is widely categorized as science fiction. I'd predicted correctly. In fact, a couple moments made a mockery of physics (bombs 'falling' in space, a survivable Force-enabled space walk). Palm to forehead, over and over. That's Hollywood for ya.
(Note to Star Trek: You all aren't doing much better.)
Instead of continuing this rant, however, I'd like the focus to turn to one aspect science fiction offers us all: It's the ultimate drawing board.
In lieu of a testbed (as in aerospace engineering) to put scientific ideas through rigorous scrutiny, the drawing board is what we have. It is the place where ideas take shape, from that glowing kernel of thought (which probably sprang to life at the coffee maker or during a shower) to a concept. And throw in a lot of Why not? for good measure.
(Why not?, is any writer's suit of armor. Of course there's the possibility of being laughed out of the room. But what if there's one or two people who actually ponder your idea?)
I'm certain that, somewhere in the digital ether, there exists a comprehensive list of what author or chunk of story gave rise to what modern gizmo or endeavor. It only makes sense that fiction--science or otherwise--has helped create the modern world. Ray Bradbury, from my view, is responsible for two or three now-ubiquitous marvels. Fahrenheit 451 alone gave us reality TV, Facebook and cell phones (albeit in earlier forms). Not bad for a dystopian book published in 1953, pre-home computer.
What else? How about the space-travel freezers featured in the Alien movies? Credit goes to writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, plus director Ridley Scott, but they most likely aren't the first people to come up with stasis pods. Now, scientists are deep into studying bear hibernation as, according to NPR, such stasis represents Humankind's most tenable means of reaching Mars (eight months of flight away).
With Dune, Frank Herbert gave us ornithopters and the Weirding Way--which, if memory serves, was a kind of psionic/telepathic attack. Mental telepathy may still be worthy of guffaws (for those outside the comic-book universe) but our modern scientific and medicine communities are making huge advances in turning thought to physical action. (We already have optical pointers, for one.) The power of suggestion might be a joke. The possibility of getting nanobots to respond to voice command, and more, however...
In Destruction, my sequel to 2016's Endgame, heroine June Vereeth spends a fair amount of time aboard a space station (called a starport, for fun). In writing it, I saw no desire or need to have her (and colleagues) floating about and grabbing rungs to get around. That would be damned inconvenient, honestly. So, they have artificial gravity.
We all know that gravity in space can be achieved by rotating the station or vehicle at the right speed. What if there was another way? What if every occupant is injected with a harmless oxygen-like compound (the fictional vicazine) that spreads but doesn't metabolize? Then, in the floor decking, you have special low-power magnets which are just strong enough to exert an appropriate pull on the vicazine. Voila, gravity!
The vicazine-magnet process would have to undergo rigorous testing, of course. Rather than slow progress, this just attaches a kind of clock to it. Any kind of progress takes time. The mag-lev train underwent years and years of testing. Now, it's a reality.
In 1985's Contact, Professor Carl Sagan predicted the planet's wealthy elite would have orbital residences. Thirty years later, are we just thirty years from such places? One way or another, someone's going to engineer a solution for that pesky gravity problem. It's like an old proverb: Those who drive Mercedes do not poop in bags!
The idea of fiction or science fiction as a kind of public forum is simply an awesome bonus. You get to tell a great story, and you get to introduce advances or solutions that could actually become reality. Write your ideas, get them out there, get the conversation started!
After all, if Bradbury could be prescient about the idea of just watching other people's lives, maybe we can be intelligent enough to tackle real problems: Racism, world hunger and wage equality. You never know.