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Stranger than Fiction

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration Todd Detwiler

dispatches

This month is the 65th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Three decades after the year in question, the totalitarian specter of Big Brother hasn’t quite materialized, but that hasn’t stopped the phrase from appearing regularly in public discourse. In fact, though the book was published in 1949, it was the origin of a number of terms for contemporary ideas, including “thoughtcrime” and “telescreens.” This turns out to be surprisingly common. Here, five other words real life borrowed from sci-fi, and the wacky places they first showed up.

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Robot

First appearance: 1920, in the Czech play, “R.U.R.,” or “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” by Karel Čapek, about a manufacturer who makes a race of servants that revolt and kill everyone (sound familiar?). The word itself comes from an Old Church Slavonic word for “forced labor.”

Blast off

First appearance: 1937, in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Galactic Patrol, the third book in his “Lensman” series, in which hero Kimball Kinnison attempts to steal a super-advanced prototype ship from space pirates. He is subsequently injured in a base-capture attempt and learns mind control.

Genetic Engineering

First appearance: 1951, in Jack Williamson’s Dragon’s Island, which features a young scientist who, while searching for a lost friend, is drugged and spirited away to a mysterious island where a secret group has been creating odd creatures with the help of genetic science.

Computer Virus

First appearance: 1970, in “The Scarred Man,” a short story by physicist Gregory Benford about a computer engineer turned con man and his partner, who invent the first ever computer virus, which is spread by telephone, and which they, of course, are the only people capable of stopping.

Cyberspace

First appearance: 1982, in the William Gibson short story “Burning Chrome,” in which two cyber-burglars rip off the owner of a house of ill repute by hacking their way through a hallucinatory 3-D representation of computer systems called both cyberspace and (presciently) “the matrix.”

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