MIND MELD: Which Predictions Did Golden Age Science Fiction Get Right & Wrong?

Although science fiction fans know better, the general populace likes to think of sf as being written with the express purpose of predicting the future. So we posed the following question to a bunch of people in the since fiction community:

Science fiction is often accused of being The Great Predictor. Which predictions did Golden Age science fiction get right? Which ones were way off the mark?
James Gunn
James Gunn, Emeritus Professor of English at K.U., has published a dozen novels and half a dozen collections of stories, and has edited a dozen and a half books. His best-known novels are The Immortals, The Dreamers, The Listeners, Kampus, and The Joy Makers. The Immortals was filmed as The Immortal and became a TV series. He published The Science of Science-Fiction Writing in 2002 and edited Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction in 2005. He has been president of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Science Fiction Research Association. His most recent publications are Gift from the Stars and the reprint edition of The Listeners, both available from BenBella Books. In 2007 he was named a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by SFWA.

Science fiction has included a lot of speculations that look like predictions, and some of them have come to pass, most spectacularly spaceships and atomic power and bombs, but prediction is a side effect of creating plausible scenarios about future change, not its intent. SF has been more important as a means of persuading readers to think about issues and the ways in which they might develop and how that might affect the human condition. As Isaac Asimov said in 1973, “We live in a science-fiction world, a world very much like the one we were writing about in 1939.” It is a world that might well have been significantly different if science-fiction writers had not imagined it in detail. More specifically, to quote Isaac again, “Science-fiction writers and readers didn’t put a man on the moon all by themselves, but they created a climate in which the goal of putting a man on the moon became acceptable.” The same process is at work on other potential changes, in which, as John Campbell put it, futures are tested for human habitability. Or, as he went on, science-fiction is a way of practicing in a no-practice area. Some changes, like a parachute jump, have to be perfect the first time.

James Wallace Harris
James Wallace Harris is a life-long science fiction fan. With Olivier Travers, he created SciFan.com in 1999 and he programmed the database system. Since the early days of the web, James has maintained The Classics of Science Fiction, which was based on his article from the fanzine Lan’s Lantern back in the 1980s. He quit SciFan to study fiction writing and he attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2002. He now practices blog writing at Auxiliary Memory. James has been happily married for thirty years to his wife Susan. He works as a programmer and sys admin but dreams about space exploration and writing a SF 2.0 novel.

Science fiction’s greatest success at prediction was its greatest failure. From Jules Verne through Robert Heinlein prepared the world for human exploration of space. Even ancient Greeks imagined life on other worlds and throughout the centuries rare minds wrote about fantastic voyages to distant spheres. It was the Golden Age SF writers that spread the meme across the globe so even the average American family drinking their java and reading their Colliers knew it was going to happen. Science fiction inspired the engineers that formed NASA who built the Saturn V and Apollo 11. All those crazy Buck Rogers nuts were vindicated on July 20, 1969.

Rocket travel was pulp fiction philosophy. The colonization of Mars was seen as inevitable as the Mayflower coming to America. Then twelve mighty Americans walked on the Moon and the dream died. Those pulp fiction Platos lacked the vision to see that 99.99 percent of Earthlings didn’t want to pay for the fever dreams of the .01 percent. John W. Campbell’s disciples never imagined that the common homo sap just did not want to build cities in space.

I have tortured my mind for years to understand why my fellow citizens lacked the deep passion we science fiction fans feel for space exploration. My conclusion is science fiction failed to understand sex – the genetic low level programming to date, mate, marry and procreate. Even Robert A. Heinlein never noticed the urge to get laid is greater than the drive to blast off into the ether. Greed can trump humping but there are no El Dorados in space. People spend taxes on security, and although all our genetics eggs are in basket Earth, no Prudential Messiah has sold humanity the racial life insurance policy of colonizing Mars. SF 2.0 needs to revision space travel.

John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and the upcoming Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

The key to this question is to interpret what is meant by the “Golden Age.” Rather than straining my brain for the answer, I will simply pull up a convenient list of the top ten science fiction books of all time as compiled by Jim Baen.

Now, your list or mine might differ, but our lists will not have any greater weight of judgment behind them than the one drawn up by one of the most famous and longstanding editors in the field. Let us look at the books and see which predictions came true, shall we?

Let us list the books and their predictions:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

Prediction: Time traveling engineer travels back to the Dark Ages, outsmarting King Arthur, and introducing firearms and telegrams, which reverses the decline and fall of civilization.

Verdict: Um. I don’t think that ever happened, but, depending on how time travel works, I support it could have happened in a multiple parallel universe that we are unaware of.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Prediction: Mysterious superscientist invents an ironclad submersible.

Verdict: Bingo! We have a winner! Submarines and polar expeditions! We also all remember when Robur the Conqueror, aboard The Terror attempted to fight Captain Nemo in his powerful ironclad Nautilus off the coast of Norway, but they were parted by the Maelstrom. Agents of the British crown and American treasury department are still seeking the secret of the rotary engine, and the other miraculous devices created by these scientific geniuses. Okay, okay, obviously the events did not happen, but the scientific predictions were utterly sound.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Prediction: Mysterious superscientist visits AD 802701, and finds out that modern civilization will decline and fall. Aristocrats will evolve into helpless food animals. Workingmen will evolve into cannibal troglodytes.

Verdict: Not only did this prediction not come true, it will never come true. The Nexxial Timesweepers of the Fourth Era of time travel are carefully uncreating any time travelers before they come into existence, to eliminate the possibility of time travel ever coming to pass.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Prediction: A galactic empire is guided through its decline and fall by a mysterious superscientist who develops a predictive model of history.

Verdict: We do not even have flying cars yet, much less Galactic Empires. The idea for the science of Psychohistory is innately ridiculous. The closest thing we have to a predictive model of human large-scale behavior is a science called economics, and economics teaches us that wealth-creation is maximized when the five-year plans, ten-year plans, and (one must assume) the thousand-year ‘Seldon Plans’ are ignored and free men and free markets are best left to muddle through on their own.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller

Prediction: Atomic war causes the decline and fall of the modern world into a new dark age.

Verdict: This did not happen, thank God! Full-scale “Total War” with atomic weapons does not seem to be in the military plans of any world power at the moment.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Prediction: A different galactic empire is guided into its decline and fall by a mysterious superhuman messiah.

Verdict: Swords and spaceships, eh? Don’t hold your breath waiting for the marines to switch from fully automatic firearms to poisoned knives. Dude, forget about the flying car. Where is my geriatric spice?

Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague deCamp

Prediction: A different time traveler attempts to prevent the decline and fall of a non-galactic empire by introducing double-entry bookkeeping into Gothic-era Rome.

Verdict: This one was also cleaned up by the Nexxial timesweepers. Agent Ravel merely chronoported into the continuum behind Martin Padway and shot him in the head. Done. Paradox averted. Time stream saved.

Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke

Prediction: The 10-billion-year-old metropolis of Diaspar is humanity’s last home. The Galactic Empire apparently declined and fell. One lone boy decides to investigate and rediscover star travel, to end the long Dark Ages of Diaspar.

Verdict: 10 Billion years old? Um…. We’re still waiting on this one. Please note that Alvin does not have mysterious mind-powers, but the people of Lys do. He is only sort of a messiah figure.

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

Prediction: Slave boy escapes from captors with the help of a mysterious superspy.

Verdict: While we don’t have interstellar travel yet, the idea is chillingly accurate. Before World War II, slavery was wiped out, and it seemed, forever. But there are areas in the world where it is re-emerging, and for reasons not hard to guess.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Prediction: A different superhuman messiah mocks organized religion and organizes orgies instead.

Verdict: Dead accurate. All the enormities and absurdities of the postchristian sexual revolution Heinlein predicted in his book have come to pass, and our civilization is declining and falling due to these things. And there is life on Mars, and the Martians have mystical mind-powers and talk to angels. Whatever, dude.

TO SUM UP: We science fiction writers could not make an accurate prediction to save our lives. We can not predict our way out of a wet paper bag. We write stories about galactic empires, dark ages, mysterious superscientists, super-messiahs, and mind-powers We are not trying to make predictions.

The future is merely the setting for our stories. We are not as accurate in our settings as writers of Westerns or Regency romances are in their settings.

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century; he presently lives a little way west of London, England, with a beautiful wife and two small children. He is a writer with a day-job (professor at Royal Holloway, University of London). The first of these two employments has resulted in eight published sf novels, the most recent being Splinter (Solaris 2007) and Land of the Headless (Victor Gollancz 2007). The second of these has occasioned such critical studies as The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006).

I’m less interested, with a question like this, in specific items of hardware and gadgetry predicted correctly or otherwise: robots, jetpacks, rolling walkways instead of highways, all that. These are all toys: diverting, but not essential, to the future. I’m more interested in larger trends, in the way SF writers carry their social, systemic or ideological biases into the future, and so get it wrong. So, for example, the default position for Golden Age SF was that space will be explored and exploited by private enterprise and individual initiative. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) the first rocket to the moon is built with private money; but the truth is that nations, not private companies, have funded space exploration. No sign of that changing in the near future. This bias in favour of improbably far-reaching individual application, and distrust of the nation-state, is immanent in the legacy of SF, although it mismatches the world.

Overpopulation is another example: Harry Harrison, in Make Room! Make Room! (1966) predicted crippling overpopulation by 1999; Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) predicted the same thing by 2010. The first prediction was wrong, and the second will be. Malthus, it turns out, was in error: a greater population does (as he argued) put more pressure on resources, but that doesn’t result in inevitable humanitarian disaster becase the increased population also supplies a greater supply of people to come up with ingenious solutions to the problem with resources. Here’s a prophesy of my own (what Age of Science Fiction are we in, now? Bronze, is it?): overpopulation will never, globally speaking, be a catastrophic problem for humanity

Mike Brotherton
Mike Brotherton is the author of the hard science fiction novels Spider Star (2008) and Star Dragon (2003), the latter being a finalist for the Campbell award. He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, Clarion West graduate, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers (www.launchpadworkshop.org). He blogs at www.mikebrotherton.com.

There’s a t-shirt that Threadless.com offered a few years ago that says: “they lied to us — this was supposed to be the future — where is my jetpack, where is my robotic companion, where is my dinner in pill form, where is my hydrogen fueled automobile, where is my nuclear-powered levitating house, where is my cure for this disease”

I’ll take a slightly different list of Golden Age SF predictions: ray guns, robots, flying cars, jet packs, nuclear powered everything, and world government. Although the military does use lasers as weapons, as well as microwave emitting devices, the concept of a hand-held ray gun seems to be a bust. Robots have been around in one form or another, and will get closer and closer to humanoid forms in coming years, so I think this one is going to be valid. Flying cars and jet packs have been developed, but haven’t been practical from an economic or safety perspective to date, so I’ll call that one a push. Nuclear power works and could be ubiquitous, but lost the propaganda war. We could see more of it in the near future if the oil supplies dwindle as some are predicting. World government? I think we’re farther away from that than we were in the 1950s despite the end of the Cold War, so that has to be a bust for now and the foreseeable future.

On the whole, I think the spirit of the Golden Age was right. Science and technology have made great strides and people living today have a much higher quality of life than ever before.

What was the biggest omission? Computers and related information technology. The following quotes are from the business section of The Kansas City Star, Jan 17, 1995:

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

– Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won?t last out the year.”

– The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957.

The novels of Robert Heinlein and many other writers well past the Golden Age continued to have their space adventurers working out calculations on slide rules, and Asimov’s computers were giant, isolated thinkers. No doubt about it, missing the technology trajectory of computers was the biggest goof of the Golden Age.

Sue Lange
Sue Lange’s We, Robots published in March 2007 by Aqueduct Press, deals with the SF prediction du jour: the Singularity. Her first book, Tritcheon Hash, was published in 2003. She has a few short stories published here and there as well.

Obvious things like Moonmen and Martians come to mind immediately. Totally wrong about them. In fact, I think anything about aliens is off the mark at this point. FTL travel is the limiting factor, which is another thing sf seems to have gotten wrong. The assumption was we’d be able to overcome that problem, but it doesn’t look like it. Fermi’s Paradox also comes into play. This is something today’s sf writers are starting to come around on. Twenty or thirty years ago, everyone assumed that someday we’d meet aliens. Not everyone agrees with that anymore. Lots of people feel Fermi has a point.

Flying cars and the ubiquitous videophone could maybe be included in the list of bad predictions, but maybe not. I think the jury is out on such things. First of all, flying cars are impractical now because we can’t even handle regular on-the-ground traffic very well. Driving on a road is fairly easy for even the most brain-dead amongst us, but I doubt we’d be good at taking traffic to the air. But just because flying cars haven’t been invented yet, or should I say, mass produced yet (I’m quite sure somebody’s got something somewhere in their back yard), doesn’t mean they won’t be someday. It all depends on the market. Same with videophones. We have the technology, but no one seems to be jumping on it. Is it because they’re too expensive or because people don’t want it? I think people are starting to come around to the idea, but who knows if it will ever really take. There’s a lot to be said for not being seen as you make that call to Rush Limbaugh.

Time travel will probably not be happening.

I think where golden age sf really falls off the mark is with its predictions of cultural change. Mostly because there were no predictions. Society was going to go on forever as it was. There would be no civil rights movement, women would never become independent of men, people would always get behind a war, technological progress would continue unhindered by protests from the masses. Whoops that one might be right.

Where did it do right? Spaceflight. Communications. World peace. (Not yet, but with so many people working on it, it’s got to happen, right?) Subcutaneous birth control.

Things that were missed: The rampant use of text messaging rather than actual voice communication, a cultural phenomenon.

Andrew Wheeler
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years. He spent sixteen years as an editor for various bookclubs (most notably, working for the Science Fiction Book Club the entire time), ending as a Senior Editor. He is currently a Marketing Manager for John Wiley & Sons.

Just to be contrary, I have to start my answer by questioning the premise: I’ve always firmly believed that the point of SF is not to predict the future, but to tell stories – and those stories are always mostly about their own times. Explicit predictions often tend to be advocacy or horrifying object lessons, to show the readers what they might get if they follow the right or wrong path. Predictions that end up being correct are often pure luck, or are just smart extrapolation of well-known human behavior into new situations. (Witness Heinlein’s kids in Space Cadet – one talking quickly to his parents on his mobile phone, while another notes, smugly, that he packed his phone away so he can’t hear it ring. That’s a prediction, of a sort, but it’s mostly a moment of character interaction, and what makes is predictive today is what made it true in 1948 when Heinlein wrote it.)

But that’s not what you wanted, I suppose, so let me think…Golden Age SF must have gotten something right, mustn’t it? Maybe if I think long enough, something will come to mind…

I could fudge the question by talking about my personal Golden Age – which was twelve, as Terry Carr sagely noted – but I’ll be honest and talk about the accepted Golden Age, that broad swath of history from Hugo Gernsback to John W. Campbell. (And that’s a wide range of styles and stories, indeed.)

Gernsbackian SF didn’t get much “right,” because it wasn’t trying to describe the future – it was trying to excite and motivate the next generation of engineers and scientists. The point wasn’t to show what could happen, but to give a sense of the possibilities and wonders of science. And so there was a parade of brilliant, reclusive scientists working on monumental discoveries in secret, aided only by their beautiful daughters. And when those daughters were threatened by oxygen-breathing, bipedal aliens who spoke English and apparently wanted nubile Earth-maidens for either sex or meat (neither of which made much sense), the uber-competent young scientist was there to save the damsels in distress.

All of that, of course, was nothing like science or history – then or at any time in the history of the human race. And the coruscating rays of purple force, the planet-busting bombs, and all the other accouterments of mad-scientist-hood were similarly wrong as prediction, but just fine as pulp fiction.

Campbellian SF was somewhat better, with realistic organizations (the Foundation is a quite believable bureaucracy) and a solid grasp on how humans interact (like the labor action in Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” – the roads themselves are ridiculous, but what happens to and on them is very plausible). But even the explicit Future Histories, drawn from what their authors swore were iron laws of history – like Heinlein’s, or like Blish’s spindizzies – were completely wrong. (We haven’t left the earth to the dogs, like Simak’s City, either.)

The few “correct” predictions tend to be minor and beside the point, for all that SF triumphalists crow about “A Logic Named Joe.” Some writers were good at predicting the texture of the future, like Heinlein (and, later, John Brunner), but even that was never the point. (There’s also a point to be made here about Philip K. Dick, who’s a little late to be “Golden Age,” and whose stories often feel like the real 21st century, even though all of the details are completely different.)

So, all in all, my answer to the question of what Golden Age SF got right and wrong is…that’s not really the question to ask, unless by “right and wrong” we mean not predictions but imagination.

Fred Kiesche
Fred Kiesche has been reading science fiction since the early 1960’s. He has a collection of over 8,000 books at home, at least half of which is science fiction and fantasy and the rest are made up of books on science, history and other non-fiction subjects. He is an avid amateur astronomer, devoted husband and father, and is seemingly perpetually underemployed since 9/11/01. He blathers on this and other subjects at TexasBestGrok.

First, what is the Golden Age of SF? I’ve never liked to pin it to a specific period, preferring the answer that Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and others have used (e.g., “The golden age of SF is twelve” or “The golden age of SF is fourteen”, etc.). I know I get that golden age feeling every time I find a new author that excites me.

Second, who says that SF is the Great Predictor? Names! I need names! I never agreed with that. About the most specific prediction that I saw was that a Major Armstrong would be the first man to step on the Moon in 1964. The author (“Philip St. John”, one of the many pseudonyms used by Lester del Rey, in the book Rocket Jockey) got the last name right, the date wrong, the rank wrong…

I’d rather talk about what science fiction, golden or otherwise, is good for. I think SF is good for education, enthusiasm, and inoculation. To explain…

Science fiction educates and enthuses. Spider Robinson claims to know of ten astronauts that got started because they read a book called Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein (maybe you’ve heard of him?). Some would argue that he had an impact on the space program well beyond those ten folks. Me, personally, I got interested in a lot of science due to stories such as Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Saturn Rising (which led me into amateur astronomy). Collections such as the one edited by Isaac Asimov, Where Do We Go From Here? led to reading non-fiction on chemistry, biology and more.

As for inoculation, harken back to the 1970’s. Perpetually on the best seller lists and perpetually found in yard sales and garage sales was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. The future was coming! The future was scary! Things were changing faster and faster! I read the book and shrugged my shoulders. I had read much stranger stuff in SF. My mother asked me once about cloning. I gave her an answer and she was surprised by how nonchalant I was. SF has inoculated me against the surprises of the future.

2001 wasn’t a bit like 2001: A Space Odyssey. No manned voyages to Jupiter, cities on the Moon, etc. Am I disappointed that we don’t have manned spaceships to Jupiter? Instead we’ve had multiple probes to Jupiter returning data and wonderful shots like this one. Maybe, but I appreciate how SF has given me a sense of wonder that allows me to love shots that the one in the link.

4 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Which Predictions Did Golden Age Science Fiction Get Right & Wrong?”

  1. Looks like we don’t give Science Fiction much credit for prediction. I never expected SF to accurately predict the future. I always appreciated SF for it’s vague warnings. Earth Abides does a nice job of letting me know what life on Earth might be like if a ot of people suddenly died off. I never expected it to come true. The whole point of it is for us to avoid such a future. Ditto for all those stories about atomic destruction. “Bears Discover Fire” is a great story but I don’t think Bisson was predicting Bears would discover fire. However it is entertaining to think about the next species to discover fire – like why haven’t we found chimps roasting small animals over a camp fire? Has anyone every given them some matches or let them eat steak well done?

    SF is like Einstein’s thought experiments, but they don’t have to be about predicting real aspects of reality. Fredric Brown’s Martian’s Go Home is a wonderful thought experiment about visiting aliens who love terrible practical jokes.

    SF doesn’t predict a future, but a lot of possible fun futures. David Brin’s Uplift series imagines talking chimps and dolphins. I like that idea. That would be a nice future to live in.

    I think the best thing SF does is predict futures that 12 year old kids want to live in. Sure we’re disappointed when we haven’t found those futures by age 56, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t love them as kids during our Golden Ages.

    Jim Harris

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