With the new year here, we thought it was a great time to ask our esteemed panel about SF’s tales of the future…
First, let’s stipulate that predicting the future, or even possible futures, isn’t a requirement of science fiction—even for stories set in (some) future. It’s unfair to take potshots at unrealistic futures when the author intended only to entertain, satirize, or otherwise create a backdrop for storytelling. Zombie-apocalypse stories (one hopes) don’t claim to predict zombie outbreaks—and I suspect most of us are okay with that. And I’ll be perfectly happy never to encounter any of the paranoid futures for which Philip K. Dick is justly famous.
That said, many stories, especially of the “hard SF” variety, do aspire to anticipate where science and tech might take us. And so, when (names omitted to protect the guilty) ’60s, ’70s, and even later fiction set in otherwise high-tech futures showed us stenographers and typewriters, it’s fair to acknowledge a failure to understand where computer tech was headed. But there are countless ways to predict wrong (as I’ll admit I sometimes have), so let’s celebrate the times where, against the odds, authors have gotten it spectacularly right.
The World Set Free (H. G. Wells, 1914) predicted the atomic bomb three decades (and one world war) before the actual bomb was first wielded. Even earlier, in “The Land Ironclads” (1903), Wells had predicted tank warfare.
Nineteen Eight-Four (George Orwell, 1949) was an all too prescient look at the future reach of the surveillance state and mind control.
Cyborg (Martin Caidin, 1972) foresaw the possibility of human-like, “bionic” prosthetic limbs.
“Flash Crowd” (Larry Niven, 1973) and its sequels—referencing the wrong technology (teleportation) but the right sociology—successfully foresaw the flash-mob phenomenon.
And at the dawn of computer networking, “True Names” (Vernor Vinge, 1981), Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984), and Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson, 1992) were prescient about cyberspace and the now too familiar situation of network vulnerabilities, hacking, and non-state hacking groups like Anonymous.
Predicting the future is hard! I really respect the authors who have pulled it off.
What SF novel did the best job of predicting the future? The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner. This 1975 book has it all: the Internet, hacker culture, reality TV, a pervasively cynical future where the slow decay of society goes almost unnoticed by those at the center of the cyclone… A masterpiece by any measure.
What novels did the worst? Pretty well every book from the ’50s through to now that has predicted transcendent increases in industrial and material power, to the point of humanity conquering the galaxy, while assuming that our institutions would remain exactly as they are, or even revert back to our being ruled by kings, emperors, or plutocrats. Why is it that throughout the 20th century, we were able to imagine that we could radically and completely transform for the better any aspect of our lives… except how we govern ourselves? To make a prediction of my own, I’d say that in the future this bizarre blind spot will be one of the most obvious markers indicating that an SF story was written before 2000.
The future lies at the heart of science fiction. Predicting it has been the endeavor of great fiction authors since before the genre existed. The draw of what is to come and how it might affect humanity continues to inspire young and old minds alike. But it is a bittersweet endeavor.
Authors who venture out into the scientific unknown rarely live to see their predictions proven or disproven. They craft their tales at a terrible risk to their credibility. Eventually, their future becomes our past. Their legacy is doomed to suffer our judgment.
We, the readers of futures past, are harsh, unforgiving, and often ill-informed critics. Get it right and be celebrated as prophetic. Get it wrong and be condemned near-sighted, or far worse: unscientific, demoted to the realms of fantasy.
Often, we lack the context for the scientific knowledge of the yesterday. Our familiarity with today’s technology blinds us to the author’s leap in understanding. All we see is silliness in the author’s vision when it was in fact visionary at the time.
Such is the case for Jules Verne. His 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon is arguably one of the most prophetic science fictions ever written, and my personal favorite. In addition to being mathematically accurate in its calculations of escape velocity, it also demonstrates a profound understanding of practical space flight. Verne predates the selection of Florida for America’s space port by almost a century, describes the use of retro-rockets 40 years before they were considered for space propulsion, and selects aluminum as a structural material 20 years before a process for producing it was developed.
But even the great Jules Verne does not escape judgment unscathed. His Columbiad cannon fails to account for a 22,000 g acceleration and so we scoff. In the 1870 sequel, Around the Moon, his passengers enjoy a comfortable Earth-based gravitation en route and so we laugh. When they measure the vacuum temperature of the Moon’s shadow by extending a thermometer out the hatch, we shake our heads. We who know the human body cannot withstand more than a 30 g burst of acceleration, who have seen mankind floating in zero-g, and who understand the dangers of opening a hatch in vacuum judge these oversights with a harsh eye.
Yet, Verne postulates a solution for surviving the tremendous blast. He understood astronomy enough to include a gravitational zero point, now referred to as Lagrangian points, between the Earth and the moon. Although he overlooks the environmental impacts of opening a hatch in space, he settles on a vacuum temperature of -140 degrees Celsius 31 years before the earliest known estimate. He was only 132 degrees off.
Suffice it to say, I believe Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon has done the best job at predicting the future, but I’m an aerospace engineer who works at the Florida space port Verne predicted in no small part due to reading his work. My opinion may be biased. It is certainly immaterial. The best judge is you, the reader, so keep reading science fiction’s predictions of what is to come. You just might live long enough to know for sure.
Science fiction novels do an abysmal job of predicting the future. That’s because human behavior even on a mass level is incredibly difficult to predict even if you’re a scientist. When you add in the extra difficulty level of being a novelist who needs to tell a good story on top of it, you’re talking about something indistinguishable from impossibility.
Hence the ever diverging history of Star Trek’s Federation, which has not seen the eugenics wars of the 1990s lead to the creation of the Millennium Gate. It also is one of the reasons for the fascination with Back to the Future II this year. People want to explore just how wrong it is.
But the other reason for this fascination is when things are done right. I love that feeling when you’re reading a story and you suddenly realize that what they’re writing as your past or current experience was actually their future. It’s very rare, and almost always accidental, but it’s a great feeling.
When Robert Heinlein describes the hydraulic bed in Stranger in a Strange Land, you wonder why he didn’t just call it a water bed. Then you realize water beds didn’t exist in 1961 when he wrote it. Or that desire to just see Ray Bradbury write “earbud” in Fahrenheit 451 instead of “thimble radios.” Then there’s Edward Bellamy’s use of the phrase “credit card” in 1887’s Looking Backward, which is more like a debit card but will drive you to look up the date when credit cards were actually invented. (Diners Club came around in 1950, BankAmericard in 1958.)
Then there are the more distant examples. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a pretty good forerunner to the PDA, though there again the PDA got superceded quickly by the smartphone. And of course the Babel Fish has a real-life counterpart in the translation engine online called Babel Fish. Mention must be made of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which can be dizzying to read if you try to figure out what was actually real when it was written and what became common technology later. Was Gibson right or wrong about Google Glass?
And there are the near-term predictors. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One both extrapolate from the tech possibilities of their eras into very convincing facsimiles of the near future. From Second Life to Oculus Rift, reality gets closer and closer to to Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
Cory Doctorow is the best at the near-term prediction. His stories take tech that exists today and just make it mainstream, creating a futuristic sensibility that feels real because at bottom it is.
But of course I’m sure all of us have mentioned or at least considered John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar from 1969. It will convince you Brunner was a time traveler trying badly to hide his foreknowledge. The story takes place in 2010 in the US where President Obomi’s nation is plagued by school shootings and terrorist attacks. Gay lifestyles are widely accepted, satellite TV is normal as are electric cars and devices let people record shows for later viewing. Oh and China has replaced the Soviet Union as the major superpower alongside the US.
The answer, it seems to me, depends largely on two things: 1) whether we’re defining “best/worst” as the ratio of things the story gets right out of those things it predicts, or as measured against the relevant reality that came to be; and 2) the scope of the story’s future.
Let me try to parse this out a bit more concretely.
Best/Worst: Consider story X. It predicts Y future things. Z turned out to be correct.
One way of thinking of the story’s success in predicting the future is just by concentrating on the ratio Y/Z. If it predicted 6 things, and 3 out of those 6 came to pass, it was half “accurate” according to this scheme.
A different way of regarding its forecasting finesse is to stack its predictions up against all relevant trends (germane to the story’s idea or theme) that happened in the real world. Again, imagine the story predicted 6 things, and 3 out of those 6 came to pass; but 3 other major trends, that would have clearly changed the story if the author had anticipated them, also came to pass, and the story missed all three. In this scheme, it would have gotten only 3 items out of a total of 6 + 3 = 9, so it would be one-third “accurate.”
Future Scope: Consider a really short story that relies for its sf-nal effect primarily on a single prediction. It gets it right. Compare it with an ambitious novella, full of complex world building, that predicts eleven major things, and gets five of them right. Which is more “accurate”?
I’ve provided this long preamble to illustrate just how arduous trying to measure fictional prediction would be, if one were to try to go about it in any systematic manner. Considering that authors are seldom setting out to predict the future to begin with, it also seems overly reductive to take this on.
So, rather than zooming in on specific predictions and assessing a story’s prognosticative prowess, I’d like instead to consider something far more subjective: a story’s ability to evoke the sense of a complete, lived-in future. In other words, stories that conjure up ambitious, often technologically inspired worlds that feel like they might exist (even when they’re set in our past and we know full well that they don’t). I’ve limited my list to ten volumes, a mix of novels and short story collections. I’ll leave it up to you, intrepid reader, to do the exploring.
1) C. I. Defontenay, Star
2) Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man
3) Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
4) William Gibson, Neuromancer
5) Pat Cadigan, Synners
6) Maureen F. McHugh, China Mountain Zhang
7) Linda Nagata, Vast
8) Ian McDonald, River of Gods
9) Robert Reed, The Cuckoo’s Boys
10) Rachel Swirsky, How the World Became Quiet
And what about the worst stories at predicting the future?
Any science fiction that is simply cosmetic in nature, that substitutes our words and our ideas for future-speak.
Oh, and all science fiction predicting either a utopia or apocalypse by 2014.
It’s 1992 and World War Terminus has left Earth shrouded under a tent of radioactive dust. Most animals are endangered or extinct. A few people still live on Earth, clinging to the familiar, in a world where entropy is poised to reduce civilization to pudding-like kipple, a decomposing, endless disorder.
Fortunately, there are nifty futuristic devices to get you through the day. The mood organ stimulates anything from despair to ecstasy; there’s even mood 3 to stimulate a desire to activate the device. The empathy box is a spiritual tool, allowing you to experience a collective consciousness link to the suffering of Wilbur Mercer undertaking a ceaseless mountain climb under a barrage of stones.
Most humans, at least those not deemed “special” by radioactive mutation, have emigrated to the harsh colony worlds where they scratch out an existence assisted by organic android slaves.
Rick Deckard stayed on Earth. His big chance comes when he’s given the opportunity to “retire” six renegade Nexus-6 androids hiding on Earth. The bounty money will allow him to replace his electric replica sheep with a real animal, and perhaps give some meaning to his life.
This is Philip K Dick’s dystopia, his 1968 novel: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set in a future that is now the past and re-interpreted in the 1982 film: Blade Runner. It’s a novel fizzling with ideas, of underlying realities, of snazzy mind-altering devices, of alternative religions.
It’s 2015 and this dystopic vision hasn’t come to pass. Many elements are incorrect. We still haven’t got those flying cars or laser guns. But what Philip K. Dick got right was the people. People who struggle in the face of entropy, who ask what it means to be human, who are shallow enough to worry about their neighbours’ good opinion in this bleak world.
They haven’t come to pass, but organic androids don’t seem that far away—potentially. If we can clone a sheep; we can clone a human. And maybe tinker with the genome to give our creations altered capabilities. A computer program recently passed the Turing test, fooling people that it was human. Maybe we could place such an artificial intelligence into one of those life-like, uncanny-valley android bodies.
And if we did create such an entity, how would we treat them?
In the novel society considers androids less than human. Android lack empathy which is defined as the essential spark of humanity. So the androids’ self-awareness, their desires for freedom and self-expression can be ignored. Androids are things, chattel; they can be killed without compunction. As Rick Deckard hunts down the rogue androids, this notion is explored. What does it mean to be human? To me, the unfolding story raises questions about how we treat groups we consider to be different, to be other.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a dazzling novel of futuristic device and social mores, of metaphysics. And if it got the window dressing wrong, I think the questions it poses are very right indeed.
I wouldn’t necessary used the words predicting the future, but I know what you mean. I think the question becomes which of the things sci/fi writers envisioned inspired engineers to sit down and actually invent them?
Personally, I lived my childhood surrounded by Jules Verne’s books. I think I’ve read about 25 of them, most of them multiple times. I think Jules Verne was the true embodiment of a visionary. His plots were magnificent and he came up with a lot of cool things that didn’t exist at the time, making his stories much more amazing. I can only imagine reading his prose back in the day when it was first published…
I know that most people cite the submarine as being something he had imagined ahead of time in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), but in fact some submarines have been used before that (1863) and he just took the idea and made it much cooler.
I think that his best prediction is the trip to the Moon in From Earth to the Moon. Yes, of course, his invention included a giant cannon shooting a bullet-looking thing up in the air, but still… With a little tweaking, this idea came true.
H.G. Wells (another author whose books filled my shelves) also imagined ways of traveling far and fast, but his invention didn’t come true, at least not at the time of this writing. Wells imagined a substance called cavorite (named after a character) that had anti-gravity properties. I have to admit, it’s a much cooler idea, and probably a far smoother ride than the one Jules Verne had imagined, but as I said, it’s still just an idea…
And since we’re talking about Wells… invisibility? Huh… Not there yet.
Ray Bradbury, another heavy champion of sci/fi, had his share of cool ideas. In his Farenheit 451 he spoke about some “thimble radios,” little things inside the ears that could make sounds. In other words, he predicted today’s earbuds. Somebody at Apple must’ve read this book at some point. Perhaps someone should send them a copy of The Invisible Man.
Most of the time sci/fi predictions are linked to something very specific, like an invention or a place. But there’s one book that actually predicted an entire society, strikingly close to the world we live in today. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar envisioned a world set in the year 2010, where a nation is run by a popular leader named President Obomi and things such as random shootings and terrorist attacks are regular occurrences. Not to mention that marijuana was legal. Who would’ve thought?
One thing that I take from all of these books is that imagination drives progress. Yes, we need the engineers to build the things, but someone must have the idea, and ideas are so much easier presented inside a plot. I am still hoping that in my lifetime I’ll see stuff such as teleportation, complete limb regeneration, near light speed… Things like that. People say that today we have a much better understanding of the world and we know that these things are nearly impossible, much more so than the airplane or the TV were in their own time. I don’t really think that. Like Einstein said: “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.”
It’s long been said that science-fiction is a precursor to science-fact, and the world around us proves just that. I think we can all agree that Orwell’s classic 1984 did a terrifying job of portraying a future totalitarian society that in some ways mimics our own. It may have been his answer to Communism, but it’s also a powerful parable of a world under the constant threat of government spying, widespread surveillance, jargon and censorship that isn’t completely unlike our own today. The amount of surveillance cameras that exist in the Western world alone is a testament to the novel’s power, not to mention the limitless ways in which it is possible for someone with the right influence and tools to hack, track, exploit, erase and destroy data at their will, all prophesied by 1984. While Orwell certainty didn’t create the dystopia, much like Tolkien and the fantasy counterpart, he without question brought it into the spotlight. Any writers working today in the worlds of dystopia owe their tribute to Mr. Orwell.
Of course, other honorable mentions include the satirical Brave New World with its “mood enhancing medicine” (anti-depressants, anyone?) genetic engineering and, of course, topic of censoring entertainment material that’s deemed contradictory to present times or considered “dangerous” to the public. And where would we be without Jules Verne’s From The Earth to the Moon? His vision of traveling to our Moon mimics the event of Apollo 11 so closely that it borders on terrifying. And let’s not forget the cyberpunk novel Neuromancer with the Internet, Google Glass, hacking and virtual realities.
As for inaccuracy, while it still holds tremendous weight as a Gothic and science fiction novel, Shelley’s Frankenstein doesn’t exactly match up with modern times as far as scientific precision goes, something we can all be thankful for. And while Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels paints a marvelous depiction of Mars with all its planetary politics, swash buckling action, magic and mysticism and hair-raising adventures, our world’s version of Mars is nothing but one empty desert. I’m sad to report that there are no colossal cities and airships to be found on Mars. Then again…no human has actually ever walked on Mars…
I guess we’ll find out in a couple of decades, eh?
No one will be surprised when I answer “Greg Egan.” But when I was doing research for my book on his fiction, I found that his work was consistently on point at predicting the 21st century back in the 1990s. His general approach to near-future extrapolation is characterized by restraint. For instance, in his stories set in the first half of the 21st century, there’s pretty much no space travel. That’s unfortunately proved to be true. It’s only in Diaspora, about a thousand years in the future, that he features space travel as a routine matter.
The thing he totally nailed is information technology. In “Our Lady of Chernobyl” (1994), he has a character with something very much like an iPad consulting something very much like an app, with the program named “Where Am I?” Last I checked there were several apps named “Where Am I” available in the Apple store. The detective in the story interacts with a voice program very much like Siri, with some of the same limitations on voice recognition and overly literal thinking. In Diaspora (1997) he has characters able to check articles and references on the Internet within seconds, using them to support a real-life argument taking place.
But Egan also excelled at looking at second order consequences–not just tech advances, but what those would imply for our interactions with them. In Permutation City (1994), he has his characters using email all the time. That doesn’t take too much of a crystal ball back in the ’90s, when AOL was just getting started. But he also shows what is essentially the arms race between spam and anti-spam filters, although he doesn’t use the word “spam,” obviously. One of his characters ends up reading a message simply because it keeps evading her junk mail filter’s attempts to read it.
On the other hand, Egan was really over-optimistic about advances in bio-technology. In stories like Distress and “Yeyuka,” he had us getting close to wearable technology that could monitor our blood, checking for things like cholesterol levels and cancer markers on a continuous basis and synthesizing whatever pharmaceuticals we might need on demand. In our world, our wearable technology is just getting to the point where it can consistently monitor our pulse, step count, and sleeping habits. In the world of Distress entire islands have been built by gengineering ecosystems like coral reefs. So his track record isn’t perfect on 21st century speculation. But compared to a lot of work from the 1990s, his fiction holds up surprisingly well.
I’m a big fan of Frederik Pohl’s short stories. Can I just pick his Del Rey “Best Of” collection?
The stories get details wrong, of course; these are ’50s and ’60s tinted futures. Still, as big picture predictions go, they are astutely observed and relevant: the consumerism addressed in “The Midas Plague,” the economics of “The Day the Icicle Works Closed,” the extreme advertising in “The Tunnel Under the World,” the casual racism examined in “The Day the Martians Came.”
At the Campbell Conference this spring, we watched a video that fused Pohl’s own reading of his gender-exploration story “Day Million” with music and dance. I was struck by the fact that the music and production of the video, produced decades later, seemed far more dated than the 1966 story itself. It posits two people that the reader might not even recognize as people anymore, and explores the similarities and vast differences, while contrasting with the 1960s guy he pictured reading the story. The story ends with the sentence, “And you — with your after-shave lotion and your little red car, pushing papers across a desk all day and chasing tail all night — tell me, how the hell do you think you would look, to Tiglath-Pileser, say, or Attila the Hun?” The “you” of the story is still recognizable, but I think we might be closer to some aspects of Pohl’s thousand-years-hence couple than he might have imagined when he wrote the story.