The Magic 8-Ball: Science Fiction Predicts

It’s a cliché among writers and critics of science fiction to say that the genre is not about predicting the future, but instead is meant to hold a mirror up to the present. There’s obviously some truth to this when we read books like 1984—famously titled as a reversal of 1948, the year it was written. And in the words of William Gibson:

“I think the least important thing about science fiction for me is its predictive capacity. Its record for being accurately predictive is really, really poor! If you look at the whole history of science fiction, what people have said is going to happen, what writers have said is going to happen, and what actually happened — it’s terrible. We’re almost always wrong.”

What this vigorous denial of the predictive ability of science fiction somewhat obscures though, is the interesting back-and-forth exchange between fantastic literature and the real world.

Beginning long before science fiction emerged either as a term or a distinct genre, Jules Verne imagined, in startling clarity, many now commonplace technologies such as submarines, televisions, and even the taser. Like many later science fiction writers, Verne spent hours in research at the library—specifically in Verne’s case the Bibliothèque nationale de France—immersing himself in recent scientific and geographic writings. He would then extrapolate from general knowledge a possibility. What separates an SF writer from a futurist is the ability to take that possibility and turn it into a story. Sometimes the predicted tech becomes a metaphor, but Verne inspired many more scientific minds than his with the rigour of his imagination. For example, Michio Kaku noted Verne’s influence on a young  Edwin Hubble, describing the budding astronomer as “enthralled” by Verne’s tales in his book Parallel Worlds.

Arthur C. Clarke also acknowledged his debt to Verne, writing, in an introduction to a biography of Verne:

“Jules Verne had already been dead for a dozen years when I was born. Yet I feel strongly connected to him, and his works of science fiction had a major influence on my own career. He is among the top five people I wish I could have met in person.”
—Butcher, William (2006), Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press

Clarke himself wrote a letter to Wireless World in 1945 proposing geosynchronous satellites, which later became a key component of the space elevators in his novel The Fountains of Paradise. Geosynchronous orbit is still known as Clarke Orbit in some circles. He is often cited in discussions around the validity of science fiction as a predictive tool, but I would argue that Clarke wrote a formal proposal to a scientific paper and only later turned his concepts into a story.

And for both Verne and Clarke, telling a story was more important than designing the future, otherwise wouldn’t they have become researchers or scientists of some sort?

A 1964 article in the New York Times by Isaac Asimov is, for me, the perfect microcosm of the accuracy of science fiction writers. Parts of Asimov’s predictions for what future visitors would see at the 2014 World’s Fair are suprisingly accurate:

“…by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works…”

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set…”

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

But for many of his more accurate predictions, Asimov falls down on the specific details. Of the television, he goes on to say that:

“…transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible…”

Despite writing that robots will still not be very good in 2014, a thoroughly accurate prediction, he still imagined that they would be in general use for gardening. And where are the moving sidewalks in urban centres? No, airports don’t count.

Still, it’s no accident that Honda’s torturous acronym for their prototype robot is ASIMO. Science fiction has, without a doubt, been a huge influence and often a direct inspiration on the scientific community. But although to say that science fiction inspires scientists is true, it limits the scope of what is really a complex web of interrelations. Remember the hours and hours Verne spent in the library pouring over recent theories?

And what’s the downside of this incestuous relationship between the scientific community and science fiction?

William Gibson tells an anecdote about the fear he has around imagining future tech in his work: that someone will make it real. Apparently a group of West German hackers were once caught selling secrets to the KGB for cocaine and cash. At the trial, their twenty-something-year-old leader* stood up and told the judge he’d never understand them or their culture unless he’d read Neuromancer.

The thing is, not all science fiction writers imagine new technologies as an endless progressive bounty, some, like Gibson, are busy writing cautionary tales—or at least with ambivalence. The import of a given story is really up to the reader in the end. In the words of Doris Lessing:

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”

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*Possibly a reference to the trial of Marcus Hess? I can’t find a clear source for this anecdote, but trust me, Gibson has told it more than once…maybe No Maps for these Territories? I’ve lost my copy…