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Entry updated 22 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.


This entry deals with sf as a "predictive" genre. For sf stories about foretelling future events, see Precognition.

The most widespread false belief about sf among the general public is that it is a literature of prediction. Very few sf writers have ever claimed this to be the case, although Hugo Gernsback did see one function of his sf magazines as to paint an accurate picture of the future. Very few of the stories he published lived up to his editorializing. When John W Campbell Jr took over the editorship of Astounding he demanded an increasing scientific plausibility from his writers, but a plausible-sounding "perhaps" is a long way from prediction.

None of this has prevented sf fans from crowing with delight when an sf writer has made a good guess, and the mythology of sf is full of such examples. H G Wells predicted the use of the tank in "The Land Ironclads" (December 1903 Strand), of aerial bombing in The War in the Air (1908) and of the atom bomb (more or less) in The World Set Free (1914). Ever since Einstein's mass-energy equations had been published, it had been generally known that enormous power was locked up in the atom, and stories about Nuclear Energy and atomic Weapons were commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s; more surprising is the prevision of atomic destruction in Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom (1895), whose Mad Scientist declares that "one grain of matter contains sufficient energy [...] to raise a hundred thousand tons nearly two miles" and proposes to destroy the Earth thus. Atomic-energy stories became much more accurate in the early 1940s, and Robert A Heinlein, Lester del Rey and Cleve Cartmill all wrote predictive stories before Hiroshima: "Blowups Happen" (September 1940 Astounding) and "Solution Unsatisfactory" (May 1941 Astounding) by Heinlein writing as Anson MacDonald, Nerves (September 1942 Astounding; exp 1956; rev 1976) by del Rey and "Deadline" (March 1944 Astounding) by Cartmill. Heinlein also predicted popular adoption of the water bed (originally a nineteenth-century medical invention) in Beyond This Horizon (April-May 1942 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1948), Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961); his "Waldo" (August 1942 Astounding) both anticipated and gave a name to remote-control Waldos; his Young Adult novel Space Cadet (1948) casually posits universal ownership of (and accessibility via) pocket-sized mobile phones.

Most early prediction stories were about Future War, future Weapons and the various possibilities of Invasion. Not many of them were correct; although several stories predicted war between the UK and Germany before 1914 (and, indeed, between the UK and almost everyone else), most of them centred on an invasion across the Channel which never took place. Edward Everett Hale wrote rather charmingly about an artificial satellite in "The Brick Moon" (October-December 1869 Atlantic Monthly). Arthur C Clarke published a celebrated article about communications satellites, "Extraterrestrial Relays" (October 1945 Wireless World), but this was not a story; nor, sadly, did it lead to a patent. Jules Verne is thought by many to have invented the submarine in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea 1873), but in fact functional submarines had existed since at least the eighteenth century. One of Verne's best pieces of prediction was quite accidental; the moon-shot in De la terre à la lune (1865), which was published with the sequel Autour de la lune (1870) in From the Earth to the Moon (trans 1873), is fired from a spot very close to Cape Canaveral in Florida. Rudyard Kipling predicted transatlantic aerial trade, specifically airmail post, in With the Night Mail (November 1905 McClure's; rev 1909 chap). Erasmus Darwin's long poem The Temple of Nature (1802) preceded Verne, Wells and just about everybody else in its joyful description of airborne fleets of transport ships, War in the air, submarines and great Cities with skyscrapers. Edwin Balmer had an early form of Lie Detector in The Achievements of Luther Trant (coll 1910) with William MacHarg. Hugo Gernsback had many technological predictions in Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; fixup 1925); this is one of the eighteen stories of the period quoted by Everett Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Early Years (1990) as anticipating television. Nevil Shute predicted metal fatigue as a danger to aircraft in his Technothriller No Highway (1948), written shortly before several planes crashed for exactly that reason.

It is a moderately impressive list, and could be made more so by multiplication of examples, but it proves very little. For every correct prediction a dozen were wrong, or correct only if facts are stretched a little; for example, Pulp-magazine sf of the 1930s made much of Death Rays; it is rather a dubious vindication to point out that laser beams can now be used as weaponry. The entry Futures Studies (which includes several examples of real prediction) discusses the usual strategy of sf writers when dealing with the future; their imaginative scenarios are as often as not meant as awful warnings, and the emphasis is almost invariably on what could happen, not what will happen. It would hardly be fair to attack sf writers as false prophets when they seldom think of themselves as being in the prophecy business at all. In many ways their errors are more interesting than their successes, for they add to our knowledge of social history. Our expectations of the future change just as quickly as history itself changes; the Automation to which Gernsback and others looked forward in the teens of the century had already become a potential nightmare by the time of Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Player Piano (1952; vt Utopia 14). Where sf is correct, of course, the explanation is not magic, just good research. Verne took much advice from his engineer friends and Shute spent many years as an aeronautical engineer – and, of course, many sf writers subscribe to scientific journals....

One area where sf can claim some credit is Space Flight; this was the central dream of sf, even during the years when respectable scientists regularly argued for its impossibility (see Rockets). But even here, though sf was right enough in the broad sense, it managed to get both the sociological and the technological details appallingly wrong. Most of Heinlein's early Moon rockets were built by capitalist enterprise, and not by the resources of the US Government; the Russian government, naturally, was not mentioned at all, even though it was in Russia that the first solidly grounded theorizing about space travel had taken place, in the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote somewhat didactic but staggeringly accurate prophetic stories on the subject, beginning in the nineteenth century. The eponymous vessel in Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) is, absurdly, constructed largely by teenage boys in the backyard. Only William Tenn ran counter to the free-enterprise spirit of most US sf by imagining in "Alexander the Bait" (May 1946 Astounding) that the space programme would be run by giant government institutions, not individuals or even corporations. Many sf stories about the first Moon landing omit the single most dramatic detail, that the entire proceedings would be watched on Earth on television. However, exceptions which did in fact predict a televised Moon landing include Homer Eon Flint's "The Planeteer" (9 March 1918 All-Story Weekly), Arthur C Clarke's Prelude to Space (1951; vt Master of Space 1961; vt The Space Dreamers 1969) and Raymond F Jones's "The Moon is Death" (March 1953 Future).

Computers are another area where early sf's predictive abilities were ridiculously askew; so preoccupied were sf writers with the dramatic possibilities of the Robot that they hardly noticed that back in the real world mechanical men were of little interest to anyone while the computer – driven by the invention of the transistor, likewise missed by sf – was rapidly transforming the face of the future. Sf writers caught up, of course, but only after computers were becoming commonplace. However, there were one or two remarkably prescient stories that foreshadowed the Internet (which see), and Frederik Pohl scored several hits with his early extrapolation of the computer-linked mobile phone in The Age of the Pussyfoot (October 1965-February 1966 Galaxy; 1969), as described in a briefing for Sleeper-Awakes returnees:

The remote-access computer transponder called the "joymaker" is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.

From the same decade, Vernor Vinge's "The Accomplice" (April 1967 If) deals with the theft of mainframe Computer time to generate an impressively faithful CGI film of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955 3vols).

Nearly all the examples cited above are cases of predictions in the sphere of Technology; more interesting perhaps, and generally with a slightly higher success rate, were the predictions made about future Politics and Sociology. Fortunately most Dystopias have not come into being in the real world, but certain aspects of them certainly have. One of the most interesting cases of prediction in the Soft Sciences was Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), whose melodramatic suppositions were, even as he wrote, being conceptually paralleled by the work of Sigmund Freud (1865-1939), who also came to believe that the human mind had a primitive component, the id, not wholly masked by the more reputable ego.

Occasionally the images thrown up by sf enter the public mind by an apparent process of osmosis, so that they become known even to those who do not read sf, and thereby create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some examples are given in Futures Studies, which discusses this question. Perhaps the most notable is again the case of Space Flight, where it is certainly arguable that the US Government could never have got away with budgeting such large amounts of the national income on the space programme had the desire for space exploration, largely catalysed by sf, not been so great.

Most sf prediction is set in the Near Future, and further examples are given in that entry. In the nature of things, a great many thematic entries in this encyclopedia necessarily deal in part with prediction. Apart from those already mentioned, entries where predictions in the social sciences predominate include Cities; Disaster, Ecology, Economics, Games and Sports, Leisure, Media Landscape and Overpopulation; more technical areas where sf has made checkable predictions are Communications, Cybernetics, Ecology, Machines, Medicine, Moon, Pollution, Power Sources, Transportation and Under the Sea; areas where sf predictions have not yet had the opportunity for a full testing include are Clones (confirmed by animal though not human experiments), Cryonics (many are frozen, none yet awoken), Cyborgs (an increasing commonplace of medical technology), Genetic Engineering (likewise), Nanotechnology, Space Habitats (looking less and less likely, alas), Spaceships, Suspended Animation, Terraforming and the extended possibilities of Upload. Many readers suppose that the Cyberpunk predictions of human experience of Virtual Realities achieved by plugging the brain into machines are truly predictive. A technical problem is that the neurons in the brain transmit information much more slowly than microprocessors do, which might make the brain/computer interface rather tricky – but time will tell.

An sf scholar who has written interestingly about prediction is Chris Morgan, whose relevant books (their remit extends well beyond sf to include popular science, journalism and so on) are The Shape of Futures Past: The Story of Prediction (1980) and, with David Langford, Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions (1981; exp 2017 ebook), the latter being especially funny and eye-opening. [PN/DRL]

see also: Futurology.


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