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Predictions from Sci-Fi Authors

Predictions from sci-fi authors often foretell future technologies as they blur the line between speculation and fact.

By Futurism StaffPublished 8 years ago 16 min read

Science fiction authors are modern-day prophets. Many of the predictions from the great writers like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick came to fruition at the turn of the 21st century. Writer Michael Banks closely followed the growth of online web services and the evolution of the internet from the early 1980s onward. His perception on the predictive nature of science fiction can be proven through a study of the the great sci-fi author's ability to blur the lines between speculation and fact are often the catalyst for authentic advance in tech. His books, including Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed the NationandOn the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Foundersdelve into the results of this chain of predictions. His perceptions will continue to drive further authors to continue to essentially create the future. Many of his theories were captured in a 1978 article from vintage sci-fi magazine Starlog.

"Some moments later they had the second screen and the electrical measuring instruments on the roof. Archie propped the screen up against a skylight so that it faced the rising sun, fastened a voltmeter across its terminals, and took a reading. The needle sprang at once to two volts...”

“Not many of you, I suppose, can imagine the time before the satellite relays gave us our present world communications system. When I was a boy, it was impossible to send TV programs across the oceans, or even to establish reliable radio contact around the curve of the Earth without picking up a fine assortment of cackles and bangs on the way. Yet now we take interference-free circuits for granted, and think nothing of seeing our friends on the other side of the globe as clearly as if we were standing face to face...”

The preceding quotes might have been taken from articles in any of a dozen magazines published in the 21st century. The first could be a description of a test procedure run on a new type of solar cell, while the second might be a reminiscence of a communications engineer. In fact, the quotes are just what they appear to be. But they did not appear in any magazine published in the 2000s.

The “solar cell” test appeared in June of 1940 on the pages of Super Science Stories, part of a short story titled “Let There Be Light,” by Robert A. Heinlein. The “reminiscence” is from Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Other Side of the Sky,” first published in 1957.

Solar energy and communications satellites were old hat predictions to sci-fi fans in the 1940s and 50s—along with the logistics of putting a man on the Moon, pollution problems and their solutions, pocket calculators, and hundreds of other aspects of a world that would not exist for decades. In fact, most fans knew that what they were reading as fiction would one day become fact, just as we react to much of what we encounter in sci-fi today.

But if you’re a bit skeptical about the future predictions from sci-fi authors today, consider how outlandish modern technology must have appeared when it was presented—before its time—in science fiction.

Image via Pinterest user Spencer Rhys Hughes

Probable Predictions

Pocket calculators, for instance. In 1950, the idea of carrying a computer in your pocket was, to most people, as unlikely as walking to Mars. In a book published that year, Isaac Asimov described a scene in which one of his characters “removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt... its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn from use, nimble fingers played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.” At that time the average real-life computer filled a room, and the transistor was in its infancy. Yet Asimov described the pocket calculator almost exactly as it existed in the 70s. Today, our pocket calculators have advanced into carrying our whole lives in our pockets. Our cellphones hold our calendars, contacts, reminders, photos, credit cards, and more. Additionally, virtual reality has become our reality with the development of technology such as Oculus and VR headsets.

Countless similarly “unlikely” ideas crowded the pages of early science fiction magazines and paperbacks have now become our reality, and then some.

Robert Heinlein, among others, presented to sci-fi readers the concepts of nuclear energy and atomic weapons at a time when most Americans didn’t know atoms from anthills. Heinlein is also credited with inventing “Waldos”— robot arms that mimic the motions of their human operators, used for the remote-controlled handling of dangerous radioactive materials. Heinlein used the devices in a story titled “Waldo,” published in 1942; nearly 20 years later the real-life inventors adapted the name—and perhaps the idea—from the story.

Asimov, Heinlein, and their peers also produced a good number of forecasts in the area of science fiction’s most popular theme, space travel. Space stations and lunar landings have been a staple of science fiction since the turn of the century, and unmanned probes similar to the Mariner and Viking craft were used in many stories. Not surprisingly, a good bit of the hardware and nearly all of the navigational methods and logistics of space travel first saw light in science fiction.

In at least one instance, modern space technology was adapted directly from sci-fi. In Clarke’s story, “The Other Side of the Sky,” quoted earlier, there is an exact description of the “synchronous orbit” vital to a globe-girdling satellite communications system. Clarke originated the concept in the early 40s, and it has been suggested that synchronous orbits be renamed “Clarke Orbits.”

A complete listing of what has been accurately forecast by sci-fi authors would run to volumes, but the foregoing gives you some idea of just how accurately predictive sci-fi has been—and can be. Even though a listing of the inaccurate forecasts in sci-fi (stories in which the first Moon landing occurs in 1979, for instance) would be even more massive, sci-fi authors have probably had more success in predicting the future than any other class of prognosticator.

Image via Pinterest user Spencer Rhys Hughes

Foraging Forecasts

All of which might lead one to wonder whether science fiction writers have some secret knowledge forbidden to the rest of us, or if they are perhaps possessed of psychic abilities undreamed of.

Actually, the methods used by sci-fi writers to create logical futures are far less esoteric. Forecasting in science fiction is basically a process of extrapolation, though other matters are taken into consideration, as illustrated by writer and editor Frederik Pohl's description of his methods:

“I attempt to project likely changes in technology,” Pohl explains, “and continue straight-line extrapolation of selected social trends, allowing them to interact to see what will happen. I’m not trying to predict, though—only to show ‘what if’...”

Selecting the most probable extrapolations, or estimates, of trends and developments is the key to making accurate forecasts. The determination is made through the use of both intuition and logic, validated by the fact that science fiction is based firmly in science fact. Most sci-fi writers have some scientific background (many are professionals in one field or another) and if a writer is not familiar with a subject he is dealing with in a story, he researches it in-depth. Ben Bova stresses factual basis heavily in his approach. For him, mapping the future involves “A combination of research on the latest scientific and technological developments, together with assessments of how these developments will affect individuals, society, politics, economics, etc.”

As an example of how strongly science figures in sci-fi, consider the incidents surrounding the publication of a story titled “Deadline” in the March, 1944, issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In the story, the author described details of the production of an atomic bomb, months before scientists working on the super-secret Manhattan Project completed their work.

The details were so accurate that intelligence agents quickly descended upon the magazine’s office, looking for a security leak. But there had been no leak, as Astounding's editor, John W. Campbell, proved to the agents. The author had obtained all his information from reports made public during the previous five years. He had only to read various journals and put together factual information to create something that was pure fiction, as far as the American public was concerned.

Image by Chris Foss

Origins of Predictions

Estimates and predictions must sometimes be tempered by the artistic requirements of a story, however, and there is some guesswork involved—especially if a story is set in the far future, according to Poul Anderson, whose techniques are similar to those of Pohl and Bova.

“I make certain assumptions about the future,” Anderson says, “then work out the consequences. For the near future, these may be just extrapolations from the present. Farther off in time, they have to be quite arbitrary.

“No matter how near the future,” he continues, “there is no such thing as prediction; one can only make educated guesses, which will almost certainly prove wrong.”

Though some fans might disagree with Anderson’s estimation of the validity of those “educated guesses,” his statement echoes the sentiments of other writers regarding prediction. Most writers will deny that they are even attempting to predict the future; rather the intent is to present possible futures, as Frederik Pohl’s “what if… ” implies. They are well aware that no one can say with absolute certainty that a particular event or development will occur—there are too many variables involved in any extrapolation.

“Predicting, even as far as 25 years away, can be a very risky business,” maintains Gordon R. Dickson, author of the popular Dorsai series. “This is because of what I’ve called the ‘wild card’ phenomenon: Every so often someone comes along with the discovery of penicillin or the development of transistors—totally unexpected developments—and our technological society becomes noticeably modified in customs and behavior by that fact.”

But even if the most careful of extrapolations can sometimes be upset by unexpected developments, there is still some value in knowing the possible consequences of current trends and activities. With such knowledge, we can take steps to avoid the more negative consequences and enhance the positive.

In addition to extrapolation, sci-fi writers sometimes use other, less conventional methods in their forecasts.

“I literally dream my futures,” says writer A. E. van Vogt, relating an instance in which this “method” was used. “A few years ago Harlan Ellison and I wrote a story together. I asked him to suggest a title. He suggested, 'The Human Operators.' "

“That night, and the next few nights, I wakened myself every 90 minutes with an industrial timer, and each time considered the title and its implications. On the fourth night, or thereabouts, I had a sinister picture (dream) of a large spaceship in a very distant part of space with only one person aboard. My impression: This was a ship that had 'escaped.' Once I had that implication, the rest followed logically; In my daytimes I’m a square who can reason out the possibilities of an idea once it comes.”

Some writers base their futures on the past, on the theory that history is cyclic—repeating itself. Gordon Dickson draws heavily on the habits and customs of earlier civilizations in his future novels. Lloyd Biggle, Jr. has also used this idea to great effect in stories in which his characters revive aspects of the “long gone” 20th century—such as baseball and nightclubs.

And there are writers, such as Clifford Simak, who use no conscious method in developing a story.

"Continually there are ideas and stories which are ‘hatching’ in my head,” Simak explains. “When subconsciously one develops to the point where it shows some promise, I then start putting the ideas down on paper, trying to work out the problems."

“This hatching process is something of which, on the surface, I am unaware. Somehow the ideas have been inserted into the computer which is my brain, and that works away on them until the idea begins to take some definite form and can be worked on for plot development. In writing any story, of course, I pay considerable attention to background detail which will help explain a situation... I’m not satisfied with saying something is so—I want to know why it is so.”

Image via Geek Tyrant

Looking to the Future

Considering the number of successful forecasts sci-fi writers have made in the past, perhaps a look at what some of them feel might lie in our future is in order.

There is an interesting variety of opinion among writers as to what might be our major source of energy a quarter-century from now. Frederik Pohl, among others, feels that we will still rely on fossil fuels for most of our energy, “with nuclear fission energy peaking around that time, but still contributing less than coal, oil, or gas. Solar energy will begin to make a substantial contribution, and after another twenty-five years it will be providing the bulk of energy used.”

Ben Bova saw water as possibly being the major energy source in twenty-five years. This is not as unlikely as it sounds; seawater is an excellent source of deuterium—the fuel for fusion reactors—and hydrogen, an excellent chemical fuel.

Hydrogen, produced in abundance, may be fuel for tomorrow’s automobiles. As for the automobile itself, it is doubtful that it will be phased out by mass transit systems; in several writers’ opinions, the auto is a fairly efficient mass transit system in itself.

There could be fewer automobiles in our future, however. Pohl feels that there may be a decline in personal travel, brought on by advances in telecommunications.

“There is no real reason why anyone should drive fifty miles to shuffle papers on a desk and talk to colleagues,” Pohl says, “when telecommunications can let him do all that in his own home.”

Poul Anderson is more concerned with the social and political aspects of our future than with technology. When asked what might be the most significant developments of the next 25 years, he replied, “In the aftermath of Vietnam and Portugal, the loss of the entire Eastern hemisphere to Communism—for the most part, gradually and piecemeal—and not always under that name.”

As a result of this, he sees the US forced into isolationism, this in turn resulting in repeated failures of the economy, society, and technology itself. Anderson also sees the need to maintain a habitable environment creating problems in the future—unless it is dealt with soon. “Though this is the foremost problem from a survival standpoint,” he says, “it is also the most obviously soluble one. Mostly, we already know what to do, and just need to find ways of making society do it. Therefore, I put the social problems first.”

Overpopulation will be another serious problem to contend with, in Gordon Dickson's opinion—particularly because it can be the source of so many other problems and conflicts.

"Far and away, the greatest problem is going to be the matter of overpopulation. Pollution we could lick right now, if we gave it the necessary attention and money. Overpopulation is still running away from us; it will continue to run away from us for a number of generations even if we can put the brakes on drastically right now, simply because there are so many young people in the world who will become parents."

"Aside from this, the greatest problem will be culture shock,” Dickson continues. “The time is past when someone growing up could dream of owning the white house on the hill and a coach-and-four, for example. Nowadays, by the time you grow up the house is entirely different, the horses are no longer used for transportation, and the hill itself may not be there; it may have been bulldozed flat, or turned into a lake—or a city dump.”

But Dickson, like other writers, is not entirely pessimistic about the future.

Image by Vincent Di Fate

“There is the fact that we are moving into space, whether people like it or not; and this will be part of our environment and necessarily part of our thinking. Those of us who are alive today may spend our old age in hospitals in orbit— where our more feeble bodies will have a chance of surviving the debility that goes along with old age.”

Dickson also shares the opinion of other writers in his long-range view of the future.

“I think we’re moving into a time in which the average person will have to go on learning all the days of his or her life; and, inevitably, the race will go to the swift—those who have the greatest capacity to learn. This may sound unfair on the surface, and certainly, to those of us who dream of everybody having the same opportunity for a good life, to be cruelly unfair. But in the end it may be the saving of the race in that we can no longer let mediocrity steer this world-ship in which we are all passengers. We want the best possible people at the helm and in charge of the machinery which makes it move.”

The most optimistic projections made by science fiction writers are in areas of technological development. Dickson's orbiting hospital, viable methods of harnessing solar energy, the continued automation of industry, and improved global communications and transportation networks are but a few of the many developments foreseen for the next 25 years. But, even in optimism, some writers are skeptical, wondering how such new developments will be used, and how accessible the benefits of technology will be.

Poul Anderson, however, feels that there is a faint possibility that technology will, in the end, buy humanity’s salvation.

“There will be scientific developments—especially in psychology and molecular biology—of tremendous long-range significance; it is barely possible, though unlikely, that these will include the first self-supporting extraterrestrial colonies, which could then become the nucleus of the next civilization.”

Such colonies are even now closer to reality than fiction, and the establishment of the first L-5 or Lunar colony will mark yet another science-fictional dream come true—at the same time paving the way for even greater dreams...

“Man was establishing his first permanent bridgehead on the Moon. Clavius Base could, in an emergency, be entirely self-supporting... With its complex of workshops, offices, storerooms, computer center, generators, garage, kitchen, laboratories, and food processing plant, Clavius Base was a miniature world in itself. And, ironically, many of the skills that had been used to build this underground empire had been developed during the half-century of the Cold War... but here they had been turned to the purposes of peace. After ten thousand years, Man had at last found something as exciting as war.” —from 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke.

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