Science fiction prophecies

I wrote last week about attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg. You didn’t seriously think I was going to limit myself to just one column, did you?

All those science topics I talked about last week were included in the convention because science fiction concerns itself with “the shape of things to come,” which got me thinking about some of the predictions SF writers have made, both successfully and unsuccessfully, over the years.

The Shape of Things to Come was the actual title of a book by H. G. Wells, one of two famous SF writers (though the term “science fiction” had yet to be invented) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (The other was French writer Jules Verne.) Wells was concerned with the problems of society; The Shape of Thing to Come envisioned major wars fought in the 20th century, a distressingly accurate prediction. Jules Verne’s stories were more conventional adventures that took readers Around the World in 80 Days, From the Earth to the Moon and, of course, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which featured a high-tech submarine.

Neither Wells nor Verne, despite their influence, is considered the “father of science fiction.” That title belongs to Hugo Gernsback. In 1911 he filled a few empty pages in the radio magazine he published with a short story: Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. Gernsback’s prose was abominable, but he wasn’t really interested in writing: his interest was scientific prediction.

He was remarkably good at it. Microfiche, skywriting, solar power, holograms, fax machines and even aluminum foil were all part of Ralph’s daily life–but certainly not yet part of the daily lives of Gernsback’s readers. And then there was the “parabolic wave reflector”: today we know it as radar.

The success of Ralph 124C 41+ led Gernsback to found Amazing Stories in 1926. That was the first science fiction magazine, and that’s why the awards for the year’s best science fiction, handed out at WorldCon, are called “Hugos.”

SF was certainly not a respected or respectable form of literature in those early years (nor is it today, in certain snobbish circles). Nevertheless, SF writers made some remarkably accurate predictions.

During the war years, for example, stories appeared about a terrifying new weapon that drew on the energy contained in the atom itself. This garnered a few writers and publishers visits from the FBI. Of course, the writers knew nothing about the Manhattan Project: they were just drawing on existing scientific knowledge and predicting where it might lead.

Another famous example is communications satellites. SF writer Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea in the 1940s. Today we take them for granted.

Robert Heinlein wrote a story called Waldo about an enormous man, trapped in orbit, who manipulated things through remote machines. Today, remote manipulators of this sort, used for handling hazardous materials, are called “waldoes.” (Heinlein also invented the water bed in an SF story, by the way.)

Space exploration, of course, has always been a big SF topic. It’s been said that many, maybe even most, of the engineers and scientists who worked on the Apollo program were inspired as youngsters by Heinlein’s stories about the colonization of the moon and the planets. But while the concept of space travel was popularized by SF, the details have sometimes been a bit fuzzy. Which leads us to the flip side of SF predictions: the misses.

Jules Verne’s predicted that the first trip to the moon would be launched from Florida: unfortunately, he had his moon-explorers fired out of a giant cannon.

Lots of SF stories were set in the steamy jungles of Venus. It was a real shame when we finally found out that what was really beneath those clouds was a barren place where it rains sulfuric acid and the temperature is hot enough to melt lead. Similarly, many stories depended on the “fact” that Mercury always kept one side to the Sun, just as the Moon always keeps one side to the Earth, so that one side of Mercury was very, very hot, and one side very, very cold. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be true, either. And then there are all those stories set among the canals of Mars. Blame 19th century astronomer Percival Lowell for that: the was sure he saw canals, and everybody else was willing to go along, until Mariner proved otherwise.

Arthur C. Clarke, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, foresaw giant orbiting space stations and a lunar colony, served by commercial flights, by the turn of the century. We’re not going to make it..

Today, SF is still making predictions. Hot topics in the field right now include…

Virtual Reality. Just about every story set in the future today includes some reference to computer-generated reality.

Nanotechnology. Tiny robots able to perform incredible tasks from cleaning out clogged arteries to retrieving inaccessible mineral resources make frequent appearances in today’s SF.

Genetic engineering. Is a human still a human when he’s been genetically engineered to have gills and webbed feet, or elongated for living in zero gravity? Is such engineering of humans ethical?

Mars. Basically, we’re all agreed: it’s time to go there.

Cyberspace. Canadian William Gibson wrote a novel called Neuromancer in the mid-1980s that pictured a dark, gritty future where people battled for power inside the world’s interlinked computer systems, a realm he called cyberspace. That gave birth to several similar novels and short stories by various people, and the new sub-genre was promptly labelled “cyberpunk” by the SF community. The term has since taken on a life of its own and has now made its way into mainstream thought, even appearing in TIME Magzine.

Which, oddly enough, ties back into Heinlein and an earlier generation of writers’ predictions that came true (and others, like global thermonuclear war, which, fortunately, did not). SF, though it looks to the future, is firmly rooted in present-day knowledge and concerns. As a result, its predictions can actually influence the future, whether through Heinlein-inspired aeronautical engineers or by imbedding the concepts of cyberspace firmly in the world’s collective consciousness. Its effect can be active–convincing a generation that it is possible to put humans on the moon–or reactive, warning us against the dangers of overpopulation, pollution, or even virtual reality.

And best of all, it can do all these things while entertaining us with terrific writing and a terrific story.

Can your favorite fiction genre claim as much?

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