Pressed to give a four-word definition of science fiction, one could do worse than "stories about the future." That stark simplification does the complex and varied genre a disservice, as the defenders of science fiction against its critics won't hesitate to claim. And those critics are many, including most recently the writer Ian McEwan, despite the fact that his new novel Machines Like Me is about the introduction of intelligent androids into human society. Sci-fi fans have taken him to task for distancing his latest book from a genre he sees as insufficiently concerned with the "human dilemmas" imagined technologies might cause, but he has a point: set in an alternate 1982, Machines Like Me isn't about the future but the past.
Then again, perhaps McEwan's novel is about the future, and the androids simply haven't yet arrived on our own timeline — or perhaps, like most enduring works of science fiction, it's ultimately about the present moment. The writers in the sci-fi pantheon all combine a heightened awareness of the concerns of their own eras with a certain genuine prescience about things to come.
Writing in the early 1860s, Jules Verne imagined a suburbanized 20th century with gas-powered cars, electronic surveillance, fax machines and a population at once both highly educated and crudely entertained. Verne also included a simple communication system that can't help but remind us of the internet we use today — a system whose promise and peril Neuromancer author William Gibson described on television more than 130 years later.
In the list below we've rounded up Verne and Gibson's predictions about the future of technology and humanity along with those of seven other science-fiction luminaries. Despite coming from different generations and possessing different sensibilities, these writers share not just a concern with the future but the ability to express that concern in a way that still interests us, the denizens of that future. Or rather, something like that future: when we hear Aldous Huxley predict in 1950 that "during the next fifty years mankind will face three great problems: the problem of avoiding war; the problem of feeding and clothing a population of two and a quarter billions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three billions, and the problem of supplying these billions without ruining the planet’s irreplaceable resources," we can agree with the general picture even if he lowballed global population growth by half.
In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke predicted not just the internet but 3D printers and trained monkey servants. In 1977, the more dystopian-minded J.G. Ballard came up with something that sounds an awful lot like modern social media. Philip K. Dick's timeline of the years 1983 through 2012 includes Soviet satellite weapons, the displacement of oil as an energy source by hydrogen, and colonies both lunar and Martian. Envisioning the world of 2063, Robert Heinlein included interplanetary travel, the complete curing of cancer, tooth decay, and the common cold, and a permanent end to housing shortages. Even Mark Twain, despite not normally being regarded as a sci-fi writer, imagined a "'limitless-distance' telephone" system introduced and "the daily doings of the globe made visible to everybody, and audibly discussable too, by witnesses separated by any number of leagues."
As much as the hits impress, they tend to be outnumbered in even science fiction's greatest minds by the misses. But as you'll find while reading through the predictions of these nine writers, what separates science fiction's greatest minds from the rest is the ability to come up with not just interesting hits but interesting misses as well. Considering why they got right what they got right and why they got wrong what they got wrong tells us something about the workings of their imaginations, but also about the eras they did their imagining in — and how their times led to our own, the future to which so many of them dedicated so much thought.
- Jules Verne
- Mark Twain
- Aldous Huxley
- Arthur C. Clarke
- Robert Heinlein
- J.G. Ballard
- William Gibson
- Philip K. Dick
- Isaac Asimov (1964)
- Isaac Asimov (1983)
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.