9 Science-Fiction Authors Predict the Future: How Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick & More Imagined the World Ahead

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.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read Hun­dreds of Free Sci-Fi Sto­ries from Asi­mov, Love­craft, Brad­bury, Dick, Clarke & More

Free Sci­ence Fic­tion Clas­sics on the Web: Hux­ley, Orwell, Asi­mov, Gaiman & Beyond

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Isaac Asi­mov Recalls the Gold­en Age of Sci­ence Fic­tion (1937–1950)

The Art of Sci-Fi Book Cov­ers: From the Fan­tas­ti­cal 1920s to the Psy­che­del­ic 1960s & Beyond

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.

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