Last week, I talked about how science fiction is not about predicting the future. Why? Because science fiction writers don't attempt to predict the future, they invent it. However, it's admittedly hard to defend that position when there are many example of how science fiction inventions did predate some of today's technologies. So which is it? Does science fiction successfully predict the future or not?
Let's take a closer look at how science fiction tries to make me out to be a liar.
What Science Fiction Got Right
So what did science fiction get right? There are several often-cited examples.
For starters, in 1896's The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), H.G. Wells forecasted the dangers of genetic engineering. The following year, he described the method by which a man could be rendered invisible using light-refracting metamaterials in The Invisible Man. Wells had a keen insight as to the future of warfare, too. In 1903, he predicted tank warfare in the short story "The Land Ironclads." Thirty years later in The Shape of Things to Come, he predicted airborne warfare as well. He also predicted the use of an atomic bomb in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. Some say that Wells even foresaw tablet devices like the iPad when he referenced a flat square with moving pictures in 1899's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). (It was, however, Ray Bradbury who is credited with foreseeing flat screen televisions in 1953's Fahrenheit 451.)
Arthur C. Clarke is often credited with predicting the geostationary communications satellite, which he described in a 1945 nonfiction article for the British magazine Wireless World. That's why we call the orbit of such satellites the Clarke Orbit. Clarke is also credited with predicting household computers, online banking and online shopping. Are you wondering if Clarke ever predicted people hacking into computers for nefarious purposes? Nope. William Gibson did in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. Gibson also predicted Google Glass, a wearable device that integrates online information with reality overlays.
Classic sci-fi author Hugo Gernsback predicted the television in his novel Ralph 124C 41+ (first serialized in 1911), about a superintelligent scientist who recounts the wonders of the technological world. (The title is a play on words meaning "one to foresee for one another.") In that same novel, Gernsback also predicted the use of radar, 25 years before it was a reality.
Even Mark Twain, not normally associated with being a science fiction writer, got in on the act. In his story "From the London Times of 1904," Twain described a global communication network where people could see and talk to one another. Can you say "Internet?" Author David Brin expanded on this idea a bit by focusing on the ubiquity of the Internet is his 1990 novel Earth. Look around you at any public place and count how many people are accessing the web on their cellphones. I'd call that ubiquitous.
Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation novel (1951), posited an "Encyclopedia Galactica" which was the sum total of all knowledge of the human race. To me, this sounds an awful lot like Wikipedia. In a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, Asimov also predicted online education on a global network.
Other "predictions" that came true? In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870), Jules Verne talked about the idea of scuba diving. The utopian science-fiction novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy incorporated the idea of credit cards. The cubicle first reared its worker-bee head in 1902, with E.M. Forster's short story "The Machine Stops." (Sorry, Dilbert!) In 1920, Karel Capek wrote a play called R.U.R. (which stood for "Rossum's Universal Robots") which coined the word "robot" and defined them as synthetic autonomous workers. Aldous Huxley predicted mood-enhancing drugs in 1932's Brave New World. In 1934, E.E. "Doc" Smith talked about storing data on metallic discs that sound much like CDs and DVDs. As a final example, Douglas Adams predicted the advent of e-books in 1993.
The Reality of Science Fiction Predictions
With so many examples of sci-fi predictions coming true—and even more not even mentioned—can't we say that science fiction is a good predictor of the future after all? It helps to realize a few things.
First, science fiction is a literature of looking forward that inspires awe and wonder in people, especially the younger ones who will one day grow up and be the pioneers of technology. Many of today's NASA engineers, for example, cite Star Trek as their inspiration for helping send people into space. To do so successfully means they must envision what a future in space might be like. Science fiction helps them do that. In such cases, science fiction is not the predictor of the advanced future, but rather the inspiration and motivation for it.
Also to consider: Many of the more successful predictions are made by people with a scientific background. The best science fiction stories are the ones grounded in science fact. The more grounded they are, the more believable they are. Investigation into the background science usually leads to more informed decisions about how it could all turn out. (The above does not apply to H.G. Wells. That guy was spot-on on a whole new, even creepy, level that defies any rational explanation.)
Perhaps the largest indicator of whether science fiction is a good predictor of the future is numerical evidence. For every successful "prediction" made above, there are hundreds more that have not been realized. Of course, an optimist would say it's just a matter of time, and that may be, but the takeaway is that, as cool as successful predictions are, science fiction has a poor track record for making successful prognostications.
The Final Verdict
So is science fiction a predictor of the future? Not really. Science fiction writers don't set out to predict what our future will look like, they invent futures that support the stories they want to tell. Such creations—especially in the case of stories founded on real science and scientific trends—can indeed turn out to be accurate portrayals of the future. More importantly, such stories inspire young minds to realize that exciting future. While some may look at science fiction as being a fortuneteller of things to come, I like to think of it as a window into what could be if we set our minds to it.