In August of 1964, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote an article for The New York Times titled Visit to the World's Fair of 2014 in which he attempted to predict what the future would look like in 50 years. Here we are in 2014, the far and away "world of tomorrow" that Asimov wrote about, and we can now look back on Asimov's five-decades-old piece with the wisdom of hindsight. Regardless of the accuracy of Asimov's predictions, it's interesting to take a look back and see what the future looked like in the mind of someone who lived and breathed science fiction, a literary genre known to dabble in imagined—and with any bit of luck, realistic—futures.
While some of Asimov's predictions may have come true—things like shaded lenses that adjust to the amount of light shining upon them, functional-but-not-perfect robots, and communication that incorporates both sight and sound—many more of them have not. Alas, I'm still waiting for the kitchen that can auto-cook my meals, the aquafoil that will let me float above water like Marty McFly did on his hoverboard in Back to the Future III...or heck, even downtown slidewalks for pedestrians. Given that track record (of an admittedly small sample size), can we honestly say that science fiction accurately predicts the future? Let's take a look.
Science Fiction Is Not About Predictions...
Asimov was a scientist and a writer, and even though his scientific background informed his fiction, making accurate predictions in science-fiction stories is not what sci-fi is about. In fact, it's a common misconception that science fiction attempts to predict the future. It's an easy assumption to make; science is a relatively strict discipline, after all, and anything associated with it must therefore be rooted in facts and evidence. Well, yes, that's true, but just because science fiction is a literature that leverages science doesn't mean it has to ignore the rules and demands of fiction, nor the whims of the person writing it. The simple truth is that predicting the future is not what science-fiction writers set out to do.
A writer's main focus is on writing a story. Stories are set in the future because it's a great way to remove readers from the familiarity and comfort of "now" and give them the unique perspective of someone looking in from the outside. Literature even has a fancy name for this: cognitive estrangement. It forces you to question what you are seeing in a story even though, more than likely, it is merely a reflection not of the future, but of today. Setting the story in the future is a convenient and illustrative way of making you, the reader, an outside observer. In other words, science fiction forces us to look at ourselves through the eyes of others.
If you are a writer who is setting your story in the future, then one of your jobs has to be making that future noticeably different than the present day. The degree to which you make that future different will obviously vary on how far into the future the story is set. A book set 25 years from now may feature a world that still looks recognizable, but one set a million years from now may look more foreign. The writer needs to come up with story elements to portray that future, be they cool gadgets or creatures, societal norms or unheard-of technologies. All of them are discrete parts that combine together to depict "another world"—something for which science fiction is known.
The difference between predicting the future and a writer including these elements in their stories is subtle. When predicting the future, the focus is on accuracy. Futurists can use historical trends and current situations to extrapolate where technology is heading. They look at current and emerging technologies to support their predictions and make a reasonable projection as to where that technology is headed. Writers can use extrapolation as well, but the focus is not so much on accurately predicting the future as it is on making up a future that serves the story, which is their primary focus. Saying science-fiction writers are predictors of the future is thus a bit of a misnomer. A better way of looking at this is that a futurist predicts the future but a science fiction writer invents it.
...But Sometimes It Predicts the Future Anyway
That said, sometimes science-fiction writers actually do predict the future, even if inadvertently. Next week, we'll look at some of the ways science fiction predicted the future years—even decades—before it became a reality.