Predicting the future (or trying to) is something that human beings love to do. It’s the realm of fortune tellers (i.e. con artists), futurists, and some would say science fiction writers. Whether it’s Jules Verne predicting men on the moon, or Mark Twain (or Douglas Adams, or Arthur C. Clarke) regaling us with stories about a not-yet-created internet, there are multiple cases of science fiction writers seeming to predict the future – or at least a small set of examples, referred to again and again in an attempt to keep the idea alive. Saying that science fiction is predictive isn’t just untrue, it diminishes the genre it’s trying to elevate.
Cherry Picked Examples Aren’t Proof
When people want to make something seem true that isn’t, one thing they do is to cherry pick examples. A quick Google search brings up instances where science fiction writers seem to have predicted the future, but it doesn’t take much digging to realize that what you’re seeing is the same examples, repeated. H.G. Wells and the atomic bomb. Ray Bradbury and earbuds. Jules Verne and the submarine. Surrounding these examples is language that amps up the hyperbole: words like “oracular,” “unbelievable accuracy,” “prophet of science fiction,” and “amazingly right.” Believing that science fiction is predictive is an easy sell to fans: it feeds into the myth of the science fiction writer as a creative visionary, seeing beyond today and into tomorrow.
“We’re almost always wrong,” said William Gibson, talking about the predictive skills of science fiction writers in Wired. Gibson attributes his own success (such as it is) mostly to luck, and volume: the more worlds you imagine, says Gibson, the more you get it wrong – and occasionally right. If you play up the instances when the future imagined by science fiction writers came to pass, and ignore the vast majority of times when it didn’t, it creates the illusion of accuracy, and helps science fiction readers (who sometimes feel a bit put upon) to believe that there’s something “special” about the work that they (we) love. In order to really get a feel for the predictive power of science fiction, you’d need a list of all the predictions made, what percentage of them were correct, and how that measured up when set against the predictions of other groups (scientists, bartenders, teenagers smoking weed in their parents’ basements, and so forth).
World Building by Scientists Leads to Good Guesses
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the singularity. In that piece, I said that the creation of intelligent robots was more likely than that of enhanced humans, because where the market would drive the creation of smart robots, altering human genetics is going to remain problematic for the foreseeable future. My prediction was based on the information I had at hand and my own thoughts on the matter, combined to make a (hopefully) persuasive argument. The same logic applies to writers creating worlds: the goal is to make a reader believe. In science fiction, that means taking the science and technology of today and extrapolating, creating enough future threads to convince a reader of the reality of the fictive world. Many of the best “predictors” came from science backgrounds, which enabled them to imagine more realistic – and thus more likely to be accurate – futures; it may have been great world building, but it was only predictive in the same way that teams of engineers doing research and development all over the world are taking current technology and trying to take it in new directions. Is it creative? Of course! But as an act, it’s far from the out-of-nowhere, intuitive leaps sometimes ascribed to science fiction writers.
Bullshit Doesn’t Make Things Cooler
Calling out its oracular quality as a reason to love science fiction diminishes it (as Gibson says, “the least important thing for me about science fiction is its predictive capacity”) by turning it into a brainstorming session, rather than part of a larger, storytelling tradition. Many people (myself included) love the way speculative fiction catalyzes the imagination – something that has nothing to do with prediction, or even science. I read science fiction in the same way that I read urban fantasy: for a real-world setting, enhanced in ways that are exciting to contemplate, whether because they riff on things that are happening or might happen, or because they are filled with symbolism and fantastic creatures. I read primarily for story – the speculative elements are just the window dressing I prefer. There’s a reason that a lot of old science fiction doesn’t hold up, except as artifacts of an earlier time: it leans too heavily on ideas, at the expense of universals like story and character. As Le Guin says in the intro to The Left Hand of Darkness, extrapolation is “far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind.” Though cool ideas might add something to a narrative, it needs more than that to fully engage a reader, or to be viable long-term. In other words, the fact that science fiction in the past has sometimes featured elements that eventually became real is interesting, but pales in comparison with the universal themes and structures that make good fiction last.
What makes speculative fiction great is the way it talks about the world of the real in terms of the future, or magic – the way it presents truth wrapped up not just in the dream of fiction, but in a fully realized false world, that itself becomes part of the story being told. Human beings don’t live in the real world: we live in the future, we live in the past – we live in a sort of a dream that we kid ourselves into believing is reality; speculative fiction is right there, with us, playing with and embracing that idea. That’s mind-blowingly cool, and more than enough of a reason to love speculative fiction, without playing up the idea that its writers have quasi-mystical powers.
Inspiration is Not Prediction
Science fiction has inspired and will continue to inspire innovation, but that’s not the same thing as prediction. As Doctorow said, writing for Locus, “in nearly every instance where science fiction has successfully ‘predicted’ a turn of events, it’s more true to say that it has inspired that turn of events.” That science fiction inspires innovation is plenty to be proud of. Perhaps most of the inventions inspired by science fiction would have come about anyway, but the fact that new inventions have mimicked science fiction speaks to the power of the genre, and its impact on the minds of our best and brightest.
People Can’t Stop Guessing
Ultimately, it’s not science fiction that tries to predict the future, it’s people. Some think more deeply about it than others. Some write down their ideas, and those ideas inspire other people to create. Many of the greatest, most accurate predictions about the future come and go, without being recorded: conversations over drinks, or with friends late at night. We all want to know what the future holds. Not knowing is at the same time scary, exciting, and the stuff of life. Though we can make educated guesses about the future, we can’t truly predict it; anyone who tells you different is probably trying to sell you something.
Think of all the times you’ve predicted things – relationships, science, technology, culture. If you’d written them all down, you could look back and see which had come true, and you, too, would be on record as having predicted the future! So think back, and tell me: what have you gotten right?