Interested in Predicting the Future? Write a Science Fiction Novel.
If you think that sounds slightly ridiculous, you’re not alone. Does it sound any less ridiculous to think that fiction writers aren’t just predicting the future, but creating it? No, I guess it doesn’t. In fact, it probably sounds a little more ridiculous. But let’s not forget the incredibly long list of now-widely accepted facts that at one time seemed so ridiculous you’d risk your entire career and social status by speaking them aloud. Facts such as, for instance, the earth is a moving, spherical rock hurtling around the sun in a vast universe that likely has no center.
Now, maybe you’re not new to the phenomenon of science fiction writers as de facto futurists. After all, plenty of people are familiar with how the novel 1984 by George Orwell foretold, to some degree, the surveillance state many people now live in around the globe, or how William Gibson took a stab at how the World Wide Web might influence society in his book Neuromancer, way back when computers were just getting to be a thing. Maybe you even remember how Ray Bradbury perfectly described earbud style headphones in Fahrenheit 451, more than four decades before they were invented.
And if you believe that those are just examples of good science fiction methodology – of extrapolating and exaggerating current trends to construct a plausible, recognizable future – then once again, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, there’s a name for it: SWAG. That stands for Scientific Wild-Ass Guess, in case you were wondering.
But does that explain away every instance in which writers were predicting the future (or creating it) with seemingly uncanny accuracy? Consider these improbable coincidences…
Predicting the Future: An Exercise In Futility or An Exercise In Creativity?
Gulliver’s Travels – 1726
Roughly 200 years ago, astronomer concluded that Mars actually has two moons in its orbit. Roughly 300 years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote about Mars’s two moons in his book Gulliver’s Travels. Wait, shouldn’t that be the other way around? The weirdest part is that Swift even described where in Mars’s orbit these two moons were, and while he proved incorrect, he wasn’t very far off at all.
(Head over to Project Gutenberg to check out the available free versions of Gulliver’s Travels.)
The World Set Free – 1914
H.G. Wells did more than his share of creating (or predicting, or if you really insist on being boring, imagining) the future with surprising precision. He wrote about liquid-fueled rockets in The War of the Worlds, and about tanks (somewhat loosely) in The Land Ironclads well before either of those technologies were actually developed.
In 1914, though, his novel The World Set Free was published, which dealt with nuclear warfare and the awful effects of radiation. While Wells did not physically create the atomic bomb, there is no doubt that he played a huge part in creating a future in which atomic bombs exist. The physicist Leo Szilard, who first figured out how to make the atomic bomb, made no bones about givingÂ Wells all the credit for the idea.
(Head over to Project Gutenberg to check out the available free versions of The World Set Free.)
Stand on Zanzibar – 1969
John Brunner’s novels, specifically Stand On Zanzibar, might actually be more famous for their accurate depictions of the future than for their plot lines and characters. The list of futuristic circumstances and technologies that Brunner wrote about in Stand On Zanzibar is pretty darned long, and includes things like the European Union (not created until 1993), the economic and social deterioration of Detroit, the equivalent of Ti-Vo, laser printing, and marijuana decriminalization. Weirdest of all, Brunner wrote that in 2010, the U.S.A. would find itself under the leadership of one President Obomi (go ahead and try to tell me that’s not weird).
(No Project Gutenberg here, but Amazon carries Stand on Zanzibar.)
The Wreck of the Titan – 1898
We’re backing up in time a bit for this one, and you’ll have to bear with me, because not everyone will agree that Morgan Robertson’s novel The Wreck of the Titan is a work of science fiction. The novel deals with the future, though, so could we at least agree to call it “speculative fiction” and leave it at that? Anyway, there was no way I could leave it off this list. Robertson’s novel was the original fictionalized version of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. So original, in fact, that he wrote it 14 years before the ship sank! In the book, the Titan is the world’s largest ship ever, built like a “first-class hotel,” and was even described as “unsinkable.” And if you’re wondering, yes, the book was also published long before plans to build the Titanic were drawn up.
Now, it could be that whoever named the RMS Titanic had read Robertson’s novel and wanted to pay homage. But that line of reasoning doesn’t do anything to explain how Robertson’s fictional Titan ran into an iceberg 400 miles from Newfoundland, and how the real-life RMS Titanic also ran into an iceberg 400 miles from Newfoundland! What’s more, those weren’t the only details that the Titan and the Titanic had in common, not by a long shot. Incredible similarities were present in everything from the ships’ dimensions, to their carrying capacities, to their lack of adequate lifeboats.
(Head over to Project Gutenberg to check out the available free versions of The Wreck of the Titan.)
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket – 1838
Let’s go back 60 more years to talk about a novel that was even less science fiction that The Wreck of The Titan. It’s called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and it was the only full novel ever written by Edgar Allen Poe. The book is about a whaling ship that is lost at sea. When the crew runs out of food, they draw straws to see which one of them should be eaten (I mean, if you’re going to die anyway, why not try out cannibalism?), and the short straw goes to the cabin boy, who Poe had decided to name Robert Parker.
This book wasn’t weird at all (maybe a bit silly) until 46 years later, when the crew of a ship that was actually lost at sea decided to draw lots in order to see which of them should be eaten. Weirdly enough, the lot fell to the cabin boy. In supremely eerie fashion, fate saw to it that the cabin boy happened to be named…Robert Parker. (And you thought Poe’s other stories were creepy!)
(Head over to Project Gutenberg to check out the available free versions of Pym of Nantucket.)
This one is for all you aspiring science fiction writers out there. Or science non-fiction writers. Or just writers. But mainly the first one. If you’re anything like me, you probably keep a mental list (a quite extensive one) of the reasons that you’ll never be the next well-known author whose amazing science fiction novel sells a million copies and gets optioned for a Hollywood blockbuster. Parts of that list read like [Click here to read more…]
What Does It All Mean?
Meh, probably nothing. I know, I know, you read this whole article hoping to come across something profound about predicting the future, and I’ve come up empty! But then again, maybe not…yes, there are plenty of folks who agree with that guy who said “Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts,” and nobody is going to stop you from being one of them.
But there are also guys like, oh, I don’t know, Albert Einstein – who in all his immeasurable wisdom had no problem admitting that our reach still greatly exceeds our grasp when it comes to understanding how the universe (and that whole past/present/future thing) works. In fact, that brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by old Albert, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” And, since I can’t say it any better myself, I’ll leave it at that.