American Culture

Where’s my jetpack?

Alternet recently did a clever thing—they revisited a bunch of predictions made by science fiction writers back in 1987 as to what the world would look like in 2012. So, are science fiction writers any better than anyone else at predicting the future? Maybe, although some, like William Gibson, have given up entirely. Gibson believes the pace of change is too great to be able to accurately predict much of anything.

He’s got a point. When you think about it, the vast majority of sf these days—good and bad—is space opera stuff, or stuff that takes place after some great event—most dystopian SF is of this sort—or fantasy, although anyone following this field knows it’s become pretty broad. But SF about the next 20-30 years, where the writer specifically sets out to deal with some current trend in terms of its near term implications, is actually, if not hard to find, then at least less popular than other genres.

Anyway, back in the day—1987, to be precise—L. Ron Hubbard, who prior to founding Scientology was also a successful sf writer, challenged a number of his fellow authors (and physicists Sheldon Glashow and Gerald Feinberg) to predict what the world would look like in 25 years. Write some letters to the future, he said—and they did.

The full collection is here. And the time capsule has just recently been opened, so we can see what writers such as Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Roger Zelazny, Tim Powers, Orson Scott Card, Gregory Benford and others thought we’d be doing today. And, interestingly enough, for everything they got right, it seems like they got three or four things wrong. What’s most interesting, perhaps, is where authors got it partly right, or right in general, but for a different reason than they one they supposed.

Sara Robinson, who runs Alternet’s interesting Vision page, reviews these predictions in some detail, and her take is well thought out. She points out, correctly, that most of these writers are an “earlier generation,” although most—Powers, Glashow, Pournele, Benford, Wolverton, Wolfe, and Pohl, who is currently 92—are still whinnying among us. More to the point, these were writers, many of them, who came of age as adults and writers at a time when technology had literally transformed the globe in ways that it’s difficult to appreciate from 2012, and from the world they themselves grew up in. The world I grew up in, in the 1950s, was a lot more like my grandfather’s world than the world my own grandchildren are growing up in is like the 1950s.

And the writers that Hubbard picked—all men, a point Robinson graciously skips past—had perhaps a bit more faith in technology than may have been warranted. And many assumed that the technological tracks that they had been observing for several decades would continue unimpeded. Nearly all, for example, seem to think that we would have space colonies by now. And there are, in the welter of predictions, some that stand out. Gregory Benford and Algys Budrys both had sensible things to say about energy, Budrys in particular—and Benford was even predicting what is emerging as the next global crisis even as I write—water. In other cases, the domain was clearly a correct one—GMOs, for example, or biotechnology—but the time frame significantly underestimated when these technologies would come to fruition. In some cases, it just hasn’t happened yet—nanotechnology, for example—but it may be about to. I other cases—cryogenics—it may not happen at all.

Still, it’s more interesting to consider what they missed. Perhaps most tellingly, they all missed the implications of Moore’s Law, in which Gordon Moore postulated—initially back in 1965—that the number of transistors you can fit on a computer chip will essentially double every two years or so—as will computational power. Interestingly, not only has Moore’s Law held up pretty well over the past several decades (although at some point it will be approaching the limits proscribed by physics), but its implications have been transformative for modern life. What doesn’t have computer chips in it these days? Looked underneath the hood of your car recently? And the social impacts of these are still evolving—look at mobile phones, and their implications ranging from social behavior in affluent societies to their potential impact in domains such as agriculture in Africa.

And, surprisingly, no one mentions the internet, even though it existed in various guises in 1987—and Gibson’s Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick-winning Neuromancer had been published in 1984. The World Wide Web, the transformational event in the spread of the internet, had yet to emerge, though—Berners-Lee and Cailliau didn’t publish their first proposal until 1990, and Berners-Lee didn’t actually have it operational until the end of 1990—and that’s the thing that really allowed the internet to go global. But still, the concept was certainly around at that point. I suspect this may be an instance where we run into a generational thing—in 1987, most of these guys were in their 50s, at least—I think Orson Scott Card would have been the only one under the age of 40 when this was done. I wonder how differently (if at all) these predictions would have turned out if they were made by a group of 30- and 40-year-olds, rather than a group of 50- and 60-year-olds. Or if this were a group of women SF/fantasy writers—Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Judith Merril, James Tiptree Jr. (the pen name for Alice B. Sheldon), Sheri Tepper, Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh and Joan Vinge were established writers of some prominence in 1987—would their predictions have been materially different from what the men came up with?

Looking at these predictions, it’s easy to be dismissive—how could a bunch of really bright people, whose job, essentially, is to think about the future, get so much stuff wrong, or miss so much? That’s the wrong question, I think. Gibson has pointed out more than once, most recently in his recent collection of pieces Distrust that Particular Flavor, that science fiction isn’t really about the future at all—it’s really so intermingled with our knowledge of the present that it can’t be disconnected from it. No wonder Gibson has washed his hands of trying to predict the future. SF writers can’t help but be stuck in the present, just like anyone else, and your present will include your history. If I try to think out what the next 30 years might look like, about the only certainty I have is that I won’t see the end of it, but that’s about it.

Of course, predicting the future is one thing, and it’s certainly not the only reason to write. Ray Bradbury said, “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.” That’s the spirit.

4 replies »

  1. I have been eagerly waiting for my jetpack for most of my life.

    Great post, and I love the Bradbury quote at the end. Thanks, Wuf!

  2. I have an internally operated jet pack powered by the digestion of baked beans. Sadly, I represent too much mass for too little propulsion. But I keep tryin’, much to the disgust of anyone within three feet of the operational end of the apparatus.

    Nice piece. Thx.