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February, 2010 : Essay:

How the Future Predicts Science Fiction

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future

It's often been said that science fiction predicts the future. I'd argue that this isn't generally the case. In fact, it's the future that predicts science fiction.

First off, we have to understand what we mean when we talk about "the future." That definite article "the" implies that there is a single future, but of course there isn't—despite how we talk about it, the future isn't a fixed, tangible thing, it's a psychological and social construct. (The past is also a psychological and social construct, but we won't get into that here.) Each of us has one or several possible models of the future in mind at any given time—both our personal future and the future of the world—and society as a whole also has several possible agreed-upon futures under consideration.

These models of the future are built by the human brain, extrapolating from the present situation using information gathered from past events, and they are all inherently flawed because of the limitations of the human brain. Even computer models and other calculations are built according to rules devised by human brains, and are equally subject to these flaws. Our vision of the future tells us much more about ourselves, our pasts, and our present than it does about the actual future.

We never promised you a rocket belt

We science fiction writers aren't futurists. SF needn't even be set in the future, and even when it is, we're not necessarily trying to create an accurate model of what we believe is the most likely future—we're just trying to write an entertaining and thought-provoking story. To this end, we'll often create an exaggerated, stylized, or dramatized vision of the future designed either to make a point or simply to provide a more interesting story. Rather than being rigorous attempts at accurate prediction, science fiction futures tend to fall into one or more of the following literary categories:

Cautionary tales emphasize the negative consequences of some aspect of present life. These dystopias are often prompted by the words "If this goes on…"

Thought experiments focus on the possible effects of some current or projected event, technology, or trend. These stories ask the question "What if?" They are distinguished from cautionary tales in that they explore both positive and negative impacts of the trend; they are distinguished from predictions in that they do not necessarily focus on the most likely outcome.

Literalized metaphors examine an aspect of our world by taking a metaphor and making it concrete. Examples include using space aliens to address alienation, using clones to discuss conformity, and using a location on a distant planet as a metaphor for personal isolation. Metaphors such as these are used in non-science fiction as well, of course, but in SF the aliens, clones, or distant planets are literally rather than figuratively present in the world of the story.

Explorations of new science and technology simply use some new advance as the basis of a story. "What's in New Scientist today will be in Analog next year." Often in these stories something goes wrong with the new technology, but this is often done simply to create an exciting story rather than to criticize. An example is Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust, which is basically a disaster movie based on the latest theories about the composition of the lunar surface (theories that later turned out to be incorrect).

The all-plastic dream kitchen

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, science fiction writers do make an earnest effort to predict the future. When they do so, they almost always fail miserably. Ralph Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) predicted a socialist utopia by 2000; Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+ (1911) predicted gyroscope-powered spacecraft, electric cars driven by broadcast power, and weather control; H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933) predicted a second world war, but had it continuing into the 1960s and resulting in a benevolent dictatorship; and Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1968) predicted commercial space travel—provided by Pan Am—by the titular date. Pan Am, of course, did not live to see the twenty-first century.

Even when writers' technical predictions are correct, the society is often wrong. Future societies inevitably display the unquestioned assumptions of the present, such as women's current role or the hot political issues of the day. Many SF novels of the sixties are greatly concerned with "juvenile delinquency" and other social problems of the time, which must be explained to younger readers today. Attempts to represent future slang and clothing are often cringe-worthy even five or ten years later; consider the "Space Hippies" in the original Star Trek episode "The Way to Eden" (1969).

These failures occur because the societal impact of disruptive technologies is nearly impossible to predict. For example, the passenger automobile led to the drive-in movie and changes in sexual mores. Home computers led to video games, "farming" of virtual currency in multiplayer online games, and fluidity in identity and gender roles. The Internet led to the World Wide Web, spam, and the Wikipedia edit war. It's easy to imagine a societal change from any major technological change, but the number of possibilities is so great and the impact of unpredictable aspects of the human psyche so significant that correctly predicting which societal changes will occur is much harder.

Use your brain to fill this hole

Human beings are terrible at predicting the future because of how our brains work. (For this section I am indebted to the book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.) The fundamental problem is that perception and memory are inherently incomplete—this is necessitated by the information density of the real world, which contains far more bits of information than even the human brain, amazing though it is, can process in real time. Our brains deal with this incompleteness by spackling over the holes in our perceptions so quickly and so well we usually don't even notice. One well-known example of this is the blind spot in the eye, which is a point in the retina which contains no sensory cells. We do not perceive this spot as a hole in our perception; instead, small objects whose images fall into this area seem to disappear, because the mind papers over the hole by assuming that whatever's on each side of it simply continues across it. There are many other such cases of perceptual incompleteness, and the same types of brain activity paper over incomplete memories as well.

Imagination, it turns out, uses the same brain structures as perception and memory and has the same flaws. Just as the mind papers over the blind spot in the eye by assuming that what can't be seen is pretty much like what's next to it, the imagination assumes that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. This effect is particularly significant in areas of tomorrow that are well away from our current focus. For example, when we're thinking about what we might eat in fifty years, we'll probably assume that clothing will be quite similar to today, while if we're thinking about clothing we'll probably fail to predict changes in food.

It's possible to imagine a future that is greatly different from the present, but it's difficult. "The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagination in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes." (Stumbling on Happiness, p. 162)

Hindsight may be 20/20, but prediction is myopic

Because of the bias toward the present that's inherent in the structure of the human brain, science fiction reflects the concerns of society at the time it's written. For example, growing concerns about social inequality in the 1890s through 1920s produced The Time Machine; worries about totalitarianism in the 1930s and 40s gave us Brave New World and 1984; in the 1950s Americans were concerned about Communism (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and nuclear war (On the Beach); in the 1960s these concerns had been largely replaced with ecological collapse (The Sheep Look Up) and youth violence (A Clockwork Orange); and worries about overpopulation in the 1970s gave us Soylent Green.

We don't have as much perspective on more recent decades, but Neuromancer was written in a climate of concern about the effect of global computer networks in the 1980s; Outbreak reflects worries about unstoppable epidemics in the 1990s; and Forty Signs of Rain reflects concerns about global warming in the 2000s.

Of course, not every work created during a given era reflects the primary concerns of that era, but I'm sure you can name many other relevant works for each of the concerns and decades listed. Also, the concerns of a work do tend to connect it strongly with the time in which it was produced, both thematically and stylistically. Can you imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers being written in the same way even ten years earlier, or ten years later?

Tomorrow isn't what it used to be

Tomorrowland, a section of the Disneyland theme park that nominally reflects the world of the future, is a vivid example of how our views of the future have changed over time.

In Tomorrowland's first phase (1955-1967), the main attractions were the Moonliner, a simulated trip to the moon, sponsored by TWA; Autopia, an automobile-driving ride for children, reminiscent of the interstate highway system; the all-plastic House of the Future, sponsored by Monsanto; and the Submarine Voyage, inspired by the voyage of the Nautilus, the first atomic-powered submarine, under the north pole. You can easily see how these attractions reflected the interests and concerns of the time.

Tomorrowland was given its first major makeover in 1968. Major new attractions added at this time included the Carousel of Progress, sponsored by GE, which touted the wonders of electricity; Adventure Thru Inner Space, sponsored by Monsanto, which took riders on a journey into the heart of the atom; and Peoplemover, sponsored by Goodyear, a scaled-down model of a clean, quiet, rubber-tired public transit system of the future. Not long thereafter, the Moonliner was remodeled into Mission to Mars and Space Mountain, Disney's first multimedia rollercoaster, was added. These changes reflected the fact that the concerns of the immediate post-war period had been replaced with new concerns, more consumer-oriented and even more expansive.

By 1998, Tomorrowland was becoming increasingly dated despite some cosmetic changes and was given another major makeover. Notable changes at this time included the addition of the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a new interactive ride in which riders could compete not only with each other but with people all over the world via the Internet, and the replacement of the Rocket Jets with the new Astro-Orbitor, an essentially identical ride except that the older ride's black and white NASA-style design was replaced with a new "retro-futuristic" design in bronze, gold, and brown.

The harder Disney tried to keep its future up-to-the-minute, the faster it went out of date. (There's nothing so stale as yesterday's headlines.) So in recent years they've begun reaching all the way back to Jules Verne for a more "timeless" future. Even though these designs are already obsolete, they still retain a futuristic flavor, and it won't fade so quickly.

What you are is where you were when

Of course, the future and its influence on SF isn't really as simple and straightforward as I've laid it out here. It's complicated by the fact that each SF author is an individual human being with an individual personal history.

Corporate trainer Morris Massey explains that each person's values and priorities are established when they are young, going through several different types of imprinting at different ages. Each individual is the product of his or her own family upbringing, of course, but general predictions can be made about people based simply on how old they are, which tells us what societal issues were important during their formative years. People who grew up during the Depression, for example, will have a very different attitude toward money than those who grew up during the Baby Boom.

This explains why not every SF story written during a certain week reflects only the news of that week. Each SF author is an individual, and their idea of the future is based on all their life experiences, not just the most immediate ones. Many authors retain the futures of their youth, to a greater or lesser degree. I, myself, grew up in the 1960s reading my father's collection of SF from the 30s-50s, so I tend to write about old-fashioned problems like space exploration and totalitarianism.

Meta-prediction is even harder, but…

Now I'm going to go out on a limb and make some predictions for what we're going to be seeing in science fiction in the next couple of years, based on what people are concerned about right now.

I'm writing in October of 2009. The concerns that affect SF writers today will be incorporated into the stories and novels they write in the coming weeks and months. A few of these stories will sell immediately; others will sell after long consideration or submission to multiple markets. Given the mechanics of publishing, even web-based publications generally take several months between acceptance and publication, and paper magazines can take as much as two years. The process of writing, selling, and publishing a novel is even longer. So the following types of stories will, if I'm correct, be prevalent between about 2010 and 2013:

Economic collapse will be a common theme, either near-future stories about a continuing economic crisis (I anticipate many stories in which America and the West never recover their economic footing and are overtaken by Asian, African, or South American countries) or stories set in more distant times and places in which a severe financial crisis forms an important part of the plot or worldbuilding.

A socialist USA will move from the nightmares of some authors onto the printed page. Look for dystopian stories that take place in the aftermath of the collapse of "ObamaCare."

Dark matter and dark energy, the sources of many current open questions in astrophysics, will figure in many space-based stories and some planet-based ones. These physics concepts will be used in ways both scientifically rigorous and purely metaphorical.

Fragmentation of society, due to the replacement of mass media such as radio, television, and newspapers with the individualized communication of the Web, is a big concern and we will see stories in which this fragmentation is taken to extremes for serious or humorous effect. We may see stories about fratricidal civil wars, both in the United States and in invented lands, and stories in which next-door neighbors do not even share a common language.

Looking back to look forward

So you see that science fiction, rather than predicting the future, can actually be predicted by examining society's hopes and fears about the future. To take this idea one step further, a given writer's science fiction can be predicted by examining that writer's background and concerns.

My own SF stories have been called old-fashioned. I grew up during the Space Race and the Cold War, and as I explained above, my father was an SF reader in the 1930s and I grew up reading his collection. At some level I still believe in space travel, the potential of technology to do more good than harm, and the promise of peace through world government. However bleak the future may look today, I remain optimistic and I believe my fiction expresses this.

Copyright © 2010, David D. Levine. All Rights Reserved.

About David Levine

David D. Levine is a lifelong SF reader whose midlife crisis was to take a sabbatical from his high-tech job to attend Clarion West in 2000. It seems to have worked. He made his first professional sale in 2001, won the Writers of the Future Contest in 2002, was nominated for the John W. Campbell award in 2003, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the Campbell again in 2004, and won a Hugo in 2006 (Best Short Story, for "Tk'Tk'Tk"). A collection of his short stories, Space Magic, is available from Wheatland Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Kate Yule, with whom he edits the fanzine Bento, and their website is at


Feb 11, 05:24 by IROSF

Comment Below!
Feb 15, 21:11 by Nader Elhefnawy
I enjoyed the article-and incidentally, also enjoyed Space Magic, which I reviewed for The Fix a couple of years ago.

There's certainly a lot here about uses of the future, and the pitfalls that go into extrapolation (though I have to admit there's a case to be made for the glass-half-full side of that discussion, which I wish was made more often).

Incidentally, as to the predictions you make, I definitely see the economic collapse scenarios making a comeback, much like we saw in so much of '80s cyberpunk. I think the fragmentation theme's been around quite a bit already-but it might derive an extra dimension not from the "Net Generation," but the "iGeneration" as it's called in this piece in H+ Magazine.

Feb 16, 09:13 by Dave Goldman
Can you imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers being written in the same way even ten years earlier, or ten years later?

How about 22 years later? The first remake replaces Communism with EST, thus further demonstrating your point.

(I haven't seen the subsequent two remakes, so I won't comment on them.)
Sep 23, 06:55 by
Stories set in the future are often judged, as time passes, on whether they come true or no. But my questions is; If science fiction can predict the future, then why don't we call it science fact?

Mary at Abingdon Tow Truck
Oct 8, 23:22 by
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Jan 16, 08:21 by
This seems to be one of those reading protocol things. We, here, tend to read the novel as SF, which it is - a classical post-apocalypse novel. But it's quite likely that McCarthy didn't intend it to be read as such.
While I'm hardly an expert on McCarthy, I've read a number of his books, which seem to focus on the journey of an innocent through a landscape of moral evil. These works have all been realistic fiction, and the descriptions are notable for an intense realism in depicting the settings, the physical landscape.
Read as a continuation of the author's other novels, The Road seems to be taking the landscape of moral evil to its ultimate conclusion. The physical setting is just as clearly detailed; what is missing is the explanation of how it came about.
But this is what the science fiction reader is trained to look for - how the apocalypse came about, how the setting got to the point at which we find it. Does it make sense in SFnal terms?
And that just isn't the game that McCarthy seems to be playing; the ambiguity is deliberate.

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