I was reading Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper recently, a novel written in 1961 about a far-flung future set in the atomic age where human beings fly in anti-gravity spacecraft and have conquered the galaxy, yet still have to develop film.
Which beggars the point that’s been made time and time again (at least by me to others standing near me), that science fiction is really a literature of the now, extrapolating concerns and thoughts about today’s world. Which is all it can do, really; reflect on what’s happening now and how it might progress into the future. Some of the very finest might reflect a changed humanity, one where we have different concerns, and different trials and tribulations, but those are far and few between.
For one, the work needs to be recognisable, in some way. Which is why romance novels and other genres do well, even when we’re taking a long-distance view on something written long, long ago. H.G.Well’s The Passionate Friends (1913), another work I’ve just read recently, answers to that. Our conception of sex has changed greatly, but the past is still present enough for the effects to be greatly found today, and for some nothing has changed at all. But more than that, the feeling of having been pressured as a youth into certain advantageous avenues, throwing aside one's desires, only to find these are the things that matter, makes it a timeless work despite the stuffy sexual discourse.
Little Fuzzy, like many other works, is also about one thing, so adding extra elements doesn’t add much, in the same way Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952) benefits from its evolving humanity and drastic social changes. Here the point is change, while in Piper’s work it's sentience and our relationship to the life around us. So it works in Piper’s favour to keep everything relatively recognisable, in the same way, it helps William Gibson or Dan Simmons to distort their worlds with increasing technobabble, depicting the run-on effect of new technologies.
But then some novels also take great liberties with the known world and don’t give a damn about it. Heinlein knew no life lived on Mars, as did Arthur C. Clarke, but he wanted to tell rational, logical stories of discovery and humanity encroaching on new frontiers. And, when the Earth has been explored and you want to tell a new frontier story without running into historical inaccuracies, you pick somewhere dead, without any natives to complain. It’s a ‘what the solar system could have looked like’ story concept and it’s the only way to do aliens without improbable light travel or intergenerational spaceships, which rather detract from the story because their protagonists usually have to die during the flight.
So to say that science fiction got things wrong is to miss the point of storytelling. Often the point is not the technology at all, but the way we humans behave now or what we might do if X were the case.
Of course, some authors try to predict developments that turn out to be wrong. Usually, the stories revolve around things that happen in their day and seem like they’re going to continue forever. Like Clarke’s computer-era blunder in The City and the Stars (1956), where he had computers still using vacuum tubes in a billion years’ time. These devices faded from use a few years later, replaced by more reliable mechanisms.
Here are six other predictions that didn’t come true or at least haven’t yet.
- Computers would be used for business enterprises only.
Many novels saw the rise of computing, but few predicted that these devices would make their way to the public. Even Gibson’s Neuromancer (1985), the celebrated start of cyberpunk, couldn’t imagine a private interest in the internet, which remained the playground for businesses and specialist data hackers.
2. Space voyages would go on and grow bigger in scale.
Most science fiction writers, from Clarke to Asimov and Heinlein saw the space race as continuing indefinitely onward, into the 1970s with the colonisation of the Moon and Mars. Little did they realise how public interest would wane, along with budgetary concerns, shortly after the historic moon landing. Other predictions, a decade early as in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), put space exploration in the hands of a few adventurous capitalists. Few saw the reality that governments would want to compete in this venture until the 1960s. Few also saw the fact that man wasn’t destined for the stars, at least not so soon.
Asimov even suggested we might live in space as a new frontier to fix the problem below.
3. Overpopulation would consume the earth.
Overpopulation is still an issue, but current trends point to an eventual decrease and stabilisation by 2050. Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room (1966) and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) are classic examples of an overrun world population, while William F. Nolan and George Clayton’s Logan’s Run (1967) and Anthony Burges’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) predict increasing, rather than decreasing, teenage populations.
4. Meat and food would disappear altogether from shelves.
Harrison’s famous novel would also predict a theory that had been assumed along with overpopulation; the exhaustion of the world’s supply of meat. Intensive farming and new methods of feeding mean that since Harrison’s time the world has increased its dependence on meat and its production, although trends in vegan and vegetarianism may mean this moves back somewhat in future.
5. Realistic android robots were inevitable.
While it’s just easier to make them look human, and it’s still entirely possible we will get humanistic robots in the future, the fact that this model would form the basis for all robotics is unlikely. Even Asimov didn’t fall into this trap in his writing, with humanoid robots being only a spare few of the actual robots made. But novels like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep (1968) are perhaps typical of most novels in assuming all robots would look like us in the future.
6.) Atomic war would break out.
Perhaps the biggest prediction was atomic war and in particular atomic energy. Even Wells, as early as 1914, had imagined atomic energy being used for weapons (true) and as tiny power plants in automobiles (not so true). Many stories of the 1960s and 70s talked about nuclear devastation as an inevitable possibility, from the home-based drama of Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950) to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451(1953), Walter J. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) or Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and his Dog (1969).
But did any of these try to predict anything? Well, yes and no. They took trends they saw now and wanted to comment on and extrapolated them into the future. Or they took interesting ideas and played with them because they said something about the human condition.
But they’ve won at the role they were meant to play. They’ve talked about possibilities while focusing on the few facts a novel can be expected to take into account, without getting sidetracked by a million details (omitting a few examples, where this was the point).
No, Wells didn’t think there were people on the moon. No, Heinlein didn’t think the roads would roll. So why do we point out and laugh when these things are ‘proven’ wrong?
I would suggest it’s because we don’t really understand science fiction, or at least many of us wilfully misunderstand it. We think it’s a literature of prediction because it’s got something in it smelling of science that hasn’t happened yet.
Science fiction, for the best part, is much sharper and more cruelly cutting than that. It’s the modern fable or fairytale which takes a good hard look at us and the possible worlds around us. It features stories of exploration and journeys into the unknown. It asks no forgiveness except when it shouts that it’s right because it begins by suspending disbelief.
To read it as anything more is to wish for a crystal ball. And that’s just plain silly, in real terms. Better off fantasising instead.