When Science Fiction Makes Predictions

Back in the 1970s many futurologists believed that robots would be doing most of the work in the future and that people would be leading lives of idle leisure. The reality in 2020 is slightly different — people are having to work longer and longer, often in casual labour schemes, and retiring in their 70s, just to pay the bills. This was one of many examples where futurologists got things wrong.

Science fiction incorporates its own predictions about the future. This is something about the genre that I’ve always found fascinating. For example, John Hackett’s 1982 novel, The Third World War: The Untold Story (a fictional account of a Third World War that’s presented as historical non-fiction) is a mixed-bag of predictions — mainly, as it turns out, wrong ones. Even the insightful ones that came true are usually ‘wrong’ because they happened in different ways, and their significance is different because they produce unexpected outcomes.

The future is unpredictable in unexpected ways. The world has culturally changed and what interests a 1982 mind might not interest a 2020 one. What’s important in 1982 has a different context now. Who in 1982 would have predicted the ‘decline’ of the liberal West and the resurgence of a global Islamic identity, or the rapid rise of China as a strategic threat to US power?

Orwell’s 1984 used a fictional future as a warning to the people in the present. The novel warns about the lies and inherent dangers of a police state, a society controlled by political manipulation of the masses through a state controlled media. It could have been set in the Middle Ages and it would still have made sense. It’s a warning, much like a parable. H G Well’s novels also fall into this category, warning about the dangers of mechanised warfare, and modern science giving people ‘god like’ powers.

In the 1960s and 70s the future was a mixture of optimism and pessimism. There was a world defined by progress (the egalitarian use of technology), as shown in the early Star Trek TV series, where the enlightened fight the ignorant. Then there was the more pessimistic vision, the destruction of the prevailing social order, in films like The Omega Man. Stories about the future need the drama of something that needs fixing or the tragedy of a broken world.

In The Time Machine, the childlike Eloi people of A.D. 802,701 live an idyllic life of carefree fruit-eating, inhabiting decaying futuristic civic buildings. But there is a dark side to their lifestyle.

Philip K Dick’s future world acknowledges the absurd. His genius was that he understood that the future will be a strange place for us here in the present. So, to make his science fiction future more ‘realistic’, he made it more crazy. His idea of the future involved paradigm shifts in meaning and values, a place where almost arbitrary changes shift into a new normal. The future is absurd. The protagonist in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep keeps a pet sheep as a status symbol. That’s nonsensical to us, but it makes complete sense to the protagonist. The people of the future will worry about things that seem inconsequential to us, and they will judge us by things that we deem unimportant.

The rapid change of America from the Obama era to the Trump era can viewed as a temporary blip or as a shift into the absurd. Anyone predicting where America is now, twenty years ago, would have sounded ridiculous. The comedy Idiocracy (2006) seems like a bizarre prediction about the stupidity and absurdities of the future.

The future is a strange place. It’s nonsensical and absurd. It always has been and it always will be. People fight for counties and ideas that cease to exist by the time they’ve grown old. In the science fiction future the meanings and values we hold now will shift in strange and unexpected ways. The only constant, as the ancient Greeks observed, is change.