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Science fiction is often also known as ‘speculative fiction’, and, accordingly, it gives authors free rein to imagine anything they choose. While a gripping science fiction yarn needs plausible, complex, three-dimensional characters, a tight and well-structured plot, and a smooth narrative arc, it also needs sound science underpinning it.
Years ago, in a meeting of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, George Scithers, the longtime editor of Asimov’s Magazine, and grand old man of SF editing generally, gave a most reassuring piece of advice to the assembled authors, fans, and wanna-bes.
He said (more or less – this was back in the 1970s) that if there was sound science at the base of a story, then almost any sort of superstructure, consisting of proposed extensions to that science, would seem believable.
It has been in the extension of existing science that SF authors have managed to occasionally hit on a prediction that actually comes to pass. In some cases, the hits seem to have outnumbered the misses. Let’s look at a highly selective sampling of these prescient authors and the inventions, trends, and events they predicted.
America’s story-teller – a bit off-kilter:
Ray Bradbury never even thought of himself as primarily a science fiction author, preferring to consider himself a commentator on the world around him. This fine raconteur has mined the rich vein of his childhood memories to create evocatively lovely images of the American landscape. Along the way, in amongst goose-pimpling stories like The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, he envisioned seductive virtual reality environments.
The privileged children in The Veldt inhabit a room that generates a 360 degree, full-sensory world, complete with patricidal lions. While we are a few years away from virtual large carnivores capable of eliminating inconvenient parents, just yet, how many kids are currently submerged in Saint’s Row, or Assassin’s Creed? They are enjoying a virtual reality, for the maximum time between bathroom visits!
A slightly different sort of immersion in media appears in Fare height 451. The hero’s wife longs for a wall screen to allow full participation in the daily soap operas. Full wall screens are entirely possible now – they are just a bit expensive, thus far. She also wants to have them personalized by including her name. With a cable subscription or online streaming, such personalization would be possible even now, given that viewers register with identifying information.
The Armchair Soldier: Virtual Bootcamp
The virtual training of soldiers is the subject of Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and has recently been made into a movie, to mixed reviews. Returning to the novel after several decades away, this reader cannot avoid a frisson of apprehension at how current training for drone flying parallels the video game style exercises that prepare the young (very young – think tweens) in Card’s future Earth to remotely control weapons and vessels in outer space.
A former national security employee noted recently the phenomenon of video game creators whose products are nowhere to be found on the commercial market, but who are nonetheless making income from somewhere – unspecified. The implication is pretty clear. Some other interested entity, probably governmental, is buying their services and output. (Cue a sound effect of spooky music!)
Oldies but Goodies in Prescient Fiction:
The ability to synthesize predictions from what is already known and mastered is particularly striking in some of the older authors. Jules Verne’s submarine, the Nautilus, captained by the mysterious Captain Nemo in the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, is a wonderful example. It foreshadows both the positive possibilities of underwater vessels, and their frightening potential to violently disrupt shipping, and other activities.
Verne, of course, also predicted moon launches in From the Earth to the Moon, as most people know. However, the subtlety that such launches might not occur under the auspices of national governments, but instead, with the sponsorship of commercial or affinity groups is sometimes forgotten. Commercial enterprises are currently busily planning ways to get to space, just as Verne predicted.
The story and characters are about as wooden can be imagined in Hugo Gernsback’s novel Ralph 124C41+, but the number of suggestive and eerily accurate predictions is astounding. The most hopeful is Gernsback’s prediction of efficient conversion of solar energy.
Black Galaxy, a 1949 pulp novel by Murray Leinster, is now, happily, available in reprint and on Kindle. The notions of parallel universes and dark matter are central to the story, and are the current darlings of the scientific press. The love story is incidental, but sweet.
“Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?”:
The plot element of a beacon, located off-planet, and designed to trigger a signal to extraterrestrials that Earth has developed space travel, is also central Black Galaxy’s story. This may have inspired Arthur C. Clarke’s mechanism for alien contact in his influential 2001 series. Clarke himself, famous for asserting that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, predicted the establishment of a space station in geosynchronous orbit (now called a Clarke orbit). This prediction, among others, including regarding artificial intelligences like the super-computer HAL, has been partially fulfilled.
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Call for Mr. Cthulhu…:
The master of cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft, tended to exploit then-current discoveries in his weird works. However, the novella At the Mountains of Madness correctly predicts that Antarctica would provide a rich yield of paleontological material, although has turned out to consist of intriguing dinosaurs rather than the remains oif extraterrestrial and star-born Elder Ones.
The Three Laws of Robotics, and more:
While we have not yet achieved an artificial intelligence that moves independently, many of the ethical and design issues that Isaac Asimov articulated are being addressed by current researchers. Asimov’s I, Robot series explores the implications of robot use and misuse comprehensively.
This is a personal list, and not exhaustive. SF authors articulate our fears for the future and point the way to both warnings and solutions to the problems we will encounter.