Dale Shaw muses on whether we really are in the future (it is 2015 you know), according to predictions from classic science fiction authors.
Let’s face it, so far the future has been a bit of a disappointment. Even though we have reached 2015, the year of the ‘future’ in Back to the Future II, look skyward and you will fail to see any personal jet-packs scooting busy astro-businessmen to their posts, and there are no pill-sized three course dinners on our menus. Despite us not being quite as advanced as the 2015 visited by Marty McFly, some predictions made in the world of science fiction from as far back as 1870 are very much a part of society today, from medical advances to mobile phones.
Jules Verne was the granddaddy of science fiction prediction, coming up with prescient ideas as diverse as solar sails, electric submarines, video conferencing, lunar exploration and skywriting. But his quintessential Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, first published in 1870, features a weapon that fires pellets containing ‘Leyden bottles’ a sort of 18th Century storage battery that provided a bolt of electricity to the intended target. Rather than being some kind of Nostradamus inspired psychic, Verne colluded with scientists and visionary thinkers of the day, reporting and expanding on their opinions.
Edward Bellamy’s Utopian classic Looking Backward (1888) predicted many remarkable things. After drifting off to sleep, the novel’s protagonist wakes up in the year 2000, where America has turned into a Socialist paradise. OK, he was a little off the mark there, but he did foresee the citizens of this new virtuous society abandoning folding money and using cards to purchase goods which were delivered instantly to the doorstep (as if by an Amazon drone, perhaps?).
H.G. Wells was another prodigious predictor, who foresaw things such as genetic engineering, heat rays, wireless communication and tanks. In his 1899 novel The Sleeper Awakes, he not only describes the type of automatic door which we are now so familiar with, but specifically the variety of automatic door so beloved of Star Trek. “A long strip of this apparently solid wall rolled up with a snap, hung over the two retreating men and fell again.” You can almost hear the ‘swish-shwoo’ noise that usually accompanies it, can’t you?
Genetic selection, test-tube babies and DNA tinkering all made an appearance in Aldous Huxley’s sci-fi classics even before Crick and Watson had discovered the double-helix (with the help of Rosalind Franklin, of course). But perhaps the most recognisable ingredient in Huxley’s 1931 tale Brave New World is the prevalence of ‘Soma’, a mood altering drug that keeps all the inhabitants of 2540 London happy and functioning. These drugs blot out the real world and cloud the mind with non-threatening thoughts and distracting mental images. Sound familiar?
Obviously George Orwell predicted the surveillance society and so much more in his 1949 dystopian epic Nineteen Eighty-Four. But as the famous (and fake) image of a CCTV camera trained on his blue plaque proves, Big Brother is certainly watching us. With GPS, mobile phone monitoring, security services internet snooping and hijacked webcams, the Thought Police that Orwell discussed are definitely in attendance. And even more remarkably, he pitched the idea for the BBC’s Room 101 decades before it hit the schedules. Spooky.
The remarkable Robert Heinlein made a mass of spookily accurate predictions, including the creation of the Segway in his 1940 short story The Roads Must Roll. But his 1948 novel Space Cadet not only introduced that particular phrase into the lexicon (though at the time it meant an astronaut in training rather than something who is not quite all there) but also a worryingly casual description of a cell phone, kept in one particular cadet’s pouch, next to his candy bars.
Flat Screen TVs
Ray Bradbury’s book burning odyssey Fahrenheit 451 not only predicted large flat screen televisions that occupied a massive amount of space (quaintly known as ‘Parlour Walls’ in the novel), but also remarkably noted the invention of earbud headphones as early as 1953. Mildred Montag occupies her time with small, seashell like devices which she crams into her ear canal which provide “an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in…”
Not only did Arthur C. Clarke successfully identify the creation of a ‘foolscap sized’ electronic device providing information from electronic newspapers and entertainment, he almost nailed the name, calling it ‘The Newspad’. 2001 (the novel was adapted from the film which, in turn, was influenced by a number of earlier Clarke stories) featured Skype-style video and robotic ‘space arms’ on orbiting craft. This wasn’t the only occasion where Clarke was a visionary. His 1956 story The City and the Stars predicted recreational virtual reality video games, that don’t sound too dissimilar from the Nintendo Wii.
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