Science Fiction Gets It Wrong
Science Fiction Writers’s Visions of the Future
I think not a lot of people realize how well science fiction authors predict the future world. And I think the reason is that what actually happens in real life differs from the details mentioned in science fiction.
Consider cartoon detective Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist TV”. Formerly, this was the “two-way wrist radio”, but in 1964 morphed into a TV. We don’t really have this today. What we have instead is the “smart phone”, which does what the wrist TV did, but even more.
Consider our Internet and World Wide Web. Science fiction authors of yesteryear would have conceived of this as a single monolithic computer somewhere which was probably controlled by some government, and could answer any type of question put to it by anyone. Sorry, we don’t have that. What we have is a world wide communication network, not controlled by a single government, but influenced by many. In fact, so far it isn’t fully controlled by any one entity. But you can ask it any question and get a reasonable answer back. It’s not just one master computer somewhere, but millions.
Consider the book and movie Jurassic Park and its follow-ons. This work was written relatively recently, as these things go. It was to serve as a cautionary tale. Could we clone dinosaurs today, using the methods Michael Crichton described? Maybe. Is anyone doing that? Doubtful. I think Jurassic Park probably scared the pants off a lot of people who were in the know about that aspect of biology. But guess what? We are actively cloning other life forms. You may not hear much about the research, but it is being done. Ever heard of “Genetically Modified Organisms” (GMOs)? Major food companies have been developing these for decades. Even small farmers have been engaged in genetic manipulation for years, though in a much coarser way and on a much smaller scale. Have we cloned humans? Not yet. Active word: “yet”. Science fiction authors have written about what we would call “clones” for a long time.
Consider the robot. The term, applied to artificial creatures, was coined in 1920 by Czech author Karel Capek. Do you imagine that Capek envisioned the robots we have today? Ours probably don’t look much like what he envisioned. And yet they’re all over the place. They assemble electronics like your iPhone. They assemble your cars. McDonalds has even built some which can cook hamburgers, thus potentially putting out of work a whole lot of fry cooks.
In just these few examples, you can see how science fiction authors got it right, while also getting it wrong. I don’t mean to blame science fiction authors here for some imagined crime. On the contrary, I salute their extraordinary vision. That they got the details wrong is really a minor point, to be expected the further into the future you care to look.
What’s important to note here is that people often miss how well science fiction authors have predicted the future, because the details in the book don’t match exactly the details which later come to be. And that’s where people need to pay attention.
George Orwell’s 1984
Let’s take a bit more ominous example. Consider the George Orwell novel 1984 (and the movie, Richard Burton’s last). Consider “Big Brother”, the entity which supposedly spied on everyone. This exists today, except the details are wrong. We don’t have a single “Big Brother”, but many. And they’re not owned by the government. True, the NSA saves the metadata on virtually every phone call in the U.S. But we have Google, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and others who monitor and are able to share your surfing, viewing and commenting habits. Each one of these is owned by a private country, but each is in fact its own “Big Brother”. Google virtually owns the category of web search, and Youtube virtually owns the category of streamable web video. And currently, Facebook is capable of reaching into your smart phone and tracking your conversational habits.
Consider your credit cards. Have you ever had the experience of going on a trip and having your credit card company contact you to verify a purchase you just made, because it didn’t fit your normal profile of spending? I have. I have to appreciate their diligence, but it’s a little creepy to know they’re following me that closely.
Consider the number of CCTV cameras in London, the most surveilled city on Earth. If that’s not Big Brother at work, I don’t know what is.
Now consider 1984’s government department which engaged solely in rewriting history. We don’t have exactly that. But were you aware that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn now have “sanitized” versions in print which have removed supposedly racially sensitive words, in order to make the contents less objectionable? And these aren’t the only examples. This is what’s commonly known as rewriting history. All over the United States, statues which depict Civil War figures are being removed or moved to less public locations. The dormitory where I lived in college has been renamed because its original namesake owned slaves. The Civil War battle flag is being shamed out of existence. Again part of a concerted effort to rewrite history.
How about 1984’s “Newspeak” and “Doublethink”? My granddaughters are forbidden from using the words “stupid” and “fat” in school or at home. Ever heard of “microaggressions”? An example is when you use the “wrong” pronoun when speaking of someone of questionable or variable gender. Go back a few years, and the concept of questionable or variable gender was an unknown thing. Go to any (usually well-financed) mass protest and you’ll find signs which contain diametrically opposed words with the word “is” between them on signs. Like “war is peace”. Does “microaggression” sound like any of the Newspeak words in 1984?
How about thought crimes? A Scotsman recently was convicted of committing a “thought crime” (another reference to 1984) when he taught his girlfriend’s pug dog to do the hitlerian salute when it heard the words “Sieg Heil” and “gas the Jews”. He did this plainly as a joke (admittedly in bad taste). But the majority of his “trial” consisted of efforts to convince the judge that the fellow was a racist. His thinking didn’t conform to some legal standard of acceptable thought.
You may have heard of the concept of “hate speech”. This is speech motivated by hate or aversion to one group or type of person. It of course presumes you can read someone’s mind and determine what they were thinking while uttering whatever words they voiced.
I started this essay in a light way, to show you how science fiction authors often predict the shape of the future, but just as often get the exact details wrong, through no fault of their own. I made the point that we need to be more discerning in our examination of their work. We need to recognize where their predictions were essentially correct despite the minor details missing the mark.
That was part one. That part was partly straightforward, and partly a lure to enter into a parallel discussion about how much the world we live in resembles the world of 1984. That’s part two. No, our world is not exactly like 1984 and never will be. But significant parts of it resemble the book so closely that they should send chills up and down your spine. Perhaps you never noticed these things before, or perhaps you never read the book or saw the movie. In which case I would definitely encourage you to read or watch one or the other or both. If you never noticed the correspondences to the world you live in, I would encourage you to pay more attention. And look for the predictions of your favorite science fiction author’s work in the world where you live.
And if you don’t like science fiction? Wow, I’m disappointed in you. I really thought you and I could be better friends, but I can see now that’s not possible. Sad, really. ;-)