The Future Just Isn’t What It Used to Be

cityMy science fiction and fantasy book group met earlier this week to explore how well science fiction classics have predicted the future. The meeting generated a fascinating discussion, but let’s just say that on the whole, we wouldn’t hire SF writers to invest the family nest egg. Overall, we found prescient imaginings of inventions that would pop up in the future, but broader societal trends as portrayed in the fiction generally didn’t match up with how things have played out.

For instance, I brough Clifford Simak’s City to the group, which had humans deserting the city for the countryside shortly after WWII. There are plenty of familiar science fiction tropes here: a human diaspora into space, mutants, evolved animals, widespread use of robots, cryogenics, and video telephones, to name a few. While some of Simak’s inventions have become available, none of them has becomes engrained in the ways of our contemporary world. Probably worse is the fact that Simak’s social structures are right out of the 50s. Like Isaac Asimov, Simak’s future may have some fantastic gadgets, but somehow life at home remains more similar to Leave It to Beaver than any far-flung future (or for that matter, how it is in the present day). In an interesting essay, SF expert Gary Westfahl, identified several reasons why science fiction authors so often get it wrong.

Does this mean that these books failed? I don’t think so. City is still a wonderful book, worth reading because the stories are thoughtful and tragic, a celebration of pastoral beauty and mournful of humankind’s changes in directions we could very easily take. Whether or not actual technologies match those predicted by the writers, the point is that changes have come and are coming, and it’s entertaining and important to consider how those change will in turn change us. Other books are not intended as thoughtful predictions, they’re simply meant as an exciting form of entertainment.

The book we found that got the most predictions right was David Brin’s 1990 work Earth (you can read more about its predictions here.) If you’re interested in this topic, you might also want to explore these other works brought to the discussion by our readers:

  • Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
  • Mother of Storms, by John Barnes
  • Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner
  • Queen Victoria’s Bomb, by Ronald Clark
  • Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
  • Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • Worlds of Exile and Illusion, by Ursula K. LeGuin (an omnibus of her first three novels)
  • Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

And from nonfiction:

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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