- The most widespread false belief about sf among the general public is that it is a literature of prediction. Very few sf writers have ever claimed this to be the case, although Hugo GERNSBACK did see one function of his sf magazines as to paint an accurate picture of the future. Very few of the stories he published lived up to his editorializing. When John W. CAMPBELL Jr took over the editorship of ASF he demanded an increasingscientific plausibility from his writers, but a plausible-sounding "perhaps" is a long way from prediction.None of this has prevented sf fansfrom crowing with delight when an sf writer has made a good guess, and the mythology of sf is full of such examples. H.G. WELLS predicted the use of the tank in "The Land Ironclads" (1903), of aerial bombing in The War in the Air (1908) and of the atom bomb (more or less) in The World Set Free (1914). Ever since Einstein's mass-energy equations had been published, ithad been generally known that enormous power was locked up in the atom, and stories about NUCLEAR POWER and atomic WEAPONS were commonplace in the 1920s and 1930s; they became very much more accurate in the early 1940s,and Cleve CARTMILL, Robert A. HEINLEIN and Lester DEL REY all wrote good predictive stories before Hiroshima. (Heinlein also predicted the water bed and the use of remote-control WALDOS.) Most early prediction stories were about future WAR, future weapons and the various possibilities of INVASION. Not many of them were correct; although several storiespredicted war between the UK and Germany before 1914 (and, indeed, between the UK and almost everyone else), most of them centred on an invasion across the Channel which never took place. Edward Everett HALE wrote rather charmingly about an artificial satellite in "The Brick Moon" (1869). Arthur C. CLARKE wrote a celebrated article about communicationssatellites, "Extraterrestrial Relays" (Wireless World Oct 1945), but this was not a story; nor, sadly, did it become a patent. Jules VERNE is thought by many to have invented the submarine in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea 1873), but in fact functional submarines had existed since at least the 18th century. One of Verne's best pieces of prediction was quite accidental; themoon-shot in De la terre a la lune (1865), which was published with the sequel Autour de la lune (1870) in From the Earth to the Moon (trans 1873), is fired from a spot very close to Cape Canaveral in Florida.Rudyard KIPLING predicted transatlantic aerial trade, specifically airmail postage, in With the Night Mail (1905; 1909 chap US). Erasmus DARWIN's poem The Temple of Nature (1802) preceded Verne, Wells and just about everybody else in its joyful description of airborne fleets of transport ships, war in the air, submarines and great CITIES with skyscrapers. Edwin BALMER had an early form of lie detector in The Achievements of LutherTrant (coll 1910) with William MacHarg. Hugo Gernsback had many technological predictions in Ralph 124C 41+ (1911-12; fixup 1925); this is one of the 18 stories of the period quoted by Everett BLEILER in Science-Fiction: The Early Years (1990) as anticipating tv. Nevil SHUTEpredicted metal fatigue as a danger to aircraft in No Highway (1948), written shortly before several planes crashed for exactly that reason.It is a moderately impressive list, and could be made more so by multiplication of examples, but it proves very little. For every correct prediction a dozen were wrong, or correct only if facts are stretched a little; for example, PULP-MAGAZINE sf of the 1930s made much of DEATH RAYS; it is rather a dubious vindication to point out that laser beams cannow be used as weaponry. The entry FUTUROLOGY (which includes several examples of real prediction) discusses the usual strategy of sf writers when dealing with the future; their imaginative scenarios are as often as not meant as awful warnings, and the emphasis is almost invariably on what could happen, not what will happen. It would hardly be fair to attack sf writers as false prophets when they seldom think of themselves as being in the prophecy business at all. In many ways their errors are more interesting than their successes, for they add to our knowledge of social history. Our expectations of the future change just as quickly as history itself changes; the AUTOMATION to which Gernsback and others looked forward in the teens of the century had already become a potential nightmare by the time of Kurt VONNEGUT Jr's PLAYER PIANO (1952; vt Utopia 14). Where sf is correct, of course, the explanation is not magic, justgood research. Verne took much advice from his engineer friends and Shute spent many years as an aeronautical engineer - and, of course, many sf writers subscribe to scientific journals . . .One area where sf can claim some credit is SPACE FLIGHT; this was the central dream of sf, even during the years when respectable scientists regularly argued for its impossibility (ROCKETS). But even here, though sf was right enough in the broad sense, it managed to get both the sociological and the technological details appallingly wrong. Most of Heinlein's early Moon rockets were built by capitalist enterprise, and not by the resources of the US Government; the Russian government, naturally, was not mentioned at all,even though it was in Russia that the first solidly grounded theorizing about space travel had taken place, in the work of Konstantin TSIOLKOVSKY, who wrote somewhat didactic but staggeringly accurate prophetic stories on the subject, beginning in the 19th century. The eponymous vessel in Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) is, absurdly, constructed largely byteenage boys in the backyard. Only William TENN ran counter to the free-enterprise spirit of most US sf by imagining in "Alexander the Bait" (1946) that the space programme would be run by giant governmentinstitutions, not individuals or even corporations. Sf stories about the first Moon landing almost invariably omit the single most dramatic detail, that the entire proceedings would be watched on Earth on tv; an exception is Arthur C. CLARKE's Prelude to Space (1951 US; vt Master of Space 1961 US; vt The Space Dreamers 1969 US). COMPUTERS are another area where sf'spredictive abilities were ridiculously askew; so preoccupied were sf writers with the dramatic possibilities of the ROBOT that they hardly noticed that back in the real world mechanical men were of little interest to anyone while the computer - driven by the invention of the transistor, likewise missed by sf - was rapidly transforming the face of the future. Sf writers caught up, of course, but only after computers were becomingcommonplace.Nearly all the examples cited are cases of predictions in the sphere of TECHNOLOGY; more interesting perhaps, and generally with a slightly higher success rate, were the predictions made about future POLITICS and SOCIOLOGY. Fortunately most DYSTOPIAS have not come intobeing in the real world, but certain aspects of them certainly have. One of the most interesting cases of prediction in the SOFT SCIENCES was Robert Louis STEVENSON's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886),whose melodramatic suppositions were, even as he wrote, being conceptually paralleled by the work of Sigmund Freud (1865-1939), who also came to believe that the human mind had a primitive component, the id, not wholly masked by the more reputable ego.Occasionally the images thrown up by sf enter the public mind by an apparent process of osmosis, so that they become known even to those who do not read sf, and thereby create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Some examples are given in FUTUROLOGY, which discusses this question. Perhaps the most notable is again the case of space flight, where it is certainly arguable that the US Government could never have got away with budgeting such large amounts of the national income on the space programme had the desire for space flight, largely catalysed by sf, not been so great.Most sf prediction is set in the NEAR FUTURE, and further examples are given in that entry. In the nature ofthings, a great many thematic entries in this encyclopedia necessarily deal in part with prediction. Apart from those already mentioned, entries where predictions in the social sciences predominate include CITIES; DISASTER, ECOLOGY, ECONOMICS, GAMES AND SPORTS, LEISURE, MEDIA LANDSCAPEand OVERPOPULATION; more technical areas where sf has made checkable predictions are COMMUNICATIONS, CYBERNETICS, ECOLOGY, MACHINES, MEDICINE, MOON, POLLUTION, POWER SOURCES, TRANSPORTATION and UNDER THE SEA; areaswhere sf predictions have not yet had the opportunity for a full testing, but may be tested in the next 50 years, are CLONES, CRYONICS, CYBORGS, GENETIC ENGINEERING, SPACE HABITATS, SPACESHIPS, SUSPENDED ANIMATION andTERRAFORMING. Many readers suppose that the CYBERPUNK predictions of human experience of VIRTUAL REALITIES achieved by plugging the brain into machines are truly predictive. A technical problem is that the neurons in the brain transmit information much more slowly than microprocessors do, which might make the brain/computer interface rather tricky - but time will tell.An sf scholar who has written interestingly about prediction is Chris MORGAN, whose relevant books (their remit extends well beyond sf toinclude popular science, journalism and so on) are The Shape of Futures Past: The Story of Prediction (1980) and, with David LANGFORD, Facts andFallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions (1981), the latter being especially funny and eye-opening.PN
Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. Academic. 2011.