Science Fiction and the Power of Prediction

As a courtesy to Mark Shea, who asked me to weigh in on the question of Science Fiction’s track record predicting the future, I can think of no more efficient way to answer than to reprint my answer to a similar question posed by the worthies at SFSignal. Here is what I said then. (The answer applies equally to all science fiction, not merely to the Golden Age of SF): 

Science fiction is often accused of being The Great Predictor. Which predictions did Golden Age science fiction get right? Which ones were way off the mark?

The key to this question is to interpret what is meant by the "Golden Age." Rather than straining my brain for the answer, I will simply pull up a convenient list of the top ten science fiction books of all time as compiled by Jim Baen.

Now, your list or mine might differ, but our lists will not have any greater weight of judgment behind them than the one drawn up by one of the most famous and longstanding editors in the field. Let us look at the books and see which predictions came true, shall we?

Let us list the books and their predictions:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
Prediction: Time traveling engineer travels back to the Dark Ages, outsmarting King Arthur, and introducing firearms and telegrams, which reverses the decline and fall of civilization.
Verdict: Um. I don’t think that ever happened, but, depending on how time travel works, I support it could have happened in a multiple parallel universe that we are unaware of.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Prediction: Mysterious superscientist invents an ironclad submersible.
Verdict: Bingo! We have a winner! Submarines and polar expeditions! We also all remember when Robur the Conqueror, aboard The Terror attempted to fight Captain Nemo in his powerful ironclad Nautilus off the coast of Norway, but they were parted by the Maelstrom. Agents of the British crown and American treasury department are still seeking the secret of the rotary engine, and the other miraculous devices created by these scientific geniuses. Okay, okay, obviously the events did not happen, but the scientific predictions were utterly sound.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Prediction: Mysterious superscientist visits AD 802701, and finds out that modern civilization will decline and fall. Aristocrats will evolve into helpless food animals. Workingmen will evolve into cannibal troglodytes.
Verdict: Not only did this prediction not come true, it will never come true. The Nexxial Timesweepers of the Fourth Era of time travel are carefully uncreating any time travelers before they come into existence, to eliminate the possibility of time travel ever coming to pass.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov
Prediction: A galactic empire is guided through its decline and fall by a mysterious superscientist who develops a predictive model of history.
Verdict: We do not even have flying cars yet, much less Galactic Empires. The idea for the science of Psychohistory is innately ridiculous. The closest thing we have to a predictive model of human large-scale behavior is a science called economics, and economics teaches us that wealth-creation is maximized when the five-year plans, ten-year plans, and (one must assume) the thousand-year ‘Seldon Plans’ are ignored and free men and free markets are best left to muddle through on their own.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller
Prediction: Atomic war causes the decline and fall of the modern world into a new dark age.
Verdict: This did not happen, thank God! Full-scale "Total War" with atomic weapons does not seem to be in the military plans of any world power at the moment.

Dune by Frank Herbert
Prediction: A different galactic empire is guided into its decline and fall by a mysterious superhuman messiah.
Verdict: Swords and spaceships, eh? Don’t hold your breath waiting for the marines to switch from fully automatic firearms to poisoned knives. Dude, forget about the flying car. Where is my geriatric spice?

Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague deCamp
Prediction: A different time traveler attempts to prevent the decline and fall of a non-galactic empire by introducing double-entry bookkeeping into Gothic-era Rome.
Verdict: This one was also cleaned up by the Nexxial timesweepers. Agent Ravel merely chronoported into the continuum behind Martin Padway and shot him in the head. Done. Paradox averted. Time stream saved.

Against the Fall of Night by Arthur C. Clarke
Prediction: The 10-billion-year-old metropolis of Diaspar is humanity’s last home. The Galactic Empire apparently declined and fell. One lone boy decides to investigate and rediscover star travel, to end the long Dark Ages of Diaspar.
Verdict: 10 Billion years old? Um…. We’re still waiting on this one. Please note that Alvin does not have mysterious mind-powers, but the people of Lys do. He is only sort of a messiah figure.

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein
Prediction: Slave boy escapes from captors with the help of a mysterious superspy.
Verdict: While we don’t have interstellar travel yet, the idea is chillingly accurate. Before World War II, slavery was wiped out, and it seemed, forever. But there are areas in the world where it is re-emerging, and for reasons not hard to guess.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Prediction: A different superhuman messiah mocks organized religion and organizes orgies instead.
Verdict: Dead accurate. All the enormities and absurdities of the postchristian sexual revolution Heinlein predicted in his book have come to pass, and our civilization is declining and falling due to these things. And there is life on Mars, and the Martians have mystical mind-powers and talk to angels. Whatever, dude.

TO SUM UP: We science fiction writers could not make an accurate prediction to save our lives. We can not predict our way out of a wet paper bag. We write stories about galactic empires, dark ages, mysterious superscientists, super-messiahs, and mind-powers We are not trying to make predictions.

The future is merely the setting for our stories. We are not as accurate in our settings as writers of Westerns or Regency romances are in their settings.