Saturday, April 22, 2017

SF Predicts the Future: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

(PLEASE NOTE: The picture below was not in any way created/altered/conceived/etc. by me. I blatantly stole it from a Facebook post and have no intent to take credit for it. If someone knows who made this tell me and I'll give them credit. They deserve it. I don't.)

I once read a Facebook post by none other than SF/F author John Ringo in which he lamented the fact that he was having trouble keeping ahead of engineers with his writing. It appears that Science Fiction authors are so good at predicting the future that engineers are following right along and inventing new products directly from the pages/from the screens of works of Science Fiction, only the engineers have gotten so good at it that they are now catching up to what SF writers have predicted. I'm not sure if this is because SF authors and screenwriters are so used to recycling tropes now that the engineers are hip to what comes next or if it's because engineers are just that damned good. I have a feeling it may be some strange co-mingling of the two but I have no evidence of that either. For purposes of this blog though, I will confine myself mainly to what's been seen on screen. Movies and TV will

It's worth mentioning that Star Trek in no way has a monopoly on guessing what's coming. Plenty of writers and movies have made predictions. I used that picture because it got me thinking, not because of any belief that only Trek is accurate. We'll get to who else is in a moment. This is something I've been meaning to write about. Hey, maybe I'll even make a prediction or two of my own.What could go wrong with that? Heh.

The Good:

Well, I started the article off with a Star Trek picture. Trek predicted all of the above and more. Trek gave us the communicator/cell phone, PADD/tablet, etc., etc., etc. Interestingly enough, it gave us more though. I know that a lot of fans of the "hard" sciences don't exactly suffer from an overabundance of enthusiasm for the social sciences but Trek predicted a lot of future trends there as well. "Seeking out new life and new civilizations" would be any anthropologists dream and, while we don't exactly have any aliens to observe yet, they have sought out many groups of people in less populated parts of the world to study. Kirk's Enterprise featured an integrated cast. There was a black woman and an Asian man on a bridge mainly populated by white people. At the time that was science fiction. No one in the modern US Navy would bat an eyelash at it.

The Battlestar Galactica reboot predicted cyber warfare before it was cool. The Galactica survives because it is the only ship in the fleet whose computers are not networked. The Cylons, being robots and therefore having computer brains, were able to easily access the computers of the other Battlestars and destroy them. In our own world, we're just beginning to see true cyber warfare take place but it is here.It's going to get more pervasive. The worst part is that it's not a shooting war and so it's hard to spot until it's too late.

George Orwell's 1984 predicted the rise of the surveillance state and the media-governmental complex. Seriously. There are cameras everywhere, especially in places like Great Britain. The NSA watches everyone in the United States and their communications. The Thought Police seemingly exist today as well, just not as a government agency. We have the media for that. When Brandon Eich, CEO of a major corporation, can be forced to resign for giving money to a group that supported traditional, as opposed to same-sex, marriage and Kelvin Cochran, Fire Chief of the City of Atlanta can be fired from his job for stating that homosexual sex is a sin while off the clock, the though police exist. This time, they're the media though. 

The Six Million Dollar Man predicted the use of mechanical replacements for lost limbs. Not only are prosthetic limbs fairly common but some actually are mechanical. Three D printers have made them much less expensive as well. They will continue to improve.

Exoskeletons, such as in Iron Man or Starship Troopers (the book)  are on their way. They are currently being tested for military applications by several countries. While it is unlikely that we'll be seeing a workable model in the extremely near future they're on the way. It's just a matter of figuring out what will work. I do find it unlikely that the first working model will be invented by a millionaire with a bad heart working with hand tools in a cave but what do I know?

The Bad:

Just about everybody has predicted the invention of a portable laser pistol. Whether it's Star Trek's phaser or  a Star Wars blaster it's just not going to happen, for a few reasons. One is practicality. No one will ever be able to generate a bright enough beam and focus it tightly enough using a package small enough to fit in one hand. Yes, the Air Force is working on a laser that can shoot down aircraft and missiles. It takes an AC-130 to carry one. They haven't made it work yet, but it's probably coming. It's just never going to be small enough to be man-portable.

Dick Tracy had an atom powered watch. Look guys, I'm a proponent of nuclear power on a macro scale as long as the technicians aren't dumb enough to pull out all of the control rods (Chernobyl) and the reactor isn't built in a freaking tsunami zone (Fukushima). The fact remains that nuclear power produces radiation and no watch is going to be able to contain it. Sorry all, but we need to leave the nuclear power generation to plants that are big enough to contain the radiation.

 Mutants, such as those in X-Men  or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles  are simply not possible. Yes, mutation has been going on for as long as there has been life but it is far more likely to lead to the death of whatever just mutated. Even successful mutation doesn't lead to the kind of changes in TMNT. Something as simple as  super strength isn't going to happen all at once based on simple genetics.

The Ugly:

Umm... I love them too.. but...uhhh... Lightsabers are never going to happen. Light doesn't work that way. Two beams of light that come into contact won't rebound... they'll simply pass right through each other.  The only way to make something that looked like a lightsaber would be to get something small enough to fit in one hand that could generate a plasma field. It would be so hot that it would burn its user to death as soon as they turned it on. This one just isn't going to happen.

Mecha, such as those in Robotech, Battletech, Avatar and four million other things are just not going to happen either. There is no benefit to a mech when compared to a tank and they'd be harder and more expensive to build. Listen, I know about the rule of cool but that doesn't apply in real life. Such a machine would have too many problems balancing to stand up. Having read that, I'm going to go suck my thumb and watch Robotech. I've been a fan for thirty plus years now.

I loved The Jetsons too but the mass use of flying cars is never going to be a thing. There isn't enough room for runways. The air traffic control requirements would be impossible to meet. Tightly packed lanes are a pipe dream. People would be flying off in nine million different directions and mid air collisions would be common.

No one - and I mean not a single living human being that I'm aware of- predicted the internet before it became popularized. Even Babylon 5, which existed in the era of America Online, Prodigy and Compuserve ignored it. They had William Edgars, the millionaire, read an actual hardcopy newspaper instead of looking up the news on a laptop. The internet may be the single biggest technological innovation of the last fifty years that wasn't predicted on the page or on screen by a SF writer. It amazes me.

Well, that's what I've got. The list is obviously not all inclusive but those are some of the big ones from my point of view. All of the opinions above are, of course, mine. Feel free to tell me I'm full of crap if you have a mind to.

Some products related to things I mentioned above are available at the links below:


  1. I actually wonder who leads who a lot of times. If engineers are reading scifi come one all engineers read scifi and go hey I can make that work or if scifi writers look at trends/theories in engineering and make predictions. I also for one wish mutations worked that way because damn it would fix a lot of things wrong with me. I have had 2 offices next to radiology and one near a particle accelerator and I still don't have a friggin tail. I could see flying cars being a thing but only if self driving for the issues mentioned and you would need some sort of vertical take off and landing outside of a turbofan. Maybe an ion drive or something? Also Tesla theorized the internet or at least cellular communication. If anyone I would want to go back in time to meet it would be him... and maybe Jesus just to see if he was real and how wrong everyone got what he had to say. I would also err on the side of caution saying something will never be small enough. They said the same thing about computers 60 years ago. I do not know much about lasers but I am pretty sure the first people to excite gas in a tube and focus it in a beam to create a laser never predicted a surface mount diode smaller than a pencil eraser could produce a beam of light powerful enough to etch many surfaces if not cut through them entirely

  2. Hi Jim. I was wondering if you would give William Gibson or Neal Stephenson partial credit for predicting the internet. Neuromancer (1984) makes use of cyberspace (I think maybe it coined the term? I'm not sure) and in Snow Crash we've got a shared VR called the Metaverse. Neither is a 1:1 prediction of today's internet, but what do you think? It seems to me the Metaverse in particular was sort of a MMOG, which could only exist with the internet... maybe. Although maybe also it was published too recently (1992) to count as predictive, since the internet was already creeping up on us (in a limited scope).

  3. Damn. Good point. You're right and I stand corrected. I don't think either predicted what the internet eventually became but they had an inkling at least. Thank you.

  4. There was a golden age story about a type of TV one could ask questions of. The answers would be looked up in an electronic library. Then one of the televisors had a malfunction that infected the whole system. No filters and also made connections between disparate data that people had not made. It resulted in some newly minted millionaires, lots of porn watched by underaged boys, and a few fiendish murders. Q "How do I kill my wife and get away with it?" A"Is your wife a natural blonde?" "Yes."

  5. The short story I reference was “A Logic Named Joe,” written in 1946 by Murray Leinster. It predicted a giant network of relays that contained all human knowledge. It was accessed with TV-like machines called “logics.”