Visions of Tomorrow

Science Fiction Predictions That Came True

Skyhorse Publishing has brought out a reprint collection of classic science fiction stories that demonstrate my favorite part of the genre: when imaginative writers manage to hit on something that later happens.

Visions of Tomorrow cover
Visions of Tomorrow
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Robert Silverberg’s introduction discusses that element directly, in a piece titled “Science Fiction as Prophecy”, although he points out just how often speculation goes terribly wrong. The examples he provides, with the most famous being Robert Heinlein’s Destination Moon, are thought-provoking. And really, it’s not surprising that with so many science fiction stories written during the heyday of the genre, the same period of time with a great amount of invention and technological development, that some of them happened to get some things right. On one level — and not to minimize the work that skilled writers do with research and extrapolation — the odds were on their side to get some percentage correct. As Silverberg says:

… we find a few remarkably good guesses embedded in an enormous mass of error and short-sightedness. Many nineteenth-century writers anticipated the airplane, but no one, apparently, foresaw the internal combustion engine, the radio, or motion pictures.

Silverberg goes on to describe one of the very best predictions, Murray Leinster’s “A Logic Named Joe”. He managed to describe computers, the internet, and modern privacy concerns in a 1946 story included in this book — an inclusion that makes Silverberg’s 2 1/2-page description a bit irrelevant, but so be it. The stories are grouped into five sections:

  • Predictions that have already happened — a Poe, a Wells, the Cleve Cartmill “Deadline” that convinced 1944 military intelligence that our atomic bomb plans had leaked, and “The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley. That one’s described as being about reality TV, but it’s closer to The Running Man or Network.
  • Prototypes that have been built — described as a “laser mosquito zapper” and “chip-controlled animals”.
  • Computer-related predictions — the story described above, plus Gregory Benford’s “Scarred Man” (internet virus, an early form) and two from this decade about identity theft and stalking.
  • Biological predictions — three stories, including one by the only woman featured, Vonda N. McIntyre with “Misprint”.
  • Future predictions — two stories, about cloning and a space elevator, that haven’t come true yet.

The theme of the book is stronger than its execution. I like the idea of the story introductions, that tell when each first appeared and briefly discuss the prediction, but they tend to be too slight and general, as though they were researched through Wikipedia. The story selection disappointed me. A total of three sections — the last, next to last, and the prototypes one — describe things that seem plausible but haven’t really come true yet, at least not in any widespread or popular form. Meanwhile, the Preface describes several famous story examples that aren’t included. While the list might be provided to be helpful, I found it taunting. For all the mention of Heinlein, there’s nothing by him, nor Verne or Bradbury.

I found many of the stories included neither particularly outstanding as stories nor exemplary representatives of the book’s theme. I would have rather had older stories that featured better known technology than these more current stories that don’t provide as much societal contrast between what they were predicting and what actually came about. This interview with the editors suggests that perhaps some of their first choices didn’t make it in due to “trouble arranging reprint permissions”. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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