Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page June 2001

The main meeting at Phoenix this month deals with the predictive power of Science Fiction. When I was in primary school, I read a book which sparked my interest in SF called You Will Go to The Moon. It featured a big red three stage rocket ship and a space station on the journey to the moon. A couple of years later, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Pan Am started taking advance bookings for Lunar trips that they confidently expected to happen in the not too distant future. Around that time I saw the original cinema release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were giving us an image of the year 2001 which included regular commerce in space and the moon as a routine destination. Well its 2001 now and the total count of space tourists is one wealthy American. What happened?

The simple answer to that question is that A.C.C. got it wrong. The next question is, was he under any obligation to get it right. The answer to that one has to be no. Science Fiction writers such as Clarke are still fiction writers. While some may express the desire to write in a high probability extrapolated future, there is almost always a compromise dictated by the necessity to create a plot that will sell. After all, a travelogue of the future surely has to be one of the most boring plots on which to base a work of fiction unless you have the sufficient skill to properly interweave it with another story - a skill which few authors appear to have and even fewer the inclination to try.

I am not even going to try to defend the appalling record even the hardest of SF writers have as predictors of the future. It is interesting that, in the face of that record, whenever some development comes along that a writer has foreshadowed we hear that fact trumpeted loudly. The point being that given the number of predictions made, there has to be a pretty good chance that somebody would get it right. Everybody tends to forget about all the unsuccessful predictions. Its pretty much the same case with psychics which draws one to some unpleasant conclusions. In particular, it helps explain the credence that psychics get when a form like SF cannot do any better.

But there is something else going on here. We want these predictions to be right. I want my flying car! I want to take a passenger trip to the moon! However, I can probably do without the tacky silver suits. Even if there is no real chance of predictions coming true, we continue to give them weight because they have so much appeal. This is hardly surprising - if they have no appeal, why would an author use them. Even the nasty predictions of dystopian visions must have some sort of grim perverse appeal. An example might be the Frankenstein monster type of story where the intelligent computer goes wild. The point is that there is still a prediction of Artificial Intelligence buried in that story and that has proven to be an appealing concept for many.

So what of the predictions of today. The predictions of 30 years ago dealt with space and computers. Today the theme seems to be nanotechnology. It has to be said that there are not as many prophets of the near future as there were 30 years ago. And many of them are not making a serious attempt at prediction. They are using technology, particularly nanotech, as a kind of magic to enable whatever setting they want. A very peculiar twisting of Clarke's third law. Perhaps this is representative of more general trends that are happening in the genre. Near future fiction of any kind is becoming harder and harder to find, except strangely on the shelved of the modern literature sections. However don't even think of looking there for fiction where serious research into scientific trends has taken place. Such things are the preserve of the '50s and '60s where people with a scientific background were the main writers of SF.

Apart from the nature and training of the writers of SF, there is more about the '50s and '60s which contributed to the amount of predictive fiction and why so much of it went awry. In those times there was a general faith in the ongoing march of science and technology. There was a faith that technology was a good thing and that more and more of it would be present in our lives. The latter point is undoubtedly true, we live in a much more technological world now, but our faith and hope for it is a much paler thing now compared to the fire and passion that it evoked in time gone by. There are two things at work here. One is that we have become more aware of the perils of technology which go hand in hand with the benefits. The other thing is, as I have already mentioned, that we have become much more familiar with living in a technological world. It is not a new thing for us - we have always lived in such a world and so are not so fascinated with it. As a result we are less driven to write about it and its path into the future.

So far I have been referring only to Science Fiction, but anything that I have discussed also applies to speculative non-fiction. Over the years although less so in recent times many science writers have attempted to predict what the future will bring without using a fiction structure. It takes a considerable amount of writing skill to bring this off on a way that the general public can understand, and of the few who can manage it the success rate of accurate prediction is about as good as the serious hard SF writers - by which I mean ones who actually do some research. Interestingly, one of the authors who managed to pull off making scientific prediction readable and attaining a fair degree of accuracy is Arthur C Clarke. Although in 1973, even he predicted that we would be colonising the planets, have AI and wireless energy by 2000.

For some thought and serious predictions about the next 20 or so years, I recommend Visions by Michio Kaku. An internationally acclaimed physicist and entertaining writer, he has done a lot of research and developed a series of plausible predictions for the near future. If anybody has a chance to get it right he has. It will be interesting to see how close to the mark he gets. Perhaps we can review it at a Phoenix meeting in 20 years time - venue, The Moon perhaps.