Science fiction is a genre that allows impressive creativity, but it’s often not the best source for prophecy about the future. Technology is difficult to predict, because it often develops in response to new needs or changing situations that are difficult to imagine.
Most sci-fi visionaries missed the creation of LCD displays, for example; the idea that it might be beneficial if displays were thinner wasn’t obvious until research made large LCD panels possible.
There are, however, a few books that were particularly prophetic. Even these didn’t nail every detail, but in a broad sense they were able to imagine not just new technology, but also the effects it might have on human society. Here’s how three famous authors from the past correctly envisioned our present technology.
The Metaverse From Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash
Snow Crash is the book that cemented Neil Stephenson’s presence as one of sci-fi’s most readable and visionary authors. In it, he details a dystopian version of America in which the federal government had crumbled in the face or corporate interests. The opening chapter, which is arguably one of the best in all of sci-fi, details the protagonist’s mad dash through traffic in a futuristic supercar – all in the name of delivering a pizza on time. The stakes are particularly high, because in Snow Crash, all pizza chains are owned by the mob.
As you might have guessed by now, this book hasn’t proven a great predictor of societal change. What it did predict, however, was a virtual world called the Metaverse that users could explore through avatars. The world was not a game, but instead a strange mirror of reality. Users logged into the Metaverse could shop at stores, go to nightclubs or simply lounge their virtual home, but the ‘verse also let users march around as hideous monsters or 3D genitals.
If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.
This vision become a reality (penis and all) in 2003, when Linden Labs launched its virtual online world called Second Life. Users who log into the world can do just about everything described in the novel. There’s even a small group of people who make the entirety of their income off the virtual items they build for users inside the world (the film Life 2.0 is an excellent look into that strange tale).
During the height of its popularity, Second Life attracted the attention of companies like IBM, Sprint and Toyota, which placed virtual headquarters or stores inside its world. Its popularity has since receded, leaving some of these properties abandoned, but it proved that the Metaverse was possible.
Stephenson didn’t get everything right. The main deviation between his vision and reality is his reliance on virtual reality. In Snow Crash, users use small, boxy computers that let people jack into a fully 3D experience that seems life-like. This doesn’t seem to be an app so much as the main purpose of the machine, as other apps are accessed through the Metaverse itself. Stephenson even predicted the rise of public-access booths that let users jack-in without a computer, albeit with some limitations.
Speaking of apps, Stephenson made another prediction that was of less relevance to the story, but even more accurate than the Metaverse; Google Earth. Late in the story, one of the main characters, Hiro Protagonist, receives a gift of exotic software normally unavailable. Part of this suite is a 3D recreation of the entire globe created by intelligence satellites orbiting Earth. The application itself was simply called “Earth” and its description is similar to Google Earth. The main character of Snow Crash is amazed when it suddenly appears in his Metaverse homestead.
A globe about the size of a grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth, hanging in space at arm’s length in front of his eyes. Hiro has heard about this but never seen it. It is a piece of CIC software called, simply, Earth. It is the user interface that CIC uses to keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns – all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance stuff.
The technology Stephenson wrote about may not have just predicted its real-world counterparts; it may have contributed to their creation. His novel struck a deep chord with early pioneers of online technology who later went to work on projects that emulated his ideas. The creators of Second Life have specifically mentioned Snow Crash as a source of inspiration. It’s arguable that the “real” Metaverse would’ve never come to be if it wasn’t first imagined in science fiction.
Snow Crash is not just a visionary novel; it’s also an outstandingly readable work that balances its dark dystopian vision with ironic humor and a fast-paced plot. You can grab it from Amazon as a paperback for less than $10.
Shalmaneser From John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar
John Brunner is arguably one of sci-fi’s most under-rated writers. That’s not to say he is unknown – most people who enjoy science fiction have run across his works – but he doesn’t have the name recognition of Neil Stephenson, who himself is less likely to be known like William Gibson or Ray Bradbury. This may be because his novels were a bit ahead of their time, but as the decades roll on, Brunner has started to look more like a prophet.
Stand on Zanzibar, published all the way back in 1968, is particularly well known for its predictions. In it, Brunner outlines an America of 2010 that’s led by President Obami, dragged down by corporate interests and threats of terrorist attacks, and enjoys general acceptance of gay/bisexual lifestyles. The novel doesn’t seem to paint its world as a dystopia or a utopia, but instead sees the future simply as different, with its own set of unique problems.
Of course, it made mistakes; the novel also predicted that eugenics would be legal in most of the United States.
From a technological standpoint, the novel’s most interesting idea is a supercomputer called Shalmaneser which is owned by General Technics (an obvious analogue to IBM and other big-name electronics companies of Brunner’s era). The computer is referenced numerous times throughout the novel and serves as the main source of information and computing power for most companies and people. Perhaps the most famous quote about Shalmaneser comes from the setting’s pop culture figurehead, Chad C. Mulligan, who describes the computer while poking fun at humanity.
That real cool piece of hardware up at the GT tower. They say he’s apt to evolve up to true consciousness one day. Also they say he’s as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn’t really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave.
That sounds like a snide comment, but the idea that a single computer with access to information from thousands or millions of sources is more intelligent than any single individual is a pillar of modern concepts like metadata and crowd computing. Mulligan’s words could just as easily be uttered by modern computer engineers like Google’s Ray Kurzweil, who recently stirred up some buzz by predicting computers will be smarter than humans by 2029.
Though Mulligan’s quote seems to put down computers, as well, it ultimately concedes that machines are destined to overtake humanity (if only by being less stupid).
What’s unique about Brunner’s vision is how wrong it felt for over three decades. Despite his imagination he, like many other people in the 1960s and 70s, failed to predict the rise of personal computers. The notion that individuals and companies might log into a remote computing device of incredible power instead of owning a PC in a home or office began to seem unlikely in the 1980s. By the 1990s, it was just another weird idea that never panned out.
Over the last decade, however, Brunner’s vision has become more relevant. Companies are in fact renting computing time from Amazon and IBM, who own massive cloud mainframes, and individual users are starting to turn towards cloud operating systems like Chrome OS instead of traditional local computing. Facebook, Google and others are building predictive models with gobs of information made available by users – models so accurate they often know what a user is looking for better than she does herself.
The reality of the world we live in today is more complex than that of Brunner’s novel, which envisioned most computing power being controlled by a single entity, but the broad strokes of Shalmaneser’s function sound eerily similar to the cloud computer platforms that grow with each passing year.
Stand on Zanzibar is arguably one of the most intellectually interesting sci-fi novels written in the last century, it’s not an easy read. Brunner skips about from chapter to chapter and often focuses more on world-building than a strong narrative. If you’ve got some time to devote entirely to one book, though, give it a chance. A paperback copy is about $14 on Amazon.
Earbuds, Big-Screen Television And Modern Connected Culture From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
Bradbury’s classic is best known for its anti-censorship stance and its unique portrayal of a society so intellectually twisted that firefighters would start fires (at the homes of those who dare to own books) rather than put them out. Unlike Stephenson and Brunner, both of whom at times rely on incredibly technical descriptions of the future they’ve imagined, Bradbury paints in broader strokes. But that doesn’t mean he was less of a visonary.
Fahrenheit 451 is a book that paid particular attention to the relationship between technology and sensory stimulation. At one point, he describes a pair of what we would call earbuds, which the protagonist’s wife, Mildred, used to ensure she never spent a waking moment away from the media she holds most dear.
And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.
Today we would call these earbuds, though the concept of such a device was unheard of in Bradbury’s time. To him this was merely an extension of his distaste for radio, a form of media he felt was distracting and didn’t allow listeners time to fully form thoughts and opinions. He disliked television for similar reasons, so it too was battered by his prose. Wall-sized televisions called “parlor walls” often appear in 451 and are described as such.
But who has ever torn himself from the claw that encloses you when you drop a seed in a TV parlor? It grows you any shape it wishes! It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.
That it “becomes and is the truth” is not a good thing. Bradbury is describing how televised broadcasts can effectively brainwash viewers, planting the seed of an idea before they can fully think about its implications. It’s easy to see parallels between what he described and today’s massive flat-panel screens. As if that weren’t close enough, Microsoft demoed an immersive television technology called IllumiRoom just last year.
What’s most prophetic about 451 is not Bradbury’s prediction of earbuds and big-screen television, but instead his vision of a future where people are so overwhelmingly inundated with information that they have no time to form their own thoughts, opinions and judgments.
Not much imagination is required to draw connection between Mildred listening to radio in bed and smartphone owners checking Twitter and Facebook before falling asleep. Bradbury saw this inability to simply lie down and relax as a sign that outside forces had control of Mildred’s mind. Some modern writers have made the same criticism of social media.
It’s entirely possible you’ve already read Fahrenheit 451, but if you haven’t you absolutely should. It’s a tight, tiny novel that quick readers can consume in an afternoon, and you can pick it up for just a few bucks.
What’s Your Future?
These are just three visionaries; there are many more. Names like William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke and even Jules Verne often come in up discussions of sci-fi fiction that became science fact. Have you read a novel that impressed you with its accurate portrayal of tomorrow? Tell us about it in the comments.