Science Fiction & Predicting the Future

Today Bruce Schneier posted a snippet of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short story, “Let’s Get Together.” Schneier notes that Asimov predicted security theater 55 years ago. Here’s the clip:

“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”

The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”

At its heart, science fiction is about extrapolating the future of a technology, and, more importantly, describing the effects of that technology on society. I think most non-sci-fi fans only see the first part of that equation–the ray guns and space ships–not the people firing those guns or living aboard those ships.

So it should not come as a surprise that people focus on technology when they look back on older science fiction pieces to see which authors correctly predicted the future. We compare our cell phones to Captain Kirk’s communicator, or we ask where our jetpacks and flying cars are, for example. But as Arthur C. Clarke said in 1964, prediction is a mug’s game: either your predictions sound reasonable (and so they will turn out to be too safe and conservative), or your predictions are so laughably outrageous that they will be ignored (and yet you will likely be correct).

Instead, we should look back at Asimov’s piece and marvel not as his accuracy of predicting technology, such as the use of x-ray machines in public places. We should marvel at Asimov’s ability to understand humanity, to understand our desires and our fears. As I recently posted, great writers will deal just as effectively with internal conflict as they do with physical dangers and whiz-bang devices.

That’s what made Asimov a great writer, and it’s the humanity, not the gadgetry, that makes science fiction great.

9 thoughts on “Science Fiction & Predicting the Future

  1. This is just completely true.

    And forgetting this is the reason SF has almost died as a genre. We need to get back to our roots and tell human stories, and stop obsessing about the accuracy of the predictions.

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