Why science fiction predictions hold back the genre

Science fiction sucks at predicting the future.

There. I've said it. Sliced that painful boil off my robot helper's shiny metal ass. Except it's 2010 and I don't have a robot helper. Instead, I'm still cleaning my house with my own hands. Raising my kids without an android nanny. Wasting time stuck in traffic instead of commuting with my own jetpack.

Nine years ago there were a spate of articles about how the future predicted in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 failed to come true. Pan-Am was history instead of flying space shuttles, while moon bases and manned trips to other planets were mere dreams. And homicidal Artificial Intelligences? Forget AIs going on a murderous rampage--scientists were still working on getting AIs to navigate through mazes.

As I mentioned recently when Charles Tan interviewed me, science fiction's overall track record on predictions is pretty bad despite the genre describing a number of technological advances before they happened. One famous example is when Robert Heinlein wrote about waterbeds in his novels, leaving the 1960 inventor of an actual waterbed unable to patent his creation. Another example is John Campbell's Astounding Stories publishing the story "Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill in 1944. The story described how an atomic bomb would work--a full year before the first actual atomic explosion. Other technologies predicted by science fiction include scuba diving, digital books, space ships, and geosynchronous satellites.

But while science fiction has made a number of correct predictions, the genre strikes out far more of the time with its technological extrapolations. I mean, crack open any major SF novel from the genre's Golden Age and you will be swept away by flying cars, infallible lie detectors, and nuclear bombs which fit inside your mouth--and that's without mentioning examples of purely bad science like Campbell's love affair with the Dean Drive! More importantly, the genre has missed most of the major trends of the last half century, including the Civil Rights, Equal Rights and Decolonization movements, the Green Revolution, the creation of the Internet, the end of the Cold War, the beginnings of an information economy, and the slow speed at which humanity is reaching into space.

So while it's nice SF correctly predicted the waterbed, the genre failed to predict the sexual revolution which made people want waterbeds. And while SF predicted the atomic bomb, the genre fizzled when it came to accurately describing how those bombs would affect future generations (i.e., the Cold War and the fact that since their initial use during WWII nuclear weapons haven't been used in another war).

So when people tell me science fiction is about predicting the future, I want to laugh. But the good news is that the genre's failure at predicting the future need not be that big a deal.

Here's why: Instead of being about predicting the future, I see science fiction as humanity’s dream of the future. How we go about creating our future. How we go about surviving and processing the incredible changes facing us and dealing with the consequences of such change.  Seen from this point of view, science fiction has the potential to be the most vibrant of all literary genres because it deals with the issues and concerns which are of vital importance to today's world. The most successful science fiction stories have always been written and read from this point of view, instead of merely predicting an accurate future.

In many ways, the idea that science fiction is about predicting the future is a remnant of the genre's past. During the 1940s and '50s, genre promoters pitched SF as a way to inspire and teach people about science and technology. And during the era of Sputnik and atomic bomb beauty pageants, perhaps this was the correct thing to do.

But that time is long past. And while few writers and readers within the genre give more than lip service to science fiction being solely about predicting the future, the problem is that outside the genre the general public still believes literary science fiction is mainly about predictions. Why is this bad? Because it turns potential readers off the genre before they even open a book. After all, why would anyone want to read a genre about predicting the future when said genre repeatedly failed to predict the world we now live in?

Ironically, you don't see this problem with the visual representations of science fiction. When the public blows the hell out of everything in the Halo universe or sees the Millennium Falcon fly across the screen, few believe these are actual predictions of the future. Instead, the public sees SF films and games as a fun escape. As a dream of the future they can enjoy today.

But ask the general public to read a SF novel and you'll get at best a shrug, and at worst a dismissal of the entire genre.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons why so few people read science fiction, including the insular nature of the genre's fiction and the wrong-headed stereotype that SF remains the reading material of adolescent males. But I believe another reason people turn away from science fiction is fallout from the decades of promoting SF as a predictor of the future. After seeing so many of the genre's predictions fail to come true, the general reading public simply doesn't trust science fiction literature to tell them something new. They're unwilling to take a chance on investing their limited time in reading a SF book.

So my solution--stop pretending science fiction can predict the future.