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Recent Reading - Things Science Fiction Predicts, and Doesn't - Mo's Journal
February 23rd, 2010
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Recent Reading - Things Science Fiction Predicts, and Doesn't
Anyone who reads old science fiction is struck by the wealth of correct predictions one finds in the text. Now, of course, predictive fiction is often spectacularly wrong, as well. If it weren't we'd all be zipping around in flying cars now. But it's amazing to me just how many things are accurately depicted 30, 40, or 50 years before they were invented. There's often an amusing mix of the prescient and the absurdly off base (like Heinlein's space traveling characters still doing calculations with slide rules).

So with all the things that have been predicted in one science fiction story or another, I've always been struck by what I thought of as two major omissions, two really transformative and ubiquitous bits of technology that I thought no one had predicted. These are cell phones and the ways we use computers now.

Now, there are lots of things in predictive fiction that look like cell phones, from Dick Tracy's watch radio (thank you, talktooloose) to Star Trek's communicators to Max Smart's shoe phone. But they all seem to be some sort of glorified walkie-talkie device, connected to a specific person or group of people. Nobody seemed to envision mobile phones as we know them now, where they are used by a wide swath of people world wide who can call anywhere on a nationwide or world wide network, just as one does with a home phone.

With computers, you definitely see predictions of computers in every home, of them getting smaller and cheaper and so on. But I don't think I've seen anything from the pre-pc, pre-internet age that predicts the way we use computers now, as a major communication and social tool. Not just the fact of the internet (computer networks definitely show up in predictive fiction), but the combo of the internet and word processing. In the past 20-30 years communication has transformed to the point where a primary use of computers is interpersonal communication and a primary method of interpersonal communication is via computer. The combo of cheap personal computing, word processing, and the internet has really revolutionized human communication, and I've never seen that predicted.

Okay, until last week I thought these were the two big omissions. Then I found one of the Heinlein juveniles I'd never read, a novel called Space Cadet, about a student at an academy for an interplanetary military force. I thought I'd read all of the juveniles as a kid, and read them all to Doran, too, but somehow I missed this one. It was written in 1948. In the opening scene the kids have just arrived at the academy and are waiting in line to get in and one of them is very embarrassed because his phone rings and it's his parents checking on him to see he arrived safely. It's described just as his phone, with the assumption that that's what phones are, mobile devices. Another kid in line tries to make him feel better by saying he knew his parents would do the same, so he put his phone in checked luggage. Pretty prescient.

So, I was wrong on that one. Maybe on the other, too. Anyone know of a novel or story that fills the computer gap?

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From:executrix
Date:February 23rd, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)
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The science in Blakes7 is incredibly dodgy, but they have a super-computer that can communicate with any other computer that has "Tarial cells," so I think they get half a point for sort of anticipating the Internet. (There's even an episode called The Web, but it's an actual spider-web sort of thing that captures spaceships.)
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From:mofic
Date:February 23rd, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
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Okay, I'll take that as half a point. I think there are also others that have that much. I'm really looking for something that shows how society has been transformed by the technology rather than just the technology itself iykwim.
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From:executrix
Date:February 23rd, 2010 04:50 pm (UTC)
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OT: thanks for your comment on my story! Coincidentally, steverogerson, one of B7's BNFs, posted a link to this summary of Blakes7 Season 1: http://classic-sci-fi-tv.suite101.com/article.cfm/blakes-7-season-one
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From:xianghua
Date:February 23rd, 2010 04:04 pm (UTC)
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As weird as Heinlein was, I loved the juveniles. You've just inspired me to go pull the giant anthology of them out of storage. :P
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From:mofic
Date:February 23rd, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
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My all time favorite is Citizen of the Galaxy, but there are a bunch of them that I just love.
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From:kosiah
Date:February 23rd, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC)
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For some reason, I love "Tunnel in the Sky", but "Citizen" is really good too.
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From:mofic
Date:February 24th, 2010 06:05 pm (UTC)
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I love Tunnel in the Sky as well.
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From:hitchhiker
Date:February 24th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
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'tunnel in the sky' is one of my favourites too. i think of it as 'lord of the flies, but with some faith in humanity'
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From:mofic
Date:February 25th, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
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Exactly! They rise to the occasion and make a society. And I just love how hard it is for Rod to go back to being a kid again after having been forced to be an adult...
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From:marag
Date:February 23rd, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
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Darn it, I could have sworn there was an example of computers in the way we use them now, but I can't think of it. I'll ask my father, whose knowledge of the Golden Age is better than mine.

There were, I think, a great many authors who imagined *part* of it. I recall many stories in which every home had terminals that brought all the news and entertainment combined. But they always seemed like fancy televisions rather than all-in-one communication devices.

I loved the Heinlein juveniles! As my father notes, his juveniles are much better than his "adult" novels. (I liked those too, but...yeah.)
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From:madripoor_rose
Date:February 23rd, 2010 05:20 pm (UTC)
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Passing lurker...Asimov's The Naked Sun, and how the people of that planet mostly telecommute/talk to each other by hologram kinda reminds me of the internet, and how we have LJ friends we've never seen in person.
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From:mofic
Date:February 24th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC)
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I don't remember that one - I'll have to check it out (literally). Thanks for weighing in.
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From:executrix
Date:February 23rd, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
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I hoped that it would be more incisive, but Thomas Disch's "The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of" kind of talks about what you're interested in.

http://www.amazon.com/DREAMS-OUR-STUFF-MADE-Conquered/product-reviews/0684859785/ref=cm_cr_dp_all_helpful?ie=UTF8&coliid=&showViewpoints=1&colid=&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending
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From:mofic
Date:February 24th, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC)
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What a fascinating looking book! Thanks so much - I just reserved it at the library.

There was a great exhibit at the Smithsonian American History museum some years back (probably many years back, since I spent much of the 1980s traveling to DC for work) called "Yesterday's Tomorrow's" all about how the future had been envisioned over the years...
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From:executrix
Date:February 24th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
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It cuts both ways, too--ages ago I was in Los Angeles on a business trip and there was an exhibit at LACMA of costumes from Hollywood historical films--it was instantly obvious when Claudette Colbert's flapper!Cleopatra costume and Elizabeth Taylor's Medieval Maidenform were filmed.
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From:kosiah
Date:February 23rd, 2010 09:12 pm (UTC)
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James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon... "The Girl Who Was Plugged In." She foreknowledges reality stars and to some extent, some kind of internet, I think. A lot of her work is amazingly prescient, but that's the best example I can think of offhand.
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From:mofic
Date:February 24th, 2010 06:15 pm (UTC)
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I've never read Tiptree and always wanted to. I can't find this one on my library website, though. I just reserved Brightness Falls from the Air. Do you know anything about that one?
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From:kosiah
Date:February 24th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
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I think Brightness Falls is her only full-length novel? Not sure. She's in a ton of anthologies and there's a collected works volume I have somewhere. Should be able to find her stuff in 70's sci fi anthologies or "women of wonder" series or stuff like that. I'll lend you the book too, if you want.

She's really pretty amazing. Cyberpunk twenty years before Gibson. And she does some cool gender stuff.
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From:pyrzqxgl
Date:February 25th, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
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Up the Walls of the World is her other novel.
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From:ringthebells
Date:February 25th, 2010 05:23 pm (UTC)
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I can't think of any examples; I haven't read enough Golden Age science fiction to make any definative pronoucements, though.

Whenever I read pre-1970's sci fi the thing that strikes me the most is how authors tended to predict all sorts of technological developments but completely fail to predict many important social developments -- like, you know, feminism. (So women are still limited to roles as nurses and receptionists ... but in space!)

Actually your post made me think of a series of blog posts my friend snowmit has been making, which you might enjoy. He was investigating sort of the opposite phenomenon from what you're talking about here: futuristic technologies that sci-fi predicted would be world-changing, but which, when they actually happened, turned out to be not such a big deal. Read the series here: http://quietbabylon.com/2009/b-list-holy-grails-and-a-contest/
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From:mofic
Date:February 25th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)
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On the women being nurses in space thing - that's a Heinlein failing, among others.

The snowmit thing was a fun idea, although I had a little trouble following who was saying what, etc. I think the prime example of that is space travel. Science Fiction saw getting off of the planet as a truly socially transformative event, that humanity would never be the same. I remember seeing Arthur C. Clarke telling Walter Cronkite on the day of the first moon landing, "This is the year 1." I think I believed him.

But ultimately, going to the moon didn't change much.

Edited at 2010-02-25 05:56 pm (UTC)
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